The Urgency to Transform White Evangelicalism


I published an Open Letter to John Piper on Ed Stetzer’s blog in Christianity Today. This letter talked about Lecrae’s departure from white evangelicalism and what it meant for the future of multiethnic relations in the white evangelical church.

The next day, Bryan Loritts published a response calling for Christians of color to create their own spaces and invite whites in.

This is my first reflection on Loritts’ response.


Bryan Loritts’ response to what I wrote in Ed Stetzer’s section in Christianity Today is clear evidence that things NEED to change within evangelicalism, and they need to change far more quickly than I initially foresaw. In fact, the content and the tone of his response confirms everything I said should be of concern.

I’m not an alarmist by any means, but it feels as though white evangelicals as a whole see their version of evangelicalism like the mighty and indestructible Titanic chugging along clear blue waters, while people of color are shouting about an iceberg only they seem to be able to see surrounding matters of multi-ethnic relations and more importantly, Gospel witness.

In the white evangelical world, what Lecrae is for music, Loritts is for preaching. (Note: I use the word music instead of hip-hop or rap intentionally)

Hip-hop, even Christian hip-hop, is still viewed with an air of skepticism in the eyes of white Christians in general. People continue to ask questions like, “Isn’t this worldly music?” “Is this safe for my kids to listen to?” “Isn’t rap immoral?” “How will I know this music won’t corrupt my kids?” Meanwhile, some of the unwholesome content of pop music or country music doesn’t seem to fall under the same type of scrutiny. However, clear, Biblical, Gospel-centered preaching is not something any Christian can dismiss. Though they may not like someone’s preaching style, they cannot discount faithful, Biblically-sound, preaching.

Preaching – or heralding – the Gospel is fundamental to Christian ministry. We do it because Jesus commanded it of us. We do it because it is a work entrusted to us. We do it because preaching, if empowered by the Holy Spirit, grounded in Scripture, and centered on the Gospel, can bring people to saving faith and new life.


To an evangelical, preaching is supreme. The good doctor, Martyn Lloyd Jones once wrote, “The primary task of the Church and of the Christian minister is the preaching of the Word of God.” And this preaching of God’s Word is so central that Charles Swindoll once said, “If I ever wrote a book on preaching, it would contain three words: Preach the Word. Get rid of all the other stuff that gets you sidetracked; preach the Word.” For evangelicals, preaching is nearly sacramental.

As far as I know, this is why Bryan Loritts is so broadly embraced by white evangelicals. They love him because the man can preach. The man loves the Bible, is a solid expositor of Scripture, and is clearly a gifted communicator.

Few people have been invited into the white evangelical space like Loritts has. He is one of a few people of color who frequent the rounds of white evangelicalism. He’s spoken at nearly every setting I can think of, he sits on the board of Biola University (where my sister graduated from), and he is the guy a large swath of white Christian leaders, churches, and institutions at least considers when they seek to diversify their speaker roster (mostly because they can’t think of too many other names). If anyone has been treated like royalty within white evangelicalism from a person of color’s standpoint, it’s him. Few people of color have been invited into the Holy of Holies of white evangelicalism, yet as with Lecrae, you hear a familiar echo in his response.


Exhaustion is a warning sign

Notice what he writes.

He writes, “I’m tired.”

“Having spent over half my life as a guest in the white evangelical world, I’m tired of begging to be noticed, considered, and invited.”

From the outside looking in, most people would say that Loritts was invited in. No one would see him as a guest. Both he and his father, the venerable Crawford Loritts, have made their mark within white evangelical circles. Yet, here is Bryan saying he feels like a guest and is tired.

Then, in the article, he continues by revealing just a few of the myriad of ways white evangelicalism has made him tired. I believe he only shares seven examples, most of which I am sure he would consider low hanging fruit, but this is the common struggle people of color often have within white spaces – for whatever reason, not even the most basic suggestions are readily taken. Instead, suggestions are minimized, discarded, and set aside because of a fear surrounding change, a set way of following policies and procedures, or a concern that making a change for one group will create outcomes that upset the majority. My guess is he, like every other Christian of color engaged in the work of Gospel reconciliation, has been giving suggestions similar to these for quite some time with very little traction.

For all these reasons and more, he says he is tired of trying to convince his white brothers and sisters in Christ of some of the most basic ways they have worn him – and the many others he is representing in his response – down.

This is why I wrote the following about Lecrae’s departure and the potential of a mass reverse exodus from white evangelicalism in my open letter to John Piper: “This should be of grave concern to us all as this represents the exhaustion Christians of color are no longer willing and/or able to endure. For all of evangelicalism’s existence, a disproportionate burden has been placed on communities of color to adapt, adjust, assimilate, and acquiesce to the white expressions of Christianity. This is why evangelicals of color broadly understand the adjective ‘white’ being added to evangelicalism, while white evangelicals have a hard time seeing how their evangelicalism is white.” I then wrote, “Evangelicals of color are tired, worn down, and burnt out from merely existing within the white evangelical space. We need our white brothers and sisters to see and actively work against this by helping to address the cultural aspects that convert evangelicalism into white evangelicalism.”

Both Lecrae and Loritts reveal this in what they say. And aren’t the only ones.


Exhaustion is not forfeit

Loritts is tired, and I don’t blame him. But just because he is tired, it doesn’t mean he has given up.

Loritts’ writes, “Have I given up? No. Am I weary? Yes.”

It’s important to remember that exhaustion isn’t forfeit. And in the ways Lecrae is exhausted and didn’t forfeit from the faith, Loritts is not forfeiting from it either (whether he identifies as an evangelical or not).

But as I said before, notice what this means. This means, you have a black preacher, who like Lecrae, looks like someone who was welcomed into white evangelical spaces with the red carpet treatment, but once he got in, he found the white evangelical space to be one that he feels doesn’t truly welcome him in as a part of the family. Yes, they may give him the seat of honor, but he knows that seat is temporary and more symbolic than substantial.

White evangelicalism demands more from people of color than they do their white counterparts. It taxes and burdens people of color in ways that go above and beyond their white counterparts. It does so because it has created systems and structures, rules and policies, styles and forms that force people of color to live in a way that feels like they are doing two or three or four a days, when white folk only have to do one. You don’t call an athlete who is tired a quitter, especially when they’ve been doing more drills, carrying a bigger load, and going longer distances just to stay on the team, yet this is the reality for many.

White evangelicalism burdens, burns out, and exhausts people of color in ways it doesn’t for whites. As such, Bryan calls for spaces where this isn’t the case. Bryan calls for new and separate spaces that are led and shaped by people of color, with open doors for white siblings in Jesus to come in and participate.


The Reverse Exodus: On creating our own spaces

In my open letter to John Piper, I wrote, “For better or worse, we are only at the beginnings of this ‘Reverse Exodus,’ [where evangelicals of color will depart from the evangelical identification] since, at the moment, there aren’t many better options to turn to for people who hold the same doctrines as white evangelicals hold.”

What Bryan’s response suggests is that this reverse exodus from white evangelicalism is a necessary way forward. In order to do this, he proposes the creation of our own networks, organizations, churches, and conferences. Now, this isn’t to say he is burning bridges between the two, but that people of color need their own spaces. It’s important to note that he is “not advocating segregation,” but wants to “emancipate Jesus from his white evangelical captivity” by providing “a buffet of opportunities, each carrying their unique flavor, but all in the same orthodox line that blesses everyone.” He writes, “We [Christians of color] need to establish our own tables… [but] our tables need to be open and we need to invite our white siblings to sit at them and to be guests in our homes.”

I agree with Loritts that we need to create spaces for non-white Christians to gather, grow, and gain a voice in the greater evangelical and Christian arena in America. We need this because the trend of history has been for non-white Christians to be overwhelmingly shaped, taught, led, informed, and influenced by white Christian speakers, authors, pastors, and scholars, with very little going the other direction – maybe apart from Martin Luther King Jr. A part of this is due to the bedrock of segregation that still plagues America to this day, systemic socioeconomic inequities perpetuated into the present, language barriers that prevented cross-group communication, and a basic lack of meaningful two-directional interactions and overlap between white and non-white networks.

Ideally, white evangelicalism would take the mantle and work to provide a substantial space in the center for evangelicals of color to grow in influence for the sake of the church as it already has a vertically integrated structure of networks, conferences, publishers, and academic institutions. But until this happens on a sufficiently meaningful level, evangelicals (and Christians more broadly) of color need to raise up leaders within our own spaces. We need to gather, grow, and give platforms in a way that our voices are heard in the greater conversations taking place within evangelicalism, because for too long, it was easy for our needs and struggles to be ignored.


A brief glance at each of the websites of the major evangelical movements will reveal some significant differences of how race shapes the priorities of each evangelical organization:
 

October 2017 Snapshot:

NBEA: National Black Evangelical Association (Established 1963)

  • Immediately at the top you read two things: 1) “An African American focused ministry of reconciliation since 1963,” and 2) “Unity in diversity without enforced conformity.”
  • A strongly (and rightly) worded opposition to white supremacy.
  • Reflections on recent shootings and gun violence.
  • Reflections on being black and Christian in America.

NHCLC: National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (Established 2001)

  • Emphasis on Puerto Rico and Mexico relief efforts.
  • Agendas and petitions for DACA children.
  • Core directive of justice for the marginalized.
  • It’s also worth noting that they exist to unify the church through both the vertical and the horizontal elements of the Christian message.

    (Similar things are emphasized by National Latino Evangelical Coalition)

NAE: National Association of Evangelicals (Established 1942)

  • Interview about understanding Islam from an evangelical perspective.
  • Two articles about rural ministry.
  • Survey finding that “evangelical leaders own guns, but want stricter laws.”
  • Article about managing technology usage within the family.
     

If you asked someone, which of the three organizations they thought have these issues on their websites, I have a hard time imagining anyone would get it wrong.

It wouldn’t be difficult to associate black evangelicals to feature a blatant statement opposing white supremacy and reflections on black lives. In the same vein, its not surprising that Latino American evangelicals have multiple features surrounding DACA children and a desire to support and help Puerto Rico and Mexico relief efforts. If you asked anyone about which people group has an interest in guns and rural ministry, the use of technology within the family, and an interview about Islam from an evangelical perspective, 10/10 people would likely guess that it was a dominantly white organization.


Asian American evangelicals have yet to organize because of multiple reasons (here are just 8):

  1. Until the last few decades, we have served primarily in immigrant churches (in part due to filial piety, survival needs, communal values, as well as a perpetualized foreignness despite being American)
  2. We were not (and still are not) accepted as full voiced members of American Christianity – we are the perpetually perpetuated foreigners
  3. We have different approaches in attaining leadership roles (we tend to wait to be invited into leadership positions)
  4. We are hesitant to stand in opposition to white people based on our historical narrative in the U.S. (see yellow peril, Japanese internment camp, and the Chinese exclusion act)
  5. We have been trained to suppress our culture (which is thankfully a shrinking trend)
  6. We still haven’t fully defined what it means to be Asian American, much less an Asian American Christian due to a host of historical and ethnic complexities
  7. If we are involved in the conversations around racial reconciliation, we acquiesce to the black/white binary (for appropriate and understandable reasons, but this can be hurtful if we are not careful)
  8. Our narrative is highly layered around generational and ethnic distinctives
     

It is also worth noticing that the only group that doesn’t have a racial designation is the white evangelical group, otherwise known as the National Association for Evangelicals (NAE). I believe the NAE does its best to touch on and advocate for issues pertaining to other racial groups, but by and large, their primary focus has been on issues pertaining to white evangelicals. You could argue that the NAE wanted to reach the majority of the population, but my guess is, if the NAE continued to press forward in the manner they always have, even if the evangelical population of color was the majority, the organization would do what it has historically done and focus primarily on issues pertaining to white evangelicalism. This is why other racial and ethnic groups could not simply allow themselves to remain under this umbrella, but felt like they needed to start their own because the issues that mattered to them were either unrepresented or underrepresented. Again, this is why the NBEA felt the need to branch off on its own (as the founders were deeply entrenched within the NAE circles).


The dangers of a Segmented Unity

I do believe the next step forward is for communities of color to establish more robust movements that cannot be ignored. For too long, this ignoring has become normalized. The only way towards equity and true unity is for voices to be heard and acted upon. In the ways black people in America had to establish platforms for civil rights issues, Latinos, black, Native American, and Asian evangelicals need to as well within evangelicalism. But I believe this is just a one step towards the greater goal.

I want to affirm that the very thing Loritts’ suggests is necessary, but I believe it to be ultimately insufficient in achieving the end goal, which is not a segregated or segmented unity within the church, but an integrated unity that serves as a powerful testament to the ways Jesus brings people together. A couple of the most heartbreaking comments I received to my Open Letter to Piper were from a couple non-Christian friends who said, “Christianity looks no different than the rest of the world. What you see happening in the church and in evangelicalism is the same thing you see in the rest of society. There is no distinction. In fact, white evangelicals [as a whole] don’t even seem to be willing to see it or acknowledge it, when everyone else clearly can.” Another friend followed up by saying, “It’s the same stuff, just in a different social group.”

In “United by Faith,” Drs. Michael Emerson, Curtiss DeYoung, George Yancey, and Karen Kim write that multiracial multiethnic churches should be the goal of every church based on a theology of oneness.

They write there are only three exceptions to this:

  • Only one racial group lives in your area. Even still, they suggest that churches should still work for ethnic diversity.
  • When there is a lack of a common language, though they suggest that affordable technical possibilities for simultaneous translation may eliminate this exception in the future.
  • In unique circumstances of first-generation immigrant groups. The authors allow for the possibility that challenges of crossing cultures may be too great for the first generation living in the United States.

As an Asian American, I know the second and third points to be prevalent realities. However, I don’t believe a segmented unity (which is what I believe Loritts’ seems to be suggesting) should be the ultimate aim. I think its necessary for now, but it is ultimately insufficient.


Again, don’t get me wrong, what Loritts proposes is valid. But, we must remember, this is the consistent path people of color have historically taken. All throughout history, people of color created their own networks, associations, guilds, and cooperatives in order to support each other, learn from each other, and grow together in and out of the church. They did this because they found that space wasn’t being made for them and that they needed to carve out their own space.

As I mentioned, this is how the National Black Evangelical Association (NBEA) came to be. They felt like their needs weren’t being addressed by their white counterparts, so they started their own movement. The NBEA has been great for the black evangelical community as a whole (and for non-blacks who have engaged with black churches), but from what I can tell, very few whites interact with them as a whole. They don’t interact in a significant and noticeable manner because they have their own conferences and movements, and for most whites, there is no impetus to leave what is designed for them to participate in something that is designed for populations of color or something that is designed with everyone in mind. In the same way few white people will go to dominantly black, Asian, or Latino churches, few whites will go to these conferences unless it meets a particular niche or is led by someone who is mindful of their needs first.


Are we repeating history or is this the time?

In some ways, the social climate in the United States has set the stage for conversations around race, justice, and equity to be impossible to ignore. This means it may very well be the time for non-white movements to gain traction. Further, if Lecrae’s reverse exodus is any indication of the boiling point evangelicals of color are about to reach (or have reached), then this may very well be the time for such movements and organizations to emerge. But we don’t know yet.

This begs the question, is what Loritts’ suggest another effort that will produce more of the same? My sense is, if its really a conference designed for people of color, some white people will show up, but the majority will do what they have historically done and opt to stay in the spaces that were made by them, for them, and with each other. As I mentioned before, this may be a necessary step forward, but I believe it will ultimately be insufficient. In response to Loritts, one of my Asian-American mentees, Sam said, “I think Loritts’ idea [of creating our own movements] is good in theory, but I don’t think he really sees how powerful white evangelicalism is. Minorities’ own movements [efforts and endeavors] will never live up to the majority’s.”

I think Loritts is very much aware of how powerful white evangelicalism is, which is why he engages so deeply with it. However, his solution to “start our own movements” will ultimately come up short in relation to the witness of the church. This segmented unity cannot be taken as ultimate because – even with the bridges – we will end up in a situation much like today where the historically black church (which emerged out of exclusionary practices by white Christians) and the white evangelical church do not interact in meaningful ways. Essentially, they exist in their own Hunger Games like districts or their Divergent like factions. Again, I think its important to note that we should have particular conferences for groups that are not represented within the center. But I don’t think they would be necessary if the center embraced them in meaningful and sufficient ways. My hope is for all of us to move towards a unified diversity.


A Unified Diversity over a Segmented Unity

I believe calling for reform within white evangelicalism needs to be taken more seriously.  I believe the most powerful statement would be a unified diversity over a segmented unity. For it is within white evangelicalism where a significant number of resources, evangelical leaders, thinkers, missions movements, denominations, higher educational institutions, publishers, and conferences reside. In essence, it is within white evangelicalism where the evangelical culture is shaped.

Again, I agree there is room for both, but in my opinion, if white evangelicalism (which is what the majority of U.S. population seems to equate with Christianity), with all the ways it has intentionally and unintentionally excluded, exerted dominance, and even neglected people of color doesn’t change, we will likely never achieve the type of demonstrable unity Christ – established through his death and resurrection – our country (and the world) desperately needs to see.


Conclusion for now

Bryan Loritts’ once preached to his alma mater, Cairn University, “I believe the last two bastions of institutionalized segregation are the Greek systems on most of our college campuses and universities, and the people of God called the church. Every Sunday, we voluntarily flock to our homogenous churches. We’re driving down the street and we can say, that’s the black church, that’s the white church, that’s the Dominican church, that’s the republican church, that’s the democrat church. And I believe every Sunday, God peers over the balcony of heaven and weeps.”

Powerful words. They are words we should consider.

These words make me wonder, what would it look like if we didn’t go our own ways, but tried to go down this road together that is completely different than the ways we’ve gone about it in the past where white evangelicalism gives people of color more than a small shelf in the corner of the bookstore?  Yes, as Bryan said, “we’ve been asking too long.” And as he fairly suggests, it might be “time to put an end to evangelical gentrification, where the presence and ownership of white Christians makes it more valuable in the eyes of many.” Though he says, “some will be called to work on white staffs and in white spaces. This is honoring to God.” He also rightfully says, “others of us are tired of being tenants in the things they own, so there is a real move among some of us as minorities to ‘own’ our own organizations and events, and invite our white siblings over for a change.”

However, what might it look like if white evangelicalism made a dramatic course correction?

What might it look like for white evangelical leaders to humbly receive the gifts of the offered by people of color in the form of suggestions and solutions and made swift and significant changes so that the same issues don’t persist? What would it look like if we took this exhaustion and fatigue more seriously? What would it look like if white evangelicals organized themselves to do everything in their power to prevent this reverse exodus from taking place? What would it look like if we took Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves, to carry each others burdens, and to consider the well being of others above our own?

I think we could pave a better way forward if we did.

For this post, I deliberately attempted to remove my Asian American reflection to Loritt’s response because I didn’t want to detract from the aim of this series, which is to call for a more robust Kingdom reality within evangelicalism as a whole. I will reflect on his response to me as an Asian American/person of color in a follow up post.


Ray Chang is a pastor/preacher who was born in Chicagoland and has lived all around the world, including Hawaii, Los Angeles, China, South Korea, Guatemala, Spain, and Panama where he served in the Peace Corps. As an avid traveller, he has visited more than 40 countries throughout Asia, South America, Europe, Africa, and North America. His travels have also included volunteer, speaking, and consulting roles.

Prior to entering vocational ministry, Ray worked in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. He also served on the pastoral staff at The Orchard Evangelical Free Church prior to his current role in the Chaplain’s Office at Wheaton College.

Ray received a Bachelors of Arts (BA) in Communication from Wheaton College, a Masters of Divinity (Mdiv) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Higher Education from Azusa Pacific University. He is happily married to Jessica.

Follow him on Twitter: @tweetraychang or on his blog raymondchang.wordpress.com