By Bryan Loritts
On a Sunday in the late 1700s, a black man walked into a church and began praying. What he didn’t realize was that he was doing so in the whites-only section of the church. Incensed by his audacity, the people around him immediately confronted him and tossed him outside onto the streets of Philadelphia. African Americans were so appalled by what they had witnessed that they left the church and formed what would become the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
This bit of a history lesson is not to incite guilt, for we are a resilient people, and one of the most mystifying truths is how we have held on to something that rejected us and was used as justification to enslave the likes of my great-great-grandfather, who was led to faith by his enslavers. As the songwriter was wont to say, “God moves in a mysterious way.” The black church was birthed out of rejection. Just about every historic black denomination is the offspring of white folks wanting nothing to do with us.
The real tragedy is not what happened back in the 1700s, but that the black church continues to endure rejection in the 21st century. Sure, I’ve seen our white siblings visit the African-American churches I’ve served and genuinely enjoy all of the elements of the experience. But there is a difference between visiting and joining, between being a guest and locking arms in covenant partnership.
I once had a conversation with an elderly African-American man who had served for years as a bivocational pastor. During his tenure, he found himself so hungry to learn more of God’s Word that he petitioned a well-known conservative seminary to let him take courses. They refused. He then asked if it was okay for him to audit a theology class. After much discussion they finally acquiesced on the condition that he sit outside the classroom. He said there were times he sat in the rain just to learn the Scriptures at this all-white institution. No other African Americans would join him in sitting outside. They either went to other schools that would accept them or were self-taught.
While it’s ill-informed to levy the verdict of poor theology on minority churches, let’s suppose that white evangelicalism is completely right (she’s not though). Who, then, is to blame for this current state of affairs? Which seminaries have reached out to people of color to welcome us into their schools to learn?
I’ll answer it this way: In April 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. preached at Southern Seminary. How could a Southern Baptist institution invite a black man aiming to take down racial injustice to preach at their school? Well, they were liberal then. Oh, yeah, that’s right. By and large, it was liberal institutions that welcomed us without making us stoop to the indignity of inhumanity. White evangelicalism wants to have its proverbial cake and eat it too—critiquing our historical “bad theology” and yet not accepting ownership for refusing to educate us in ways that validated our biblical anthropology as fellow creatures made in the imago Dei.
The way white evangelicalism works around this is to construct a theology that allows them to wriggle out of personal responsibility for historical injustices. In their seminal work titled Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith point out how white evangelicalism dismisses structural injustice and therefore its own complicit personal culpability. The problem is that the Bible paints another picture.
When Jesus encounters Zacchaeus, we are told he is not only a tax collector, whose bank account is replenished daily by greedy injustice, but he is a “chief tax collector” (Luke 19:2). This means that Zacchaeus is an architect of systemic injustice, predicated on a network of fraudulent tax collectors who scheme against and extort people for their salacious endeavors. He is the head of the Jericho cartel. Jesus invites himself over to this man’s house, and the train wreck of the gospel invades his soul. It’s here that Zacchaeus confesses, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8). The good news—namely, salvation—has made him acutely aware of and deeply convicted about his participation in systemic injustice. Jesus responds, “Today salvation has come to this house” (verse 9).
A lot has been made in recent years about the term gospel. Books have been written about the need to be “gospel-centered,” to live “The Explicit Gospel,” along with events inviting us to come “Together for the Gospel.” Now these resources and events are extremely needed and nourishing, yet for all of our gospel talk, little has been made over a subset of the gospel known as restitution. Note that I didn’t say reparations. Reparations are governmentally legislated, and I’m not attaching any sort of moral equivalency to the term. Gospel restitution is the Spirit-induced response to any vestiges of culpability when it comes to matters of injustice. But notice that gospel restitution is not just a feeling, but it involves a tangible giving back as a necessary act of repentance. When Zacchaeus offers to tangibly restore in material ways the ones he has both defrauded and impoverished, Jesus affirms his salvation.
I have white friends who are direct descendants of ancestors who are on record for defrauding and building businesses on unjust systems (like Jim Crow), and these friends wrestle deeply with this. One of them has confessed he must own his ancestors’ injustices and right the wrongs. So he does it in remarkable ways by taking a significant portion of his wealth and investing it in homes for the poor. What would Jesus say to this? “Today salvation has come to your home.”
But because white evangelicalism has constructed a personal Jesus who (at best) winks at systemic injustice and pats the victims on the back, saying with a sigh, “That’s too bad; pull yourself up like the rest of us and keep moving,” she never autocorrects the injustice and is therefore doomed to commit more wrong. This sort of thing continues today as the kissing cousins of gentrification and church planting have landed back in the cities, transforming ghettos into whites-only neighborhoods. You do see how this becomes problematic for historically urban churches, don’t you?
White evangelicalism can do something about this. In what would be a historically unprecedented move, our white siblings can choose to follow minority leadership, serve in minority churches, and learn from minority preaching. This is what Reggie Williams points out in his book Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus. At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose to join the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem—a large black church. Bonhoeffer’s life was enriched, for it was here that he heard the gospel in all of its glorious dimensions, compelling him to go back and stand up for oppressed Jews in Europe. Had he done what most whites who have just landed in some new city now do—join a church plant or find an existing church that looks like them—it is doubtful we would have ever heard of Bonhoeffer and his exploits. Praise God that he chose a different path, one that allowed him to follow ethnically indigenous leaders.
The modern church-planting movement is oftentimes a silent partner in systemic injustice, refusing to demand that its leaders consider simply learning from existing churches in these gentrifying neighborhoods. So they set up shop and take aim at their target demographic—white urban hipsters. This becomes a sort of spiritual colonization. Never once does it cross their minds that there are already some good churches there, and they might be able to help support, strengthen, and revitalize existing ministries, not by taking over and leading, but by showing up and learning.
White evangelicals have played an essential role in my growth and development. Shoot, some of my best friends are white evangelicals! Seriously. But white evangelicalism as a predominant exclusive system is a whole different thing. The latter (white evangelicalism) must die, for it never teaches its subscribers an ethnic proactivity birthed out of a gospel humility, willing to bend itself in submission to leaders already engaged in kingdom work who may not look like them.
Adapted from Insider Outsider: My Journey as a Stranger in White Evangelicalism and My Hope for Us All by Bryan Loritts. Click here to learn more about this title.
God boldly proclaims throughout the book of Acts, “There is no ethnic home team when it comes to Christianity.” But the minority experience in America today—and throughout history—too often tells a different story.
When Pastor Bryan Loritts wrote an op-ed piece in Christianity Today about this “evangelical gentrification” in the American church, he received an overwhelming response of more than one million views and sparked a provocative national conversation. In Insider Outsider, Loritts dives deeper into what it’s like to be a person of color in predominantly white evangelical spaces today and where we go from here. Drawing on insightful snapshots through history, eye-opening personal experiences, and biblical exposition, Loritts awakens both our minds and hearts to the painful reality of racial divides as well as the hope of forgiveness.
As Loritts writes, “It is impossible to do theology devoid of cultural lenses and expressions. Like an American unaware of their own accent, most whites are unaware of the ethnic theological accent they carry.” Insider Outsider bears witness to the true stories that often go untold—stories that will startle, enlighten, and herald a brighter way forward for all seeking belonging in the family of God.
This seminal book on race and the church will help you discover how you can learn the art of listening to stories unlike your own, identify the problems and pitfalls that keep Sunday morning the most segregated hour of the week, and participate in an active movement with God toward a holy vision of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “life together.”
Bryan Loritts is the lead pastor of Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Silicon Valley. A graduate of Cairn University (formerly Philadelphia College of Bible) and Talbot School of Theology, Pastor Loritts was recently voted one of the top 30 emerging Christian leaders. He is the co-founder of Fellowship Memphis—a multi-ethnic church where he served for eleven years, helping it to grow from twenty-six people in a living room to several thousand. Pastor Loritts also served as pastor for preaching and mission at Trinity Grace Church in New York City, and is the author of several books. He is the President of the Kainos Movement, an organization aimed at establishing the multi-ethnic church in America as the new normal, and sits on the Board of Trustees for Biola University and Board of Directors for Pine Cove. He is the husband of Korie and proud father of three boys: Quentin, Myles, and Jaden. You can follow Pastor Loritts on Twitter at @bcloritts.