Within the last five years, more and more minorities have been leaving white evangelical spaces wounded deeply by those who are called to be guardians of the flock, as well as their spiritual siblings. It appears that this departure is becoming somewhat of a snowball effect that is impacting even some white evangelicals who are now striving to distance themselves from that identifier of a certain religious sect. Christian Hip Hop artist Lecrae spoke about his experience initially on the Truth’s Table Podcast, then subsequently writing about it in his book. His mournful mountain top experience resonated with many minority brothers and sisters who were experiencing similar feelings in their congregations.
White evangelical leaders spoke out about Lecrae’s departure with what seemed to be ignorance over the crux of the issue. In an effort to remove a veil, Raymond Chang wrote a clearly articulated response to one such leader in 2017, yet three years later the blindness seems to still be affecting the white evangelical church thus the need for another article. At this point, the lack of movement or even acknowledgment of the problems begs the question, could this actually be willful ignorance?
Perhaps what we were experiencing was what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of in 1963, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
This more current departure of minorities from white evangelical spaces has been dubbed a Silent Exodus, but it could be possible that this so-called silence has been something quite different. Minorities’ tearful calls for repentance and lament falling on deaf ears. White brothers and sisters willfully turned their backs on their minority siblings in an effort to not cause disruption of the status quo and comfort of the majority culture members.
This willful turning of backs does not always look the same, but it always feels like shame to the one who receives it.
My own experience has proven to be similar to what Lecrae and countless others experienced and Raymond Chang articulated. I was a member of a large, nationally known congregation for over 13 years and in every respect was conformed to the culture of the church. Over 13 years ago, my husband and I were impressed by the intentionality of the doctrinal statements, the preaching from the pulpit, family discipleship model, and conviction for spreading the gospel to the nations, so much so that we moved across the country to be a part of this congregation. Surprisingly there were many young adults like us who had uprooted their families to become a part of this church.
Almost as soon as we arrived we began to develop strong community and close friendships with senior leaders within the church. I assimilated in the ways that the church desired without much resistance because I felt there were biblical implications to support this self-erasure. Christ-likeness was the aim. Yet the deeper I went into the cultural fabric of this community the more I began to observe a disconnect between what was proclaimed and what was practiced. The church was not living into its Biblical commitments – in fact, it was actively resisting faithful action toward them.
What I came to notice in theological terms was an uncoupling of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. The church had clear doctrinal statements that established a strong biblical stance in regard to things such as racial reconciliation, the equality of genders, etc. but in practice these biblical doctrines were not employed. The evidence could be seen from what the leadership looked like and what could be heard from the voices of the marginalized who were either no longer a part of the congregation or those that stayed but had resigned themselves to the fact that things are the way that they are. Those that removed themselves from membership kept leaving for the same systemic reasons.
People gave the same pat answers as they always had. The more I heard from past members the more I noticed an eerie similarity in what seemed to be script-like answers which led me to recognize a well worn pattern of disregard of the marginalized.
More than two decades prior to the current racial reconciliation push, these minority former church members’ efforts to make forward progress within the congregation were met with the same indifference, lack of zeal, empty promises, and no leader involvement that we were experiencing. It felt shocking that more than twenty years later we were witnessing more of the same. The leadership of the church and all of her para-church ministries were still led by white leaders, with perhaps one or two racial minorities in powerless positions. The dominant racial majority protected their power, while their minority counterparts were leaving with spiritual wounds inflicted by their shepherds.
I found myself amongst a group of other like minded brothers and sisters. We sought to understand why our leaders continued to drag their feet on concrete steps toward racial equality, which had been proposed twenty years before. We followed all the appropriate channels, but were essentially told that we should have come to them in a more appropriate way and that our tones were disrespectful. We were not met with humility nor communal repentance.
After an arduous meeting we, along with the elders, established a “task force” to establish better leadership pipelines, as well as providing demographic research of our congregations and the surrounding neighborhoods they sat in. Our hope was that our leadership, once armed with facts and concrete recommendations, would make efforts for lasting change.
This work sparked hope in many of us that this time things would change. Our partnership with a select few of the leaders was a beautiful thing as we completed our work in record time. We spent over eight hundred volunteer hours together while working together on a seventy-two page report to help guide our leaders in a more culturally competent way forward. Once completed our team presented the report to our leaders enthusiastically hoping it would lead to a fulfillment of the stated commitments of the church. Sadly, we were met with silence. As a result, our entire group felt dumbfounded, however this feeling was particularly overwhelming to the minorities because they had put so much of themselves into the work.
As the weeks of silence passed by, there were events planned, meetings held, and sermons preached where our ideas and words were co-opted. We were not included in the public work and were hidden from the eyes of our congregation. None of our work was made available to the congregation, thus rumors and gossip about our work and character spread – often characterizing us in ways that weren’t true. Our names were slandered not only by the leaders but also members. What was most shocking was that we were privately praised but publicly shunned. This revealed that the leaders were complicit. They didn’t want to rock the boat. They wanted to keep favor in the eyes of the most conservative and wealthiest givers in our midst. And still, no corporate repentance.
Limping as they left, one by one, minorities were exiting our congregation. I keenly felt the sentiments of Dr. King, “Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.”
I believe this tragic Exodus is a prophetic judgement on the white evangelical American church today, much as it was in the 1960s. These faithful Believers silenced, disregarded, looked over, and tokenized have had enough. Some have looked toward the Black church to provide what she has historically been known for, a place of safety and healing to the wounds caused by whiteness. Meanwhile there are still others who have found themselves floundering in a spiritual desert not knowing what to believe, because all they have known is a truncated gospel and the words of the sacred Scriptures have been weaponized to do them harm.
What will happen to these faithful wounded souls? Only time will tell. My hope is that they will join me and Dr. King when he says, “But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.”
Out of this Exodus new ministries have sprouted up that are led by some of these noble souls that Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks of and to mention a few: The Witness, Truths Table, Asian American Christian Collective, Faithfully Magazine, The Front Porch, and Be The Bridge’s Facebook online community for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). These ventures are striving to meet a pressing need and longing to serve those that are finding themselves ostracized from white evangelical spaces.
There is no question that White Evangelicalism is experiencing a reckoning that has crescendoed over the last four years. What exactly is rising from the ashes? A generation of melanated saints and their allies who are yearning to not only proclaim Christ’s teachings but to practice them in their personal lives and their communities. Righteous and justice in action.