(This post is written from a friend and old seminary peer of mine, Kyle Canty. As one of the pastors of a black, missional Church in Philly, I thought his perspective would be especially helpful for my readers in considering the larger missional movement’s homogeneity. Please join the conversation and let us know what you think.)
There’s a complex question that gnaws at my heart as I observe evangelical culture; “Does the broader evangelical church in America recognize that there is something that they can learn from the African American church?” I follow conferences and as of late, I’ve kept up with the missional movement. I love listening to those who have mined the themes associated with everything missional and topics around justice and mercy for the marginalized. I frequent blogs, YouTube videos and the major declarations put out by the evangelical machine. During the past couple of years I’ve recognized the homogeneity of these circles—most of the speakers are white. Interesting enough, many of the topics that are being written about and presented at these events are topics that I’ve heard about throughout my life. (e.g., justice, mercy, meeting felt needs, etc.) Well before these were popular topics within evangelicalism, these were important issues among black pastors, preachers and theologians. The black church finds its uniqueness in the soil where it is cultivated—usually within marginalized and oppressed communities.
I was originally introduced to the missional conversation by my pastor; who is one of very few African American professors teaching within evangelical seminaries. We engaged in doing contextual ministry within Philadelphia with limited resources and tremendous opposition. One of the things that missional theology taught me was to question the things that contradicted God’s kingdom agenda. The thing that was missing for me as I viewed the movement was color. I wondered to myself, ‘Does a black pastor of an inner city church have anything to teach a white suburban pastor?’ This question gets me thinking through power structures. The question is loaded with complications. Although loosely associated, the decisions regarding the broader missional movement rest in the hands of the few. The answer to my question gets to the heart of a problem.
The missional movement is relatively new within evangelical circles. In fact, the missional movement is still fighting back accusations that the overall movement is a sinister break from ‘traditional conservative Judeo-Christian principles and values’. There is a rapid delivery of books, blogs, conferences, fashion, tweets, FB pages and posts about this Biblical theme that’s been missed for so long by so many. Although there is this rediscovery of mission Dei and what it means to be sent, there is also a danger that the voices are predominantly white and suburban. If the voices of the missional movement remain largely those of the dominant culture, then there is the possibility that the movement will begin to speak with a privileged accent. Call it what you want—whether it is in a suit, tie and comb over or in skinny jeans, fashion rims, tatted up, it is still coming from a place of access, comfort and homogeneity.
Although we are in the age of post-Christendom, the existing structure of evangelicalism still wields a significant amount of power. The presence of Christian publishers, magazines, academic institutions, conferences, conference centers, radio programs and mission organizations are all part of a construct designed to win the battle. The proverbial ‘table’ that is so often talked about is actually nestled inside evangelicalism’s board room. So it is often said that Blacks need a seat at this ‘table’ in order to influence what goes on as the movement becomes more mainstream. Why is it so hard to sit down at this table called the Missional Movement? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the missional movement is nestled inside of evangelicalism and this movement has not properly dealt with race. Different clothes and music, but the same homogeneity exists.
The movement that sought to deconstruct Christendom needs deconstructing. The task of addressing inconsistencies within the movement is best handled by those who can view omissions and pathology from the outside. As the black church gets used to hearing about missional theology and the movement, it will recognize and embrace and add its unique accent to the conversation. However, I wonder if many will simply bristle at yet another predominantly white movement talking about Christians opening up coffee shops to engage in post-modern conversations when the national unemployment rate is 6.7% for whites and 13.3% for blacks.
In conclusion, yes, the black church is not without blemishes and the need to transform. We are not perfect, but who is able to speak to the ills of White Evangelicalism like the Black church? Additionally, one black conference speaker, professor or friend is not diversity, but could be construed as tokenism. It was brought to my attention recently by a friend and mentor that most Blacks can sniff out tokenism and so the Missional Movement needs to know that many of us know that a black woman on a panel covers two categories on the diversity checklist. I guess one of the things that I need to say is that there are many things that the movement can learn from the Black church outside of gospel music and our unique preaching style. The Black church and those it has produced are not novelties to be observed from afar—instead the body was meant to benefit from parts. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)
Let me make this clear—preachers, pastors, Bible believing black folk have been busting their tail ministering to people in the worst conditions for a very long time. Suburban White academics are ‘probably’ not the best folk to reference when you need to figure out how to minister to oppressed people groups. If the missional movement is concerned with reaching the kind of folk that Jesus reached, then perhaps they may want to diversify their think tank to include inner city, bi-vocational Black pastors who serve within extreme conditions.
Married to my lovely wife Pam for over 13 years. I love my children, 10 year old Micah, 8 year old Karis and my new born Shiloh Elyse, born May 4, 2013. I enjoy the challenge of seeing how the Biblical text interacts and speaks to culture. I love the city and reading about God’s heart for the marginalized of society. I love Jesus, His church and the city. I am an assistant pastor at Great Commission Church in West Oak Lane, Philadelphia, where I presently live. My love for urban culture springs from growing up in North Philly–those that know can understand why your heart never really leaves this place.
Graduate of Cairn University (formerly Philadelphia Biblical University) with a B.S. in Bible/Pre-Seminary and an M.S. in Christian Counseling. I also have a Master of Divinity Degree from Biblical Theological Seminary. I’m currently pursuing a DMin in Urban Missiology at Biblical Theological Seminary.
You can engage more with Kyle Canty over at his blog http://thecityrooftop.com/ and can follow him on twitter @kcanman.