A Black Missional Critique of the Missional Movement35
July 16, 2013 by DKC
Previously posted on my brother Drew Hart’s web blog. http://www.drewgihart.com (7/12/2013)
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 its 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.
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Agree. It is a slow process. We are attempting through community building to walk through this. I will be the first to admit, I don’t understand urban life and its history. My wife and I are older, broken and can only be authentic and transparent as we walk forward.
Hello Bob, Appreciate your response. I think a great start to understanding the urban context is to get connected to a loving fellowship within a church in a minority/urban community. It sounds like you are doing that now. (?) I think learning urban culture requires more than reading/researching about it. Thanks for your humility. We can correspond if you are interested (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Thank you for this post. As a Latino leader of missional communities I find this post refreshing. I must say that I have lately seen minority leaders rising among the missional movement and that brings me joy. I believe missional communities lend themselves for true multicultural fellowship and I hope that we can get this one right this time.
From the bottom of my heart, I thank all minorities in the inner-city who have been ministering in to the marginalized long before it was popular and have not gotten a book deal or national conference recognition. We have much to learn and hope that we can at least keep moving towards unity in participating in the missio Dei.
Thank you Marcos–this is an issue that’s close to my heart. In my post, I mentioned how I came to understand ‘missional’. I learned it through a close discipling relationship with my pastor. It is my hope, along with many others to help whole communities understand missional and to go a step further and put our own flavor to the conversation. I think a sub-dominant voice is sorely needed. I also agree with your statement, “missional communities lend themselves for true multi-cultural fellowship…”.
[…] This article was originally posted on Kyle’s website, The Rooftop, here. […]
Very well said. Thank you, Kyle. And, keep writing, keep writing…
Thank you Ken. Appreciate your encouragement.
This blogreminds me of when I used to work for a para church in the early 90s and the term ‘evangelical’ was being used. Now we have ‘missional.’ I’m bout done with white vacationaries. The organic/simple/missional movement has to deal with the color line just like the traditional/historic/mainline churches do. It’s not magic because someone chooses to leave church but no leave Jesus. If they were cross cultural before the move; they will be cross cultural after their missional move. If not well. . . you have your segregated ekklesia. BTW the whole ‘sit at the table’ thing is a white evangelical construct IMO. I’ve never heard black pastors in urban areas feel like, ‘I need to sit at the table with the whites.’
Good points Jonathan. I agree, It is possible that ‘missional’ can just be a repackaging of ‘evangelical’. I believe that there is a difference due to the emphasis within a great deal of missional teaching on moving outside of comfort zone (incarnational ministry) to reach lost/hurting/oppressed rather than being internally focused. I would also add that a missional perspective is a response to Christendom’s collapse – there aren’t many traditions addressing this. (Christendom exists in both white and black communities.) Take it or leave it, the missional/evangelical community is one of the paradigm’s that I operate in while on the pastoral staff within an African American community in Philly. To your point about “sit at the table” – believe it or not there are many within the black community that realize that in order to change the makeup of many predominantly White ‘evangelical’/’missional’ institutions you must be part of the decision making process at high level. There are many who recognize the need for these institutions to change and have a will to change them. I’ll also admit that there are many who could care less.
amazing post. gave me a lot to think about. i’m enrolled in a masters level class right now in seminary called “leading a missional church” and sadly this perspective has been completely missing thusfar…
Chad–thanks for reading the post. In most seminaries this perspective would be missed (sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally). In my seminary training this perspective was included at certain points because it was pushed by the lone African American on faculty. People in power sometimes need a nudge. My hope is that places of formal/informal missional training consider this perspective and look to make some changes.
Thank you so much for the blog. I’m working with an urban church plant in the St. Louis region, and I can completely see what you’re talking about. I’m a white guy who grew up in rural/suburban neighborhoods, but I’ve been in the city for four years now and am loving urban culture. I would love to hear more of your walk and to hear more of your thoughts on how we as church leaders can lead specifically to see Christ’s church united not only along Jew/Gentile lines (Eph. 2), but along all sorts of lines, including color lines and socio/economic lines. Feel free to contact me at your convenience if you’d be available and/or interested – email@example.com.
Thank you again so much, and may the Lord continue to bless you, your family, and your church family to walk humbly in His will.
Hello Will. Thanks for reading the post. I have some practical ways of doing that I would like to suggest. One suggestion would be to make a very private connection with those individuals ministering within marginalized communities. Perhaps invite a pastor from the Latino, Black, Korean community with no real agenda but simply an opportunity to get to know someone from a marginalized community. I would even go a step further and work under a church within one of these communities in an ancillary role–simply supporting what they are doing in the community. This would provide you an opportunity to learn and experience what they do and also inquire about their motivation. I believe that this kind of humility would break down some walls. It important to understand how someone from the dominant culture looks to someone within a subdominant culture – they can (not always) come across as big brother or like a ‘white hope’. These are suggestions – I have many more and will be reaching out to you via email. Thanks for your interest.
Thanks for the candid talk on a touchy subject for many missionally minded people. Here in the south more specifically Texas most Christians (across denominations and race) try and glance over diversity or the lack thereof. During seminary break I can recall returning home with all this new found missional language and my father would chuckle saying, “Boy all these words your using sounds good but I intentionally raised you in the mission fields of a ghetto. We didn’t have to live in the neighborhood, me and your mother choose to raise you there.”
I said all that to affirm your idea that the Black Church has a lot to bring to the intentional mission/mission theology discussion because for many Black churches that has been their life long ministry. I hope you have found time, or will in the near future, to write your thoughts on a similar point of discussion: “Black Churches/Communities sitting at the table of economic development that many white evangelical missional organizations put forth to “revitalize poor neighborhoods”. Large dollars in Dallas/FT. Worth metroplex coming from mega churches and their off-shoot non-profit mission organizations are given or accessed from federal grants used to do missional work in poor communities without any say of the people in the neighborhood (bad gentrification). While the work can be said for a good cause, much of that work does more harm than good. Likewise many Black communities and churches can recognize when a missionally minded group is bringing a “token black” in order to sale their work as being helpful for really just growing their image and do good business. As a civil rights worker once said to me, “Social service, homelessness, and poverty is big business.” It is a sad statement to hear, but some what true, that what is now called the “missional movement” is big business.
thanks again for articulating so well what has been on my mind and what I have been pointing out to people within the missionally minded circles I frequent.
Wow…thanks for responding. Your article idea is spot on and goes a step beyond what I wrote but deserves mentioning. Amazing that the issue of bad gentrification is popping up all over North America. In many instances, not all, mega churches can play the role of ‘big corporation’ in the name of Jesus but sometimes miss the intent of incarnational ministry. As a church we can become complicit in creating an atmosphere of oppression. Appreciate the story about your dad.
Great article. Really appreciate your insights. Similar to my observations in my book: The Next Evangelicalism.
Prof Rah – thanks for reading the post. I read your book a few years ago–excellent work. I’ve really been blessed by your ministry through the years. Would love to hear about the response to your book from those you critique?
Thanks for this. I live and work in Albania in SE Europe, a predominantly Muslim culture. Our “missional church network” is seeking to plant more churches in the Balkans and other places, often in cities where there has been no church for centuries (or maybe never — sometimes it is impossible to know). Many of the issues you raise apply to this “missional” context, as well. I’ve often thought that African American churches have much to offer in this part of the world, not least because followers of Christ here are very often marginalized and oppressed. It is rare to find an African American missionary in Europe, though.
Of course, there are many anonymous, marginalized and oppressed church planters and disciplers around the world who do amazing stuff and will never “sit at the table” because that is a rich-world (and free world) table for some of the reasons you identify, and more. There are many other tables (and floors) to sit at (and on). While I thank God for every white, suburban church that genuinely seeks to be missional, I’m genuinely debating in my own mind if some of my national friends and co-workers in Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia and further off in places like Mongolia and Cambodia should even seek to sit at that table. The men (and dare I say it, women) I’m thinking of are already uber-missional. There would be short-term benefits (both ways), but sometimes those who do get seats at that table seem to imbibe values that may not be helpful to their calling back in their home cultures. For starters, how to do sit at the “book-blog-and-tweet table” when it might get you arrested or killed, or at least severely hamper your ministry?
I’m wondering if, in the long term, minority missional movements will just eclipse the one that now produces most of the books and tweets and M Div’s, and eventually the predominant direction of influence will shift. I suspect it be better when more people realise that there are other and better tables which are not located inside what you call “evangelicalism’s board room”.
In the meantime, thanks for your voice. I’m glad to have discovered your blog and look forward to learning from you.
Brian – praise God for your work in Albania. Its amazing the kind of solidarity that exist (and can exist) around the world. Your witness about how those outside of the power structures have no choice but to be missional is powerful. What is also sobering about your words is the risk that’s taken for the gospel. For my part I hope to continue to establish relationships and convey what I have observed and learned from those who have discipled me (e.g., my father, pastor, countless other men and women who have been working in the trenches for so long, etc.) Praying for your ministry. Thanks for reading – hoping that we can keep in contact.
Hello Kyle. I found your article as the link was posted on a FB group of which I am a part of that struggles together to define what missional ministry is and how to do it. By and large I find your article to be on point and it speaks of a convicting truth. I do think for the most part the intentions among churches and pastors engaging in the missional movement are good and their hearts are in the right place. For way too long the concept of missional has been swallowed up by traditional church leadership and a broken institutional model. For way too long church leaders did not know a different way, or were never taught a different way. I grew up in a diverse church in the inner city and even in that environment we did not get it. The church eventually moved out of the downtown not because it did not believe ministry was needed there, but simply admittedly did not know how to do ministry in that context. Rather than partner with the black churches or try and learn from them, it was determined it would just be easier to move into a different part of the city where the traditional institutional model could be effective. I am now a pastor with a heart to love and serve the broken and oppressed. Here is what I am finding to be true. Many churches and church leaders are trying to implement a missional church program while maintaining a broken institutional model. They are failing, because most programs do fail. Rather than making the missional movement a program inserted into a broken model, churches need to get rid of a broken model and simply live missionaly. I like you, find that books, seminars and conferences on missional movement are largely ineffective and a poor substitute to immersing ourselves in the environment and learning from the very people we desire to minister to or from the churches and ministries that are effectively reaching those that we also desire to reach. A few years ago, I gave up on the idea of learning how to do missioanl church from books and conferences. I have learned far more from spending an hour being transparent and real with one of the folks I am trying to minister to than by spending hours and dollars attending conferences. I speak with humility as one who gets it wrong far more than I get it right, but I also speak as one who desperately wants to love and serve those that Jesus would have loved and served. I am stumbling down this path growing, learning, failing along the way, but all the while hoping that God will mold my heart into a heart that resembles the heart of his Son.
Dan – reading your comments reminds me of the history of a local Christian University. They moved from Center City Philly out to the suburbs and with that they missed (I believe) an opportunity to train up generations of African American pastors for ministry. They also missed a valuable partner, the black church, in their effort to train up leaders that would have an impact for generations. I agree that for many their intentions may be pure but often times I believe that fear of the unknown and an inability to co-exist with the ‘other’ plays a role in decisions to escape. Also, agree that there are broken models borrowed from celebrity preachers/pastors that don’t fit into certain ministry contexts. I tend to think of missional as a model-less movement. One of the things that I’ve learned working alongside my pastor (a missional theorist and practitioner) is that context is vital when considering a ministry model. Thanks for listening and being humble in your approach to this whole thing.
Very well said. All of us have much to learn from the Black Church. We (Native American followers of Jesus) also have much to learn, as well as much to teach. You asked the question, “but who is able to speak to the ills of White Evangelicalism like the Black church?” While it is true the Black church is unique, remember our Native people have been the target of a very poor, even greivious White mission model in America for over 500 years. Much of the tenets of the colonial model of mission remain unchanged. We too believe we have something to say about how the White church does mission. I hope the future holds a place for serious conversation regarding this subject for us all, as we all mature in Christ together. Thanks for your good thoughts.
“Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision”
Absolutely!!! The two great original sins in America is the stealing of land, near genocide, and colonization of Native Americans on one hand, and the middle passage, chattel slavery, and the racial violence and systems used to criminalize black people on the other hand. We are the only people that didn’t come to this land as immigrants trying to find a better life. As an African American Christian, I certainly want to make sure that the painful history of the 1st Nations people are heard and never forgotten. It was hearing the late Richard Twiss come and speak at my church that really opened my own consciousness in this area. Thanks for sharing.
Randy – thanks for taking the time to read the post. I wholeheartedly agree with the role of Native people in this dialogue as well as the march toward real reconciliation. I tend to believe that many of the mainstream mission organizations need to rethink and reevaluate how they ‘might’ participate in a colonial model of missions. By the way I’ve been following your ministry for a while an appreciate your work. I would love to continue to dialogue with you. Blessings
that would be great…I look forward to opportunities to dialogue in the future.
[…] had the opportunity to read three good articles in regard to these issues (here, here, and here) and wanted to posit my own thoughts as a result of chewing on the thoughts of these […]
Kyle- Thanks for the good word! You have a new follower and listener.
Al – thank you for following and listening. God bless you.
Holding the black church, or any church, apart and unique because of color or nationality is un-Godly and self-serving. What I took from the post is that the problems in the black church are the fault of the white man. That theme is played out in every facet of American life and it’s tiresome. The word of God is mighty if is delivered in a cathedral or a tin building.
It is an error to seek a specific deliver system of the Word for a specific people. Just deliver the Word and trust in God that the Holy Spirit will deliver people into the grace of Jesus Christ.
We spend too much energy and money delving into things such as post-Christianity, which is an absolute affront because that era can only be reached when Christ is dead and that won’t occur.
Zevgoldman – thanks for at least reading the post. I certainly don’t expect everyone to read this post and accept what has been written. You’re entitled to your perspective – I just believe that its wrong. My intent was to show that the ‘missional movement’ can benefit from the varied experiences and perspective of the African American church- if you took from my post that I said that everything is the fault of the white man then you are not reading the post objectively. Furthermore, I would ask you to read through the book of Acts before stating, “Its an error to seek a specific deliver[y] system of the Word for a specific people.” Paul often times used culture and history to create a bridge of communication. (Acts 17:16-34) The error comes in your assumption that there is an objective means of delivering the word of God–to believe that our culture/experience play no part in how we communicate is one of the problems of Christendom. (1 Cor. 9:20-22) In fact, our experiences can prove to be helpful in how we communicate the truth about God and His grace. One thing I do agree with you about is that the Word of God is powerful wherever it is communicated, but this does not mean that we can’t learn how to demonstrate the good news is ways that demonstrate love and an understanding of another person’s plight. Jesus demonstrated this throughout His ministry. [Post-Christendom speaks to a time in history when the church does not occupy a dominant position within society.]
[…] black and urban missional churches. Kyle Canty expressed a similar concern earlier this summer in one of his posts. What Burris, Smith, and Canty are doing is drawing attention to voices that have given rich […]
Kyle, I have to “amen” a lot of your thoughts. On being invited to the table, that was tricky business for Jesus too. So he called on those with ears to hear to join him in inviting the uninvited to the table. Missional, reconciling fellowships have to dig out tons of rubble from broken trust, and find some bedrock we can agree to build on together.
John – thanks for reading the article. My hope is that it will continue to challenge some of the ongoing thinking that prevents the church from moving forward.
I just came across your article in my research of starting a missonal community in St.Paul steeped in cultural diversity. I have made a huge shift in my church planting moving away from proclamation services to a missional service called Dinner Church. I love the black Church and even say I contend for the prophetic voice of God in the Black Community. I am neighborhood focused church plants.
I have read and connected with a lot of missional leaders and I am even the only African American in a missional cohort. God has continued to place me in front of the missional conversation. I have determined to commit myself to something new and I believe we need a future Church mindset. Like you said we have been missional for far longer before somene could put labels on it. I love to hear more…