It is always encouraging to see missionaries taking the Gospel to South America, Asia, Haiti, the Middle East, different jungles all around the world, and of course, Africa. However, it is always interesting to me that we so often fly over the obvious mission fields of our neighbors in order to get to these foreign ones.
For example, although there are many buildings on every corner in the inner cities of America that claim to be churches, you will rarely find sound theology. This is not to say that every church in the inner city is preaching heresy. Neither is this to say that every church in the suburbs has sound theology. Obviously that would be taking my point to the extreme either way. We know God always has a remnant and that he does use people who do not necessarily have a big name in a mighty way. Because we know God is faithful, we know his word is indeed going forth in inner cities all throughout America in different ways. We also know that there is still much work to be done in the suburbs as well, especially as new communities are always being built.
A strange observation
It seems to be the norm, however, that when you search for a solid church that has a high view of the scriptures, a sound view of soteriology, and a sound view of the Godhead, you will end up in predominantly Caucasian, suburban areas and in predominantly Caucasian churches. You may find a solid church that is in the heart of downtown or in the “urban” areas of town. These churches typically can be diverse. As of recent years you hear a lot about “urban missions” or church planting in “urban” areas. The term is a little loose and can be taken in different ways. Some people use it when they mean they are going to plant a church downtown or where the city life is. A few use it to refer to neighborhoods in the inner city that are predominantly black. However, we see more churches being planted in those safe “downtown”—areas of “urban renewal” programs where the government has spent millions of dollars to make vibrant commercial centers, and thus where the “city life” is.
I think it is great that the Gospel is going forth in the suburbs of America and has been for years. I am also thankful for the Gospel going forth in urban areas. I am thankful for the missionaries that are launched from these suburban and urban churches to go overseas to risk their lives for the Gospel. It is strange to me, however, that we pour millions of dollars into overseas missionaries every year, yet offer barely any money for church planting in the inner city. Again, I am not saying no one is doing it, yet especially among what we call Reformed Churches, it is rare. I have had countless conversations about this subject with brothers who are in churches in the suburban context as well as pastors who lead those churches, and no one has given an explanation as to how this is justified. Maybe someone has a good answer. I have not found it.
Why the neglect?
From my estimation, people simply don’t perceive that the need is as great as it is in places like Africa. In other cases, people are fearful, people don’t care, or people don’t believe they will be received. But those who hold to Reformed theology should be the first ones who can easily see there is a great need in the inner cities of America, specifically in black communities. It amazes me that many conservative Christians can quickly quote to you how many abortions happen every day among the black community, the statistics of black-on-black crime, the statistics of fatherless homes in the black community, and the incarceration rate of black men, yet based on their level of outreach to these same urban communities, they seem to believe the Gospel is spreading and bearing fruit here. This is not to say the alleged external morality of the suburban neighborhoods means there is no need, but we can clearly see these epidemics in the inner cities and recognize something is clearly missing. Even non-believers can see there is something wrong, which is why you have nonprofit organizations being created every day to try to meet the needs of the community.
How is it that people are fearful to cross the railroad tracks in their own city, yet they are unashamed of the Gospel when they move their whole families overseas, expose themselves to all kinds of diseases, learn new languages, new cultures, new foods and new living conditions? It is an honor to be able to support people who are going overseas and I believe we should. I also believe we have a job in our own back yards. Our church supports foreign missionaries, yet I get a weird feeling when I get a phone call or an email from a brother who is being supported by his suburban church to go to Africa, asking our church that meets in a ghetto in America to support them financially. I take no offense and neither does it make me bitter, yet it just amazes me how many I know of that are being sent off like this. So many believe God has “called” them to the mission field overseas. If that is true, is it not fair to ask whether has God forgotten to send some of them across town? Why has God not showed them the great need 30 miles away? Why is it easier to learn the ways of a whole new continent than it is to cross the bridge?
During this time in our nation, many churches are yelling for “racial reconciliation” or “ethnic conciliation.” Although I know true reconciliation is occurring in many places, I think much of what I see is merely a show. I don’t even believe many people in the church know what they want from one another to be honest. That is not the main point of this article, but I bring it up to make another. One attempted solution has been this big diversity movement. Many people are screaming we need more diversity in the church. We hear that Sunday is the most segregated day in America. This is laughable, because people make it seem like it is a mutual offense. Although we know some African Americans are bitter towards the Caucasian community, for the most part this is by design. Segregation of the church did not start with segregation of the church; it started with the legal segregation in our country. This article also does not intend to go in detail about systemic injustice, though it definitely plays a part in why I believe our communities are neglected. Even if segregation never existed, we cannot scream diversity in the church when white-flight exists in the communities.
There was a point in time when whites did not want African Americans at their seminaries, now they are begging them to come. There was a time where African Americans were not welcome in leadership in white churches, now we are screaming diversity. If we look at the origin of the A.M.E church, that will spell it out for us. This is not to sound bitter, but now that white people are ready for reconciliation, blacks are welcome in their churches, seminaries and coalitions yet to be supported outside of these groups is another thing. I believe that is rooted in our individualistic culture. In the book of Acts you see one church. In America you see a body divided.
Most African Americans who are introduced to Reformed theology usually find a good church home in the suburbs. This is usually away from their own community, and they have to assimilate to a new one. Of course, some African Americans have lived their whole lives around white people. Those, however, who come from a predominantly black community in America, and end up in these churches to learn of Jesus, also learn to despise their own community. Of course, we want all believers to hate the sinfulness of their culture, yet I am speaking of the influence to conform not only to the image of Christ, but the European Christ. As one of my brothers put it, “Christianity is not the white man’s religion, however the Christianity in America is the white man’s religion.”
There is far too much to write to describe the experiences of most black people I know when going to a predominantly white church. This is not to say the overall experience in white churches is horrific, there is a bright side. Most black brothers and sisters I know, however, are taught there of all of the great puritans, theologians, and fathers of the faith, none of whom were of their skin color, and they are shown a white Jesus that was on their walls and the large family bibles in the living room growing up. The only word they hear about Martin Luther King, Jr. is that he was a heretic. They hear that all the music and preaching they grew up on was just hyper-emotional. Some even go so far as to say that if it weren’t for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, we would still be practicing witchcraft in a jungle somewhere. The constant criticism of every bad thing whites associate with blacks historically, and the constant praise of every good thing from white European history, tends to cause the African American subconsciously to despise being black, and to despite their own communities. African Americans are rarely taught of the widespread presence of Christianity in Africa in the first century, of George Lisle the first American Missionary, of all of the African and African American contributors to our faith, and how some of the theologians we look up to first looked up to Africans for their understanding of Scripture and theology.
For hundreds of years African Americans were told by whites that their color meant they were not even human. Today they are told they need to be colorblind and just find their identity in Christ. By God’s grace, however, African Americans all over America are humbling themselves to endure these uncomfortable settings for the sake of the Gospel and the love of the brethren.
In the midst of the cry for diversity in churches, I do not see white evangelicals as a majority coming to serve the needs of predominantly black churches or black pastors. Neither do I see many white evangelical churches, which have the resources, reaching out to help plant many churches in black communities. It is happening, but it is definitely not the norm. Most people know that planting a church in the inner city is a struggle financially, yet we are more often told “we will be praying.”
Some churches are willing to support African Americans to plant churches in the inner cities as long as they join their denomination, network, or go in debt to get a degree from a seminary to meet their qualifications of an elder. Two things that are wrong with this picture. First, most people don’t believe they have to send an African American missionary to Africa, or a Mexican American to Mexico, or an Asian American to Asia, yet the only way to reach the black community in America is to send an African American? This is not consistent. Second, most black men who get their degrees through those seminaries do not go back to the inner city context. They are most likely going to serve as the associate pastor somewhere in a predominantly white church or a somewhat diverse context if at all. If they attempt to go back to the inner city, they had better not hold their breath for support. Dallas Theological Seminary, in recent years, is just now acknowledging how they had never sent any black men to pastor predominantly white churches. So basically it has historically been a lose-lose.
I believe the neglect of the church to reach the black community specifically in the inner cities explains the huge disconnect in understanding the outcry of oppressions in society in general. This is why white and black evangelicals feel justified in ignoring the cries of the black community during injustices by calling them hypocrites. They can feel justified sitting in their own churches, because they know those blacks just need to make it make it to the white side of town to go to a church with sound doctrine, and then they will be ok. It is easier to sympathize with Africans in Africa because we spend millions of dollars to portray their suffering on TV and brochures. It is harder to understand the suffering and needs of Africans just down the road from us when we have little connection with the inner cities, they don’t make commercials about it, and we are too preoccupied to find out for ourselves. But without sound missions and sound churches, it should be no surprise when there is a rising of cults in the black communities. While the church neglects this community, the black consciousness movements, black liberation movements, black power movements, and more prey upon it, giving African Americans a false sense of dignity.
There is good news, however. In Chicago, for example, in the midst of all of the murders, brothers and sisters are gathering in homes all across the city bringing the gospel to the darkest areas. Likewise, in my former church in San Antonio, Texas, a white Pastor has intentionally moved to the inner city and is leading a church where some whites, blacks, Hispanics, and others have by faith sold their homes to move to the inner city to reach it with the Gospel and meet the needs of the community.
There are many other such testimonies, although these, again, are not the norm. Ministry in the inner city is risky in many ways, especially when you do not have any one holding the rope for you. It will take sacrifice, it will take money, it will take patience, and it will take faith, but so does being a missionary to other nations.
I don’t believe everyone is called to the inner city just like I don’t believe everyone is called to the suburbs, or the country, or Africa. I also do not believe the inner city is the only place that is being neglected, nor do I believe only black people live in the inner city. I don’t mean to guilt anyone into planting a church in the inner city or giving monetarily to church plants there. This also is not a cry for anyone to feel they need to be a savior to the black community. I do wish, however, this would provoke people to think and to ask questions that may stir them up to whatever good works that will exalt our Lord to the ends of the earth—especially those neglected ends that are so near us and filled often with millions. It is also good that there are many white Christians all over America who are striving to embrace their black brothers and sisters the best way they know and are displaying much fruit of the Gospel that is working in their hearts.