Lance Lewis: Black Pastoral Leadership and Church Planting

Knowing little (negative) about Lewis’s experiences as a church planter once he got started with his church (the only negative being hearing through the grapevine that he had to take second calling tentmaker work because of support issues) that Lewis’s advice to evangelicals interested in church planting among black folks is “Don’t do it”.

His reasons, and he means this, are challenging the (white) evangelical assumption that black churches that exist and are quite numerous in the black community, are just not good enough. Second, evangelicals are not really familiar enough with black communities beyond thinking that they must be sub-standard. And third is politics.

Lewis describes the way the tendency for white evangelicals to align themselves clearly politically along conservative lines is to sensitive an issue for many black folks who might otherwise align theologically with evangelicals, and the way white evangelicals and conservatives are heard by a black community that has suffered under white hostility and indifference (a recurring theme in the book is the way support for segregation among those who became white evangelicals has tainted white evangelical witness for black folks even 50 years later). His point is that what we whites think are neutral celebrations of middle class ways are heard by many black folks as exclusionary.

As Lewis says if you say “But I don’t understand”:

“I know- as I said, you just don’t know us and we do not trust you”

This is a bit of a downer.

Lewis’s fourth reason is even more heartbreaking in a different way: Himself as an african-american evangelical (coming as a church planter for the PCA, a church with basicly white cultural background) is actually out of touch and has as much difficulty connecting with the black community as any white evangelical. While, to me, Lewis’s preaching, (or the preaching of other black evangelical pastors who have occasionally graced Tenth’s pulpit) seems to have the typical ‘fire’ of a black preacher, or perhaps what one might consider a blending of the approaches, Lewis states that his own preaching is considered an oddity within the black church community. Neither fish nor fowl. This was surprising to me, but as Lewis said maybe I just don’t know them.

Lewis ends his chapter addressing what to do in the face of evangelical refusal to heed his advice to stop planting black churches. He expresses a sharp description (not really a critique: just ‘how it is’) of current church planting strategies that focus on market share of particular demographic groups. White churches are willing to put resources, Lewis claims, into desirable segments that reflect their existing competencies. His experience with church planting in the PCA (and another anecdote about another pastor) was that provided budgets were never realistic when compared to what even church planting experts told him were needed for getting off the ground.

While this is also depressing to my naive can-do american evangelicalism, Lewis hints in the true value of black evangelical pastoral leadership: as pastors or church planters in regular old (white) evangelical churches.

Some thoughts of mine by way of response to all this, to which I invite comment and correction:

1. One friend of mine involved in a PCA urban church plant that is not focussed on the black community (and actually on the ‘white hipsters’ that Lewis says are the favored demographic) tells me that the PCA in general is really stingy with church planting funding. So while Lewis seems to think that the issue was revelatory of that denomination’s real focus, perhaps there is a caution for all church planting that it needs deeper financial support (on the other hand, on ‘new’ church plant in the philly burbs raised millions for a building in a month or so). Lance is still right though: if we won’t put up real money, why do we keep ruining promising black leadership in church planting.

2. I’m still not sure what to make of Lewis’ claims that he had gone too far from his own black roots to communicate to black non-evangelicals. I wonder about the distinction of form and content. If its new content that makes Lewis unpalatable to black audiences, that is one thing, and I’d hate to think that we can’t communicate the richness of reformed evangelical doctrine to black folks because they find it incomprehensible. And if it’s merely form, then we should be able to overcome this as we would any cross-cultural context. But that’s my can-do american optimism. What I need to understand is the way we are just not trusted. Its not that we have bad form, or bad content, but we have lost trust.

(As an aside: I think this is why the tendency of some evangelicals to downplay social action as irrelevant to the concerns of the gospel preaching church is flawed: Its not just that we get too involved in politics as christians. It’s that we get involved in (what ends up being) the wrong kind of politics: supporting or refusing to condemn a segregated social order, and then loosing the right to be heard in certain communities. That’s not a cross-cultural issue. Its a repentance issue. of course, it also means that ‘right politics’ is more of a crucial issue for the church to consider)

3. This will come up again when CUTS returns in the book, but the issue of ‘black churches not being good enough’ may be right in one HIGHLY qualified sense. Unless I am misinformed, most black churches, like most american evangelical churches, are baptistic. For myself, speaking of presbyterian (not just broadly evangelical) church planting means speaking of planting paedobaptist churches, and hopefully churches that will not just baptize the babies of believers, but follow a particular form of teaching that then views these children as christian disciples. If, as I am informed, there is a crisis of family breakdown in the black community, could not some of the answer to that crisis (which is now also affecting a post-Christian (or post baptist) white America, the rigorous inculcation of paedobaptism as both practice and ethos in that community. Presbyterians have the gospel, but they also have (well, ok, could have if they wanted it) the gospel of paedobaptism.

4. This is my political response. Bradley too asked a while ago (maybe he was trying to do research for this book) if evangelicals are ‘too Republican,’ and while I appreciated the (implied?) criticism and warning about being linked to particular politics, it seems to me that there may actually be some non-negotiables politically. I’d hate to think there is a political impasse here. Lewis mentioned his strong objection to the idea that voting for Clinton was evidence of lack of Christian faith. In one sense he’s right. But we can ask if there are particular political positions or persons who are outside the pale of acceptability to christian moral voting. We have to make choices between bad alternatives in voting frequently, but Lewis doesn’t get, i think, to one key issue of evangelical voting conviction: abortion. I would hope (though I’m probably wrong) that the rejection of Clinton’s christian acceptability is not based on, say, his economic views, but is almost certainly based on his status as someone who supports and would advance the cause of legal abortion.

Perhaps the answer to this impasse is a conversion of sorts, or at least a Pauline flexibility with respect to issues of social justice, racial justice, and political solidarity with the black community in all matters other than those of abortion. A difficult path, and made more difficult when solidarity runs up against folly or injustice among those with whom one seeks solidarity. But it should be attempted.



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