Race, social media, and the church

Race Issues | White and black evangelical church leaders gather at the Lorraine Motel to discuss how recent events exposed the church’s ‘immaturity’
by Emily Belz
Posted 12/16/14, 09:33 pm

An all-star cast of theologically conservative pastors and church leaders gathered Tuesday night at the National Civil Rights Museum in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., for a session of self-examination. The leaders were concerned with how both pastors and congregants responded to the recent deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City, and how that reflected Christian attitudes about race. The Gospel Coalition, LifeWay Christian Resources, and the Kainos Movement sponsored the event.

“I think our immaturity in the area of the gospel and race … was deeply exposed,” said Eric Mason, pastor of Epiphany Fellowship Church in Philadelphia and an African American.

John Piper, chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary, challenged pastors.

“There are cowards in the pulpit who won’t touch [abortion] with a 10-foot pole, and how much less racism,” he said. “So my first plea is, be bold. My second thing, preempt the issues on abortion, racism, and others. Biblically, go there first. Capture the vocabulary, otherwise you’ll inherit the Fox News vocabulary, whatever vocabulary, instead of biblical vocabulary.”

Albert Tate, pastor of Fellowship Monrovia in Monrovia, Calif., also called on Christians to think biblically rather than politically: “Our disciples sound more like the disciples of Fox News and CNN than they do the disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Sprinkled through the two-hour conversation were mentions of tweets and Facebook comments, the tools pastors now have to gauge their parishioners’ temperatures.

Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Dallas–Fort Worth, Texas, said he saw Facebook posts and tweets from his predominantly white, affluent congregants and grew “aggravated.” He found it “crazy” that people were offended by the Twitter hashtag blacklivesmatter. He posted an article on white privilege and said he “knew it was going to be a long day.”

“My primary concern for a church that is primarily white affluent was to help them understand why they were not understanding what was going on in all these instances,” Chandler said. “What I’m seeing is an inability or unwillingness from my Anglo brothers and sisters to consider what it’s like to be in the 13th percentile of American society.”

Others also brought up the troubling comments they encountered online.

“Someone on my blog wrote a comment, ‘[Eric Garner] deserved it,’ basically,” author Trillia Newbell recounted. “I said, ‘He’s a person. Aren’t we supposed to mourn? If someone committed suicide, would we tell that family member, no, we can’t mourn?’”

Bryan Lorritts, pastor of Fellowship Memphis and head of Kainos, said lack of generosity comes from minorities too. “We can lack grace … waiting for majority culture to mess up,” he said. He pointed to the leaders around him. “The boldness to say, ‘I want to talk about race,’ in the Twitter world? These dialogues have to be drenched in grace.”

The contrarian in the group was Voddie Baucham, pastor of Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring, Texas, and an African-American. The article Baucham wrote for The Gospel Coalition, suggesting the primary problem in the black community is criminality among its young men, went viral. He said Michael Brown “reaped what he sowed.” At tonight’s event, Baucham softened his tone but maintained his position that the primary issue should be personal responsibility and morality in the black community. He contended the system is not prejudiced against African-Americans.

“We lionize certain individuals who are not individuals to be lionized,” said Baucham, about Garner and Brown.

Thabiti Anyabwile, assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., who is also African-American, challenged Baucham for emphasizing law over grace.

“No one here is claiming Eric Garner or Mike Brown were Boy Scouts,” said Anyabwile. He said that he himself could have checked all the “thug boxes” in his younger years. “I want for the Mike Browns the opportunity to survive those teenage years. … Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], he had his issues too.”

Anyabwile argued the church has to talk about both injustice within government systems and systemic problems in the black community. Newbell said the real racial change in the church would come through relationships between blacks and whites.

“We can say, ‘Love the gospel, preach the gospel, go find your neighbor,' but if you’re not going to do it, it falls on nothing,” she said. 

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.

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