How to Criticize the Church

How to Criticize the Church

Some weeks it’s easier to be a Christian than an Adventist. This was one of those weeks for me. It began with Annual Council delegates forgetting that Halloween is still a week away and deciding to dress like extras from Little House on the Prairie…or Django. To many of us, they were a reminder of a patriarchal, racist chapter in our nation’s history. Can you say tone deaf?

Next the President of the General Conference went after music, worship, and social justice in the same message – just hours after the costume party. It gave rise to criticism that he was attempting to Make Adventism White…I mean, Great Again. I understand his call for moderation, and in context it makes sense. But what are the words I’m looking for? Oh, yeah. Tone deaf.

And then there was the “Unity” document. An attempt to rein in parts of the church that have been deemed, “out of compliance.” (Hint: That’s about 80% of you.) Again, it makes sense in principle. This is a 20-million-member denomination with more off shoot groups than we can name. But the unmistakeable backdrop is women’s ordination. And in my opinion, it’s another attempt to legislate a matter of conscience, context, and Union control.

So, what’s a frustrated Adventist professor to do? Well, I think its time to criticize. What? Yes, criticize. Is that appropriate? I think so. Ever heard of a prophet named Jeremiah? What about Ellen White and her Testimonies to the Churches and letters to leaders? What about Jesus and his letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3?

Is church criticism appropriate? I would argue that it’s not only appropriate but essential. It all depends on how it’s done. Let me give some suggestions on how to appropriately criticize the church.

Criticize biblically

There are some church issues that don’t need to be made public. As a matter of principle, we should attempt to resolve issues as quickly, quietly, and as close to the source of the problem as possible. Matthew 18 provides concrete counsel for most church conflicts. But that counsel is best applied to personal conflict. Not a perfect model for criticism of institutions.

Criticize accurately

One of the absolute requirements for going after an institution or an individual, is getting your facts straight. Don’t accept what you hear or what you read at face value. The internet is fast becoming a fact free zone. Ted Wilson is not a Jesuit. The church logo wasn’t designed by a warlock. Get your facts straight before you criticize the church.

Criticize constructively

Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4:15, that speaking the truth in love is a recipe for Christian growth and maturity. It’s also important for those who criticize the church. Check your motivation. Watch your attitude. Be conscious of how your criticism impacts and influences others. You can’t use the Devil’s tools to build the Lord’s house.

Criticize courageously

If you don’t have the courage to speak truth to power, step aside and support those who do. Our church structures are presidential to a fault. It’s great for efficiency, but it comes at the cost of collaboration and diversity. The warning against “kingly power” is more than cliché counsel. We have a real problem. We have literally enabled leaders to hurt themselves and us. For all the talk of free exchange, many of our leaders are surrounded by other leaders who won’t speak up because it’s contrary to their own self interests. I get it. But it’s not working. And it runs counter to the sensibilities of the generation that will be leading us next.

Criticize consistently

Finally, if you’re going to criticize, start with that person in the mirror. Don’t require something of me that you don’t value yourself. No one is perfect but have some integrity. Be consistent. And let me leave you with perhaps the greatest test of your integrity. How do you respond to a friend that’s incorrect or out of order? Not an enemy but a friend. Are you prepared to correct them?

So, there they are. Some simple suggestions from a professor who has been in a few battles. What do you think? Is it ok to criticize the church? Any observations or suggestions?

Non Adventists in Adventist Pulpits?

Non-Adventists in Adventist Pulpits?

It’s amazing what 4 little words can do.  They can pave the way for a pastor’s removal. They can make conference presidents drive hours to referee a business meeting. They can even change a religious community’s attitude about an Adventist church. The 4 little words, “Non Adventist Pastors in Adventist Pulpits” have done all that and more.

The battle has raged for years. It ebbs and flows. But don’t be fooled, it’s a sensitive topic in many circles. In his 2014 Annual Council address, President Ted Wilson discouraged Adventist pastors from inviting ministers of other denominations into their pulpits. He noted that this was his counsel and not an order, but he raised strong concerns against “ecumenical entanglements purporting to bring unity.” (1)

He’s right about the danger of pursuing a false unity. He’s right about acting as if differences don’t matter. He’s right about ignoring the important distinctives and contributions of the Adventist Church. But he misunderstands the motivation of most pastors for inviting non Adventists into their pulpits.  He also underestimates the benefits.

Listen. We should be cautious when inviting ANY guest into our pulpits. Adventist or non Adventist. But let me give 5 reasons it’s dangerous to prohibit non Adventists from preaching from our pulpits.

Because Relationships Matter

Ministers have incredible influence. Even in this age of suspicion and leadership distrust, pastors impact the lives of millions in our communities. As Christians, we are in the people business.  It makes sense for us to establish relationships with people who influence people. When pastors forge friendships across denominational lines, they not only discover common concerns, but the potential for theological dialogue is real.

A number of years ago I was able to share my understanding of glossolalia – tongues- to a group of prominent Pentecostal pastors in Southern California. They initiated the conversation because they trusted me. I was a friend. And there is probably no greater sign of trust, than when a pastor invites another pastor to share the pulpit. I had preached for them and they had preached for me. All of them? No. Just the ones I trusted.

Because It’s Arrogant 

“Some of them (ministers of other denominations) who have rejected the light may be dishonest, critical and sharp…… but there are others who have lived up to the best light they had upon the scriptures.”  (2)

Interesting insight from Ellen White over 130 years ago. Spoiler alert! Adventism is not the only faith community that trusts and believes the word of God.

  • Adventists are not the only ones who love Jesus.
  • Adventists are not the only ones who believe in holiness
  • Adventists are not the only ones who believe in the Sabbath.
  • Adventists are not the only ones who believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ.
  • Adventists are not the only ones who believe that worship can get out of hand

A quick glance at our fundamental beliefs reveals very little that Adventists believe that is not shared by most mainline denominations. Our history and theology have a prominent Methodist influence. When a godly minister of another denomination preaches on a belief we share, it’s a blessing.

Because It’s Dangerous

Something interesting happens when the only voices you hear are familiar voices.  You don’t realize it, but you go through life talking to yourself.  You live in an echo chamber. You say something and the words come right back at you. No opposition. No contradiction. No change. That’s dangerous!

Adventists face the dangers of living in a bubble. We have our own everything. Adventist academies. Adventist universities. Adventist television.  Adventist music. Adventist hotdogs and ham! But its’ difficult to see the problem when the problem is you. Outsiders can be our salvation if they help us appreciate our strengths and confront our weaknesses.

Because It’s Inconsistent

Saturday morning, Adventists across the world will gather in local churches and sing hymns that have strengthened their faith through difficult times. Some will complain that the problem with the church today is that we don’t sing enough of these great hymns. They not only inspire us but teach us. We’ll sing:

  • Amazing Grace
  • How Firm a Foundation
  • Lift up the Trumpet
  • When We All Get to Heaven

All written by amazing musicians. Not one Adventist in the bunch. There are certainly impressive works by Adventists, but not on that list. So, we sing non Adventist hymns with no problem. But we can’t listen to a non-Adventist preacher without a problem? That’s a problem. Hymns teach. Books teach. Teachers teach. Preachers teach. We must be careful and use our judgement with them all.

Because It’s Judgmental

For Ted Wilson, his opposition to non -Adventists in Adventist pulpits goes to the idea that we don’t want false unity and weakening distinctives.  I get that. But what I don’t get are Adventist Christians who claim that ministers of other denominations are false prophets- all of them. It’s insulting, judgmental, and frankly incorrect. Ellen White again. “Ministers (of other denominations) have been treated by some of our laborers very much as if they were heathen-and they feel it.” (3) It’s wrong.

Finally, for the local pastor who has the liberty to invite non-Adventists into the pulpit, be careful. First, you need to be super critical about whoever feeds your flock. Period. Adventist or non -Adventist. Some churches are not mature enough to handle a non -Adventist voice.  You shouldn’t allow your liberty to become a stumbling block, even as you are helping them to mature.

And then, everything rises and falls on the preacher you pick. I’ve been blessed over the years to hear giants like Gardner Taylor, Charles Adams, and Sandy Ray bless Adventist congregations. The tradition continues today with the likes of Ralph West, William Curtis, Charles Booth and others.  Frankly, I’ve had few problems with guest Adventist preachers in my pulpit, and never a problem with a non-Adventist guest. Perhaps it’s because I vet them all, and outsiders more carefully than insiders. That’s good counsel and an even better place to stop.

So what are your thoughts? Share this with everyone you can, because it’s a conversation we need to have.

The Man Who Saved The Adventist Church From Obscurity

The Man Who Saved the Adventist Church from Obscurity

That’s how Elder Charles Bradford described Dr. Earl Moore at his funeral last week, “the man who saved the Adventist Church from obscurity. He was right.

The Sixties were tumultuous years in America. Presidents and pop stars alike were being murdered in the streets. The assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin King only made a bad situation worse. Cities from Newark to Detroit to Chicago were regularly in flames because of racial tensions.

But as bad as it was in the industrial north, it was considerably worse in the deep South. But it was in the South that black leaders like Charles Joseph, Randy Stafford, and others fearlessly led their communities and literally forced the Adventist church to confront the civil rights crisis.

Earl Moore led the charge. A graduate of Oakwood College and Loma Linda University, He pastored and later became the Community Services and Health and Welfare Director for the South-Central Conference. Moore was an amazing activist who was always pushing his community and his church to confront racism, injustice and poverty.

He Defied the General Conference

President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty in 1964, but it was clear by 1968 that his heart wasn’t in it.  Martin King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s response was to organize the Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign demanded economic and human rights for poor people. They set up a 3000-person protest camp on the Washington Mall, and stayed for 6 weeks.

Dr. Moore, Dr. Charles Joseph and the South-Central Conference had created a mobile medical unit that was offering free medical and dental care in the deep South. They brought relief to thousands. They decided to take the van and offer those same services to the crowds gathered for the Poor Peoples Campaign in D.C. But when the General Conference was alerted of their plans, they sent clear instructions for them not to go.

When Moore and his associates got word from the squeamish General Conference that they should not participate in the Poor Peoples Campaign, they sent back a response that I’ll always remember.  Moore and his friends simply responded, “We’re going to Washington because our people are there.”  And with that simple but straightforward response, they did what they had to do.

He Put The Church On The Map

Despite his defiance, or better, because of his defiance, the Adventist Church benefitted. Pictures of that mobile unit that defied the General Conference are currently on display in the African American History Museum in Washington, D.C.  The van is also mentioned in the television documentary, “M.L. King: The Assassination Tapes.”

Earl Moore went on to become a recognized and respected civil and human rights leader. He worked alongside leaders like Nelson Mandela, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young and others. For 20 years he was the vice-chairman for the Concerned Black Clergy of Atlanta. He brought much needed attention to the church for his local and national efforts.

He Supported Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Throughout his life, Moore was a strong supporter of Christian education in general and black educational institutions in particular. His son Wayne was one of my roommates at Oakwood and he is currently an emergency medical specialist in Gallatin, Tennessee. As a matter of fact, because of the influence and encouragement of Moore and others, 10 Moores graduated as physicians from Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tennessee.

We Don’t Know Our History

There are few things that irritate me more than leaders who speak as though community activism began with them. It’s inaccurate and fundamentally disrespectful. And worse, it misses an opportunity to learn from those who worked under worse conditions than we can imagine.  The years that I spent listening to and observing Dr. Moore, Dr. Joseph and others, were as valuable as any university education.

We owe an incredible debt to Dr. Earl Moore and other Adventist civil rights giants. We can make a dent in that debt with recognition and respect. But more than that, we can continue their amazing legacy by making a difference, right where we are.

What do you think? What can we do to impact our communities?

What’s Missing From Adventist Evangelism?

What’s Missing From Adventist Evangelism?

ADVENTISTS!! That’s what’s missing from Adventist evangelism. Adventists. Everyday Adventists. Not celebrities. Not pastors. Not evangelists. Not paid bible workers. But normal, natural, balanced Adventists. Everyone I mentioned above is valuable to evangelism, but the most effective evangelists are not really “evangelists” at all.

Let me illustrate. The average life expectancy for a US citizen is 78.7 years. For men it’s 76 years. For women it’s 81 years. I would speculate about why women live longer than men, but my wife reads my blogs!

Now it is alleged that by the time most Christians come to the end of a normal life, they would have heard 5,000 sermons, sung 10,000 songs, prayed 20,000 prayers…. and led 0, no one to Christ!

That illustration has obvious flaws. There are holes in the math, differences in circumstances, and various definitions of evangelism. There will certainly be people in heaven who were influenced by our example. But it begs an important question. How many Christians can recall one person they have personally led to Christ? How about you?

Now there are a boatload of challenges to effective evangelism today:

  • Neglected prayer
  • Outdated methods
  • Distracted members
  • Hard hearts
  • Absence of Holy Spirit power

But the most glaring absence in Adventist evangelism-personal or corporate-is the local Adventist. There is not a program or plan or preacher powerful enough to do what God has designed individual Christians to do. God’s plan for outreach was surprisingly simple:

“But ye shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you, and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” Acts 1:8

Witnesses! From the point of our conversion we have been given the supernatural power to witness effectively. Witness is who we are, and witness is what we do. We need witnesses more that Bible instructors. We need witnesses more than we need mission trips. We need witnesses more than we need campaigns. We need witnesses, men and woman who are simply telling what they have seen and heard.

When we witness it increases our Biblical knowledge

There is an epidemic of biblical illiteracy today. Not just in the world but in the local church. And it has serious consequences. Jesus told the Sadducees in Matthew 22:29, “You are in error because you do not know the word of God….” Same for us. We pay a price for not knowing the Bible. It weakens our witness. It shatters our confidence. It undermines our faith

When we witness it reveals our Biblical weaknesses

I am convinced that most Christians won’t realize how little they know until they are asked to explain or defend what they know. Sharing your faith is not only a great spiritual discipline, but it reveals areas that we need to improve. I Peter 3:15 says, “Always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you the reason for the hope that you have.”

One of the most embarrassing experiences I had as a young pastor was explaining the spirit of prophecy to a Mormon couple in Franklin, Tennessee. I’ll never forget it. And I’m glad I won’t. Because the mistakes that I made and the lessons I learned serve me well to this day. I didn’t realize how confused I was or sounded until I was asked to explain my belief. That’s a benefit of sharing your faith.

Witnessing is living and sharing the good news of Jesus. It’s a lifestyle. It’s inviting someone to church. It’s praying for a co-worker. It’s attending a graduation or funeral or wedding of a non-believing friend. We should never expect a church to do what only individual church members can do. Ellen White puts it this way:

“Everywhere there is a tendency to substitute the work of organizations for effort…Christ commits to his followers an individual work—a work that cannot be done by proxy.” Ministry of Healing p.147

For many the summer is a season of outreach, mission, and evangelism.  This series will look at practical ways to expand the kingdom of God.

Question. Who was the person primarily responsible for you becoming a Christian?

The Adventist Branding Problem

What do people see when they hear Adventist? What words or images come to mind?

For many years I have asked this very question to Adventists and non-Adventists alike in a word association exercise I use in evangelism.

The responses have been fairly consistent: Ellen White, Loma Linda, Sabbath, vegetarian, health, and the lists goes on. I have asked this questions from Indonesia to Indiana, from Brooklyn to Bermuda. It is interesting to me that of all the responses I’ve heard over the years, I have never once heard the words, Jesus or love. Not once. It seems that we have a brand problem.

An entire cottage industry has sprung up around the importance of branding. Conferences. Seminars. Webinars. Everyone seems to be pushing the importance of a good brand. And what exactly is a brand? Well, a brand is defined a number of ways:

  • A brand is a concept, service, or product that is publicly distinguished from other concepts, services, or products so that it can be easily communicated and marketed.
  • A brand is a feature that distinguishes one product from another.
  • A brand is an identifying mark that distinguishes a product.

Similar definitions, but the one I like the most, I found in Forbes magazine. “Simply put, your brand is what your prospect thinks of when he or she hears your brand name!”(1) Exactly. So let me repeat.  The responses to this Adventist word association exercise indicate that we have a brand problem. And the problem with the Adventist brand is not that we are known by the wrong things, but that we are not known by the main thing.

And what is that main thing? What should distinguish us? What should be our brand? Well, Ellen White mentions it in a familiar quote. “Of all professing Christians, Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world” (Gospel Workers p.154).

Now I know that my survey is unscientific and anecdotal. I know that there are a number of ways to express the love of Christ. And I know that other churches and denominations might evoke the same kind of answers. But those churches are not my concern. It seems to me that over the 20 or so years that I’ve been asking this question, that somebody should have mentioned Jesus!

So, what do you think? What do you see when they say Adventist? Do we even have a problem, and if so, how do we change it?


1. McLaughlin, Jerry. “ What is a Brand Anyway?” Forbes Online, December 21, 2011

Kim, Kanye, and Adventist Gossip

Kim, Kanye, and Adventist Gossip

Oakwood has a Publix!! Well not exactly, but the food store did recently open within walking distance of the school. (The fact that I am so excited about the opening of a grocery store is either a reflection on Huntsville or a childhood issue I have yet to confront. Either way, there’s reason for concern.)

I was at the cash register, when a magazine caught my eye. There they were.  Kanye and Kim West, aka Kimye, on the cover of In Touch Magazine, the kissing cousin of the National Enquirer. The caption read, “It’s Over! Kanye Leaves Kim After Massive Fight.”

Now I have to tell you, I’m not a fan of the Wests, and I am even less a fan of gossip magazines. But a quick glance at other media reveals that the Wests are not only together, but they are building an economic empire that could rival a small country. Now all of that could change by next week, but as of today, they are together.

What’s the point? That magazine is trafficking one of the most profitable but destructive commodities in popular culture. Rumor. Gossip. It’s big business. Unfortunately, it’s no stranger to the church. The Adventist church at times seems to be a rumor mill of “Jesuits”, affairs, and apostasies.

Gossip, rumor, and tale-bearing have always been a problem in the church. James 3 makes it clear that the tongue is the single part of our anatomy that is totally beyond our power to control.  Of the 6 things that God is said to hate in Proverbs 6, half of them have to do with the tongue.

But destructive words have gone viral in recent years because of the explosion of social media.  A piece of gossip or half -truth, traditionally died before it could get across the church. Today those same words can get across the world with the click of a key.

We Are Christians On and Off-Line

This is a point that’s easy to forget. We are no less Christian when we type than when we talk. We should be always courageous enough to speak out. There is no shortage of corruption and dysfunction in the church to address. But Ephesians 4:15 instructs us to speak the truth in love. It’s not always what you say, but how, when, and where you say it.

And Matthew 18 is still our conflict template. The goal is quick resolution, with as little damage as possible. Problem with me? Come to me. That’s not working? Keep moving up the levels. The reputation of someone much greater than us is on trial when we handle conflict.

These are 3 basic Christian communication principles that I hope to master some day!

Watch What You Say!

Ephesians 4:29, “Don’t let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Proverbs 17:9, “Whoever covers or forgives an offense seeks love, but whoever repeats or gossips about a matter separates friends.”

Easy to type. Impossible to live- in our own strength. Whenever you talk or type, make it your goal to inform and uplift. There are appropriate times to challenge and protest. Actually, there’s no real growth without conflict. But fight the right way.

Another reason to watch what you say, is because you might have to eat your words later.  Things are always crystal clear until you hear the other side. And things are not always as they seem. On that same cover of In Touch Magazine, there was a photo of Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt together again, the caption,” Let’s Have a Baby!”

The problem with the Pitt-Anniston photo was that it had been photoshopped to make it appear they were standing together, but they were not. The photo told a lie. Christians tell lies. Sometimes intentionally. Sometimes accidentally. And if you’re not careful, you can pick up a lie or half- truth and make it live. Watch what you say.

Limit What You Say

Proverbs 141:3, “Set a guard over my mouth Lord, keep watch over the door of my lips.”

James 1:26, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”

The unfortunate truth is that most of us just talk too much. The permanence of what we post on- line makes the problem even worse. Every week we hear another politician, or athlete, or preacher forced to explain words they wrote years, sometime decades earlier. At times, the less one says, the better.

Popular society seems to define strength as conquest. Who can talk; cruder, louder, longer, and over the other. The nation is polarized around issues of race and politics and religion. But Christ reminds us in Mark 10:43, “But it must not be like that among you…” We are held to a different standard.

Do What You Say

As Christians we are agents of transformation. Our limited but well-chosen words must be followed by something even more rare and important. Actions. At times it’s easier to talk the talk than walk the walk.  Another reason to be careful what you say.

So, watch what you say, limit what you say, and do what you say. What do you say? Ever been the target of gossip or misinformation? How did you handle it?

Woke Worship: Taking Black Panther and Barbie Savior to Church

Dr. Jesse Wilson: “This is the best article that you didn’t read this week! I always get a little nervous when white folk use words like “woke”, but Steve’s been woke for a while. Good guy. Its longer than my blogs but worth the read. Read it and let’s talk!”


Woke Worship: Taking Black Panther and Barbie Savior to Church

Written by Steve Yeagley

Presented at the 2018 Andrews University Music & Worship Conference


My task at the Music and Worship Conference over the past several years has been to read popular art and rituals alongside the theology and practice of Christian worship. In this presentation, I will explore how the conversation about race in America has been shaped recently by popular culture and what that might say about race and worship in the Adventist church.

First, by drawing on the vernacular of “wokeness” and the tenets of Afrofuturism, I will reflect on black consciousness and the black imagination. I will highlight how these are manifested in the blockbuster movie Black Panther and how they intersect with the liberating and healing potentials of black worship.

Second, I will turn to the largely unconscious mode of the white racial frame and the colonizing nature of the white imagination, as illustrated in the satirical blog Barbie Savior. I will offer a critique of white evangelical worship, proposing that predominantly white Adventist churches recapture worship as a mode of social consciousness and prophetic imagination.

Finally, from my own standpoint as a white male, I will offer some practical suggestions as to how Adventist worship leaders can challenge the white racial frame and create spaces where a racially just future can emerge.

What Do You See?

In my seminary course on faith and popular culture, I show students a slightly overexposed black-and-white image and ask them, “What do you see?”[1] This elicits a variety of responses. “What if I told you the title of the picture is ‘Renshaw’s Cow’?” I add. Faces begin to light up with recognition. I then trace the cow’s features, and nearly everyone sees it. In fact, once students see the cow, they cannot “un-see” it. That’s because our vision results from a series of learned operations in the brain. We don’t see things; we “come to see” them.

When we look at black and white in America, what do we see? Conversations about race often rely on what each of us sees or does not see. Are we bound to view things differently based on our racial identity? Or can all of us—regardless of our skin color—“come to see” things as they really are as well as for what they might become?

These are the questions of consciousness and imagination.

Wokeness and Black Consciousness

As we think of what it means to be aware of race, both as a social construct and as a set of day-to-day consequences, the term “woke” comes to mind. It was first popularized in 2008, when R&B star Erykah Badu slipped the refrain “I stay woke” into one of her tracks. But it wasn’t until the Black Lives Matter movement began, following the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013, that woke took off as a watchword among black activists. For many in the black community, “stay woke” became a call to “stay conscious of the apparatus of white supremacy” and to maintain a “healthy paranoia, especially about issues of racial and political justice.”[2]

As with many terms that have gained popularity on the internet, woke has since been co-opted by the mainstream.[3] Nevertheless, in its original form, “stay woke” is much more than just a cool hashtag, a clever meme, or a form of virtue-signaling. It is a call for black people to remain vigilant and to take action as if their life depended on it—because it just might.

In 2015, unarmed black people were killed by police at five times the rate of white people.[4] The number of those who have fallen to police violence in the last few years only continues to rise, including Stephon Clark who died in a hail of bullets in Sacramento on March 18, 2018. He was holding only a cell phone.

If you are black in America, you cannot help but be aware of your race. In fact, you can probably recall the moment when you were first made aware of it. Maybe it was when you were called the “n” word or when you were directed to a congregation across town where you would “feel more at home.” Or maybe it was a series of micro-aggressions that communicated you were viewed as “less than.”

Black Panther steps into this context of prejudice and racialized violence against black bodies. In fact, its director, Ryan Coogler, made his motion picture debut with Fruitvale Station, a movie based on the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant by police in Oakland, California—one of the first widely publicized cases of police violence against unarmed black persons.

Coogler deftly ties Black Panther to this earlier work by situating its opening scenes back in Oakland. But this time Coogler seeks to raise other forms of black consciousness. While still leaving the plight of African Americans very much on the table, what he celebrates is black elegance, black brilliance, and black royalty, reminiscent of the Black Pride and Black is Beautiful movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

As important as this pro-black consciousness is—particularly in America’s current social and political climate—the movie’s script goes on to reveal an even deeper “wokeness,” not so much to systems that oppress black people as to questions of power and privilege within the African diaspora itself.

These questions arise from the very source of black pride in the movie—the fictional Wakanda, a powerful African nation hidden from the rest of the world by a virtual rainforest. Magnificently wealthy due to a deposit of vibranium, and technologically advanced beyond compare, much of the film turns on the question of what sort of nation Wakanda should become.

Christopher Orr, writing in The Atlantic, highlights three alternative visions of Wakanda that compete with one another throughout the film.

The first vision was upheld by Wakandan rulers of the past—that of “an advanced African civilization, thriving in isolation, untouched by war or colonialism.”[5] This isolationist vision was pursued, even when it meant turning a blind eye to the plight of other black people around the world.

The second vision, an engage done, is promoted by Wakanda’s newly-minted king, T’Challa. In one of the film’s many feminist moves, T’Challa’s love interest, Nakia, is the first to champion this vision. As someone who has provided aid to others in nearby countries, she questions Wakanda’s policy of secrecy and isolation. “Wakanda,” she tells T’Challa, “is strong enough to help others and protect itself.”

The third vision is harbored by the movie’s antagonist, Erik Killmonger, a Wakandan of royal descent orphaned in a run-down Oakland neighborhood. Trained in the arts of American warfare, he sees himself as “the vanguard of a global revolution to invert the existing racial order.”[6] His revolutionary vision would use Wakanda’s resources to help black people everywhere rise up against their oppressors. “The world’s going to change, and this time we will be on top,” he declares.

Ultimately, it is the engaged vision of T’Challa that prevails.[7] But not without a lot of black soul-searching as to what it means to possess power and privilege in the face of injustice and the suffering of others.

This level of consciousness is notable, considering that many white people find it difficult to even acknowledge the systems of power and privilege from which they benefit. While some of Marvel’s white superheroes have wrestled with the responsibility that comes with their powers, Black Panther goes even further in developing these themes, precisely because it approaches them from a marginalized standpoint.

From my own observation of African American worship and the role it has played in shaping black culture, I suggest that Black Panther’s heightened social consciousness may actually be rooted in the historically woke state of black theology and liturgy.

The fact that within hours of Black Panther’s release a Wakanda Seventh-day Adventist Church sprang up on Facebook and now boasts over 9,000 members speaks to how deeply this film resonated with the experience of black worshipers. For many African Americans, worship is the place where their social consciousness has been awakened, developed, and sustained.

Michael Eric Dyson, in his book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, says that when setting out to write about America’s original sin of racism, he could turn only to his days as a black preacher and to the form of worship. In fact, he structures his book chapter-by-chapter as a liturgy, beginning with the Call to Worship and ending with a Closing Prayer.

“What I need to say can only be said as a sermon,” he writes. “Sermons are tough, not only to deliver, but just as often, to hear. Yet, in my experience, if we stick with the sermon—through its pitiless recall of our sin, its relentless indictment of our flaws—we can make it to the uplifting expressions and redeeming practices that make our faith flow from the pulpit to the public, from darkness to light.”[8]

If, indeed, black worship has been a place for developing the social consciousness of an oppressed people, it has also been a place of sparking the imagination.

Afrofuturism and the Black Imagination  

Black Panther brought to the world stage a movement known as Afrofuturism. The term was coined by Mark Dery in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future.” Protesting the scarcity of black science fiction writers in a field otherwise dominated by white men, Dery asked: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?”[9]

Building on the work of pioneering artists like jazz musician Sun Ra (Space is the Place, 1973), Afrofuturists have set out to reclaim their future from the white imagination. They understand that activating the black imagination has far-reaching social and political implications. If black people can imagine their own futures, they have a much greater likelihood of realizing them. As Chadwick Boseman, the actor who plays T’Challa, said in an interview: “Being imaginative is how things change.”[10]

Nnedi Okorafor, author of the award-winning Binti trilogy, said that science fiction is all about the question “What if?” It is an especially powerful question, she added, when asked from the perspective of a Nigerian American woman, like herself.[11] That same question drives Black Panther’s narrative. What if there was a nation in Africa untouched by colonialism? What if it was left alone to develop itself and to capitalize on its own resources, rather than having them siphoned off to the West?

When Lupita Nyong’o, the Kenyan American actress who played Nakia, was asked about what Black Panther’s celebration of blackness—in all of its futuristic splendor—meant for her, she replied, “It’s so liberating.”[12] Her answer touched on one of the central tenets of Afrofuturism—the liberation of the black imagination.

David Betancourt observed:

Too often the stories Hollywood studios choose to tell about black people are rooted in pain, in suffering, in injustice. Perhaps you’ve seen them: 12 Years a Slave, Selma, Hidden Figures, The Help and Amistad, to name a few. There may be triumph by the third reel, but the often-historical premise is ‘Look how bad it was.’ Black Panther is about that rare thing—black glory.[13]

Black movie-goers responded with enthusiasm, showing up to the opening weekend of Black Panther in all manner of African finery. One reviewer, Nicholas Powers, wrote:

During a slow scene, I whispered to my friend, ‘I watched 12 Years a Slave but nobody got dressed as a slave for the premiere’…. It struck me that I was so thirsty to see Black Panther because I’ve watched Black people as slaves, criminals or victims since my earliest movie-going.[14]

Powers said that Afrofuturism is pushing back against that. “Instead of victims or problems, we create space-faring civilizations and the stars are close enough to touch.”[15]

Consider an early example from EC Comics’ 1953 “Judgment Day,”[16] a sci-fi story that confronted racism through an astronaut’s encounter with a segregated planet. Not until the very last panel does the reader learn that the astronaut is a black man: “And inside the ship, the man removed his space helmet and shook his head, and the instrument lights made the beads of perspiration on his dark skin twinkle like distant stars . . .” With a single line, the writer transforms the ebony surface of the man’s skin, which in any other circumstance in the 1950s would have placed limitations on him, into the endless possibilities of deep space and worlds beyond.

Ytasha Womack, author of a leading book on Afrofuturism, met with a group of fifth-graders on the south side of Chicago. She asked the students what they would like to see in the future, expecting answers about space ships and flying cars. Instead, all they could talk about was wanting to live in a world without violence. Womack was surprised that their imaginations had been hijacked at such an early age. “Once we could sort of peel back the layers behind what they didn’t want to see,” she said, “we could get to what they did want to see.” Finally, one girl asked, “So are you trying to tell us that we can use our imaginations and that we can create the kind of world we want to create and that we can change the things around us?” Womack said, “Yes!” It took thirty minutes of talking about violence, but “suddenly, at the end, light bulbs went off and there was this idea that they could have a sense of agency in their lives.” [17]

Afrofuturism not only seeks to liberate the black imagination as a form of empowerment but to release it as a means of healing, as well. Working with the themes of alienation and reclamation, Afrofuturists explore the future as a way to return to the past and recover what has been lost.

Powers reflects on the young Erik Killmonger who—now orphaned—watches from an Oakland playground as his uncle leaves in a Wakandan aircraft:

The boy is us. His upward gaze at the royal family abandoning him is [a] major trope in Black art:  We’re an exiled people in search of a home. Jamaican Rasta prayed to leave Babylon and go to Zion. . . . Malcolm X demanded we leave ‘the wilderness of North America’ and get our own land. Afro-Futurists made art that imagined a hi-tech, future home. . . . And now, we have Wakanda, a gleaming, sci-fi African city of Tomorrow. All of it repeats a long-standing, deep mythos that like Erik, we are strangers in a strange land. We want to . . . come home.[18]

This ongoing sense of alienation and the need to reclaim a sense of belonging is reflected in a poignant review of Black Panther by Kyle Howard. As a Christian counselor who cares for victims of race-based trauma, he said:

I’ve lost count of the number of saints who have told me that the [majority culture] spaces they belonged to left them with much doubt as to whether their lives mattered . . .For black Americans, [Black Panther] has been a long-awaited love letter from the people, cultures, and place they’ve longed to be seen and embraced by. It is a movie that concludes by affirming that black American people belong to Africa and that they are no longer a lost people . . . Wakanda depicts a world and a people for them to remember, a world they have largely lost their connection to. Wakanda isn’t a place of sheer fantasy; it is a place of healing where black people can feel and imagine a sense of belonging and affirmation.[19]

All of this has theological overtones, especially if you understand how the apocalyptic genre functions.

Black Worship and The Apocalyptic Cure

In his book City of Ruins, Dereck Daschke examined the “Zion apocalypses.” These biblical and extra-biblical literary works were written by Jewish exiles who lived in the shadows of the Babylonian and Roman destructions of Jerusalem and who suffered from all of the traumas associated with those violent extractions and erasures of the past.

Like many in the African diaspora, members of the Jewish diaspora lived with persistent, if not latent, feelings of loss and longings for home. Daschke noted, “’Home’ is a master symbol in the human experience, so all-encompassing that few fully comprehend what it represents until it is lost or altered in some way.”[20] He continued:

For exactly this reason, national traumas marked by exile, immigration, forced homelessness, and refugee status all immediately create communities where the symbol of the homeland takes on extraordinarily powerful qualities. Even generations later, the idea of the land left behind can remain one of the most salient forces in the culture.[21]

What apocalyptic literature does, then, is introduce exilic readers to an “imaginative, creative space”[22] where they can work through their losses and find their way back home again. These texts present an alternative and symbolic reality where the tragedies, injustices, and disappointments of the past and present can be transformed, moving the reader in “a healing arc from trauma to recovery.”[23] This is what has been called the “apocalyptic cure.”[24]

“In short, what apocalypticism offers,” Daschke said, “is an unmasking of reality—showing believers that the reality they experience is not ‘true’ reality; and fueling the hope for (and possibly the vicarious experience of) the symbolic transformation of the world to match the divine reality.”[25]

In many ways Wakanda serves as a black Zion. Pulling back the rain-forested, cinematic curtain that conceals Wakanda from the rest of the world, the director—who now plays the role of ancient seer—reveals to his viewers in the African diaspora a vision of both their past and future. It is a place where they are no longer alienated and cut off by racism and injustice, but where their true identities and potentials are reclaimed and realized.

The liminal and creative space of worship has the capacity to offer this apocalyptic cure. As a borderland between heaven and earth, liturgy offers a symbolic setting in which the past, present, and future can be reimagined from a new vantage point. The lingering effects of past traumas, as well as the ever-present losses that come from living in an inhospitable environment, can be processed through the transfiguring and healing rituals of worship. However, this can only happen if worship is tuned—as black worship has been—to the experiences and longings of its contemporary exilic participants.

That brings us to the topic of white consciousness and the white imagination.

The White Racial Frame

In his book, The White Racial Frame, sociologist Joe Feagin defined that frame as “a white worldview that encompasses a broad and persisting set of racial stereotypes, prejudices, ideologies, images, interpretations and narratives, emotions, and reactions to language accents, as well as racialized inclinations to discriminate.”[26]

This dominant frame is pervasive and deeply embedded in American society. Often more subconscious than conscious, it shapes our thinking and acting in everyday situations. It is culturally transmitted through institutions such as schools, churches, and the media and is reinforced by white parents and peers.

The white racial frame is made up of two main components. The first is what Feagin called virtuous whiteness. Think of it as a thick coat of moral Teflon. No matter what white people might do or say, no matter how offensive or hurtful their behavior might be to people of color, nothing sticks. White people continue to think of themselves as good and decent persons.

Feagin said this sense of virtuousness can manifest in several ways:

  • Entitlement: White people may feel entitled to what they have without understanding the ongoing injustices that often makes those things possible.
  • Superiority: White people may see European-American “civilization” as the peak of human accomplishment, and assume that people of color should simply adjust and assimilate to it.
  • Ignorance: Consequently, white people may not engage in self-critique or ask what people of color might know that they do not. This results in significant levels of ignorance.
  • Denial: White people also tend to think incorrectly or rarely at all about the devastating effects of systemic racism. This makes it easy to deny the difficulties that people of color experience.
  •  Color-Blindness: Finally, knowing that blatant racism is no longer acceptable, many white people retreat into a “color-blind” way of thinking and acting, so as not to have their biases challenged.

The second component of the white racial frame, according to Feagin, is the negative stereotyping of people of color. Think of this as moral Velcro. In the white worldview everything negative sticks to people of color, no matter who they are or what they accomplish. Feagin found this to be especially true of how whites framed black people, as opposed to other groups of color. Black people are hyper-visible to white eyes and are implicitly associated with things such as:

  • criminality, violence, and danger
  • dirt and ignorance
  • being ungrateful or oppositional
  • being unable to self-determine or self-protect and therefore requiring white paternalism

All of this means that many white people are—to one degree or another—racially unaware. Very few white people would consider themselves to be “racist.” Yet they often operate out of bits and pieces of the white racial frame. And because that frame is dominant and deeply embedded, it is often invisible to us, allowing us to ignore race or to imagine that we do not have a racial identity. This can produce what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists.”[27]

Consequently, it can be difficult for many of us who are white to talk about race. We simply do not have the self-awareness, vocabulary, conceptual frameworks, or critical distance necessary to think about our own racialized identity in any meaningful way.[28]

Barbie Savior and the White Savior Complex

With the white racial frame in mind, consider Barbie Savior. The satirical website[29] and companion Instagram account[30] follow an orphan-loving, selfie-obsessed Barbie doll on her missionary travels in Africa. As her profile states, “It’s not about me . . . but it kind of is.”

The whole thing pokes some serious fun at the “white savior complex,” which is built on the white-virtue framing Feagin described. The creators of Barbie Savior, who together have worked over a decade in Uganda, describe the white savior as “the wildly self-centered person veiled as the self-sacrificing saint.”[31] Their caricature is not meant to disparage cross-cultural work but to improve it.

The caption next to a picture of Barbie in a rudimentary classroom reads: “Who needs a formal education to teach in Africa? Not me! All I need is some chalk and a dose of optimism. It’s so sad that they don’t have enough trained teachers here.”

Another post features Barbie taking a bedside selfie with an African child: “Today I sacrificed my daily beauty regimen to visit the local ‘hospital’ (if you can even call it that!) . . . It provided me the perfect opportunity to snap some selfies with the less fortunate.”

In yet another entry she poses in a shantytown, handbag slung over her shoulder: “Just taking a #slumfie amidst this dire poverty and need. Feeling so #blessed and #thankful that I have so much more than this!”

While Barbie Savior may use all the latest social media tools, her thinking is anything but new. “The attitude that Africa needs to be saved from itself, by Westerners, can be traced back to colonialism and slavery,”[32] say the blog’s creators. As Teju Cole famously tweeted in response to the “Kony 2012” campaign, “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”[33] This contradiction is made possible by a merging of white superiority and white sentimentality; the latter providing moral cover and psychic relief for the former.

White sentimentality is what James Baldwin called “the mask of cruelty.”[34] Whether taking the form of pity, piety, paternalism, or nostalgia, “sentimentality offers an escape from the difficult conclusions that must come from honest scrutiny of social reality.”[35] By retreating into emotional sincerity and idealism, white people not only attempt to conceal racial injustices but shun the commitment and sacrifice required to address them.

Out of this sentimentality and lack of social consciousness grows the white imagination.

The White Imagination and Evangelical Megachurches

As white people, our way of conceiving and moving into the future has often been filled with primitive peoples and alien bodies to be conquered, exploited, civilized, and assimilated. It is difficult to speak about the white imagination without talking about its colonizing tendencies.

In the white imagination we are all being carried along by a giant Carousel of Progress, while Disney’s upbeat lyrics play in the background: “There’s a great, big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day. There’s a great, big beautiful tomorrow, and tomorrow’s just a dream away.”[36] However, in reality the carousel of American progress has always turned at great expense, fulfilling some dreams while denying others.

In his essay “The Would-Be Wakanda,” Euware Osayande noted that Black Panther’s utopia is reminiscent of the newly-independent Congo in the early 1960s, whose democratic ambitions were quickly crushed by European and American interests in the region. He then pointed to a cruel paradox:

Buried in the red clay soil of the Congo lies an assortment of the most sought-after metals and minerals on the planet. [They are] valued at a staggering 24 trillion dollars, enough wealth to solve the problem of poverty throughout the world, let alone in Africa, yet the Congolese people are one of the poorest on the planet.

This crisis of development does not originate in a lack of initiative on the part of the people . . . It was a condition of colonialism.[37]

White colonizers have not only sought to control territories and extract their resources but to inhabit people’s imaginations, as well. This is the project of cultural hegemony. It is an attempt to persuade subordinates to embrace and live within the colonizer’s imagination as if it were their own, even if that vision is not within their best interests. Hegemony is the stuff of empire-building, and it can happen even in the context of churches and their worship.

Over the last decade or so, there have been an increasing number of attempts by evangelical megachurches to expand their territory by diversifying their congregations, if not their praise and worship bands. Some have even planted multiracial urban campuses beyond the borders of white suburbia.

No doubt, many of these have been good-faith efforts to become more inclusive. But the white imagination being what it is, there has always been the possibility that a colonizing mindset might take over; a risk that white churches might seek black bodies in the pews, but not welcome black minds and imaginations.

A 2015 study of multi-racial congregations published in Sociology of Religion found that most multiracial churches, despite their potential to bridge racial differences and promote cross-race relationships, actually leave the white racial frame intact. Such churches, often relying on a “united by faith” message, are more likely to perpetuate an individualist account of racial inequality and less likely to confront the structural elements of racism that are of concern to many Black Americans.[38]

The disjuncture between the liberating imagination of black evangelicals and the colonizing imagination of white evangelicals began to intensify after the events in Ferguson. As the black body count continued to rise across the country, it became apparent that black lives—at least in their totality—did not really matter in predominantly white evangelical congregations.

For Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae, it was a wake-up call. Since his debut album in 2004, he had gained a large following in white evangelical circles. However, he eventually realized that success came with conditions. Evangelicals were happy to appropriate his black, urban sound as long as it was promoting a white gospel. But when Lecrae decided to return to his black roots and use that gospel lens to authentically address black concerns, his white fan-base melted away. Concerts that once drew 3000 now saw only a few hundred in attendance.

Lecrae explained the situation on the Truth’s Table podcast:

I’m the son of a mother who was, who is very pro-black . . . this is who I was at my core. And then when I became a believer, I guess I was taught—whether consciously or subconsciously—to lay all that aside for Jesus . . . When Michael Brown was murdered, I just assumed that all Christians felt the way that I did—“This is terrible!”—you know? Like, “This is horrible.” So I just put it out there. “Hey guys, isn’t this bad?” And man, you would have thought that I had just said that Jesus wasn’t real . . . The visceral attacks that came my way were like a shock to my system, and it was like an awakening.[39]

Some accused Lecrae of being divisive, others told him to stick to the gospel. In 2017, Lecrae dropped a new album that included these lines:

I will not oblige to your colonized way of faith \ My Messiah died for the world, not just USA… \ They say, “‘Crae, you so divisive, shouldn’t be a Black church” \ I say, “Do the math, segregation started that first!” \ Hey, you want unity? Then read a eulogy \ Kill the power that exists up under you and over me.[40]

Lecrae’s departure from white evangelicalism was only the beginning. After the 2016 election, with over 80% of white evangelicals supporting a presidential candidate who had been openly racist during the campaign and into his presidency, the wheels came off the welcome wagon.

In March of 2018, the New York Times ran a piece titled, “A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches.” It reported that while some multiracial churches continue to thrive, for some black worshipers the clock had run out:

Black congregants…had already grown uneasy in recent years as they watched their white pastors fail to address police shootings of African-Americans. They heard prayers for Paris, for Brussels, for law enforcement; they heard that one should keep one’s eyes on the kingdom, that the church was colorblind, and that talk of racial injustice was divisive, not a matter of the gospel.[41]

Then came the election.

It said, to me, that something is profoundly wrong at the heart of the white church,” said Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a professor of practical theology. “We were willing to give up our preferred worship style for the chance to really try to live this vision of beloved community with a diverse group of people. That didn’t work.[42]

She ended up leaving the white-majority church where she had been on staff.

Everything we tried is not working,” said Michael Emerson, the author of “Divided by Faith,” a seminal work on race relations within the evangelical church. “The election itself was the single most harmful event to the whole movement of reconciliation in at least the past 30 years,” he said. “It’s about to completely break apart.”[43]

Reclaiming the Prophetic Imagination in Worship

So where do we go from here?

It might be helpful if we turned to the work of theologian Walter Brueggemann and learned to distinguish between what he identified as the “royal consciousness” and the “prophetic imagination.”

According to Brueggemann, the royal consciousness, as it appears in Scripture, is marked by affluence (focusing on consumption rather than covenant justice), oppressive social policy (establishing hierarchies that silence poor and marginalized groups), and static religion (opposing God’s essential freedom in lieu of religious structures controlled by those in power). As dominant institutions, mostly white churches are particularly prone to adopting this sort of status-quo consciousness, with the result of limiting God’s opportunities to challenge and change the church.

Alternatively, Brueggemann said that the prophetic imagination “is capable of enabling us to live inside God’s imagination.”[44] This implies opening ourselves up to a future beyond our control, subject to the immeasurable excess and freedom of the divine imagination (Ephesians 3:20). That imagination called upon slaves and pregnant women to topple the privileged and powerful. It compelled Jesus to stand up in the midst of the synagogue and announce good news for the poor, freedom for the prisoners and the oppressed, and recovery of sight for the blind (Luke 4:16-21). Living within God’s imagination requires us to surrender our institutionalized notions of who God is and how He operates, and open our lives to the disruptive “new thing” He wants to accomplish in and among us (Isaiah 43:19-21).

How might this prophetic imagination be exercised within the context of the white racial frame and predominantly white worship? Here are a few suggestions for worship leaders, with help from blogger Brandi Miller.[45]

To begin, it may be appropriate to step back and realize that not all racial problems can be fixed simply by coming together—even in worship. Of course, there is a lot to be gained by developing cross-race relationships. But if white believers are not willing to work on their own racial identity development (becoming aware of their role in a racist society and taking responsibility to dismantle it), any attempt at integration is going to eventually deteriorate.

So my first suggestion would be to educate yourself. De-colonize your mind. Engage with books, documentaries, black film, music, and art. Get into spaces where you are learning from people who come from historically marginalized perspectives, in order to challenge dominant ways of thinking. Attend lectures, concerts, and churches where you can be under the tutelage of someone who is not white and male.

Second, close the empathy gap. All of that knowledge will be but a clanging cymbal, if you don’t really care for others. Learn to empathize with those whose experiences differ widely from our own. Acknowledge that every person’s story is valid and worthy of your attention. The incarnational pattern of the gospel should be a signal to Christians that the only way to love someone else is to identify deeply with them in their context and on their terms.

Third, become self-aware. You might be knowledgeable and caring, but without self-awareness you risk going into situations like a wrecking ball. If you are white, have you thought about your own racial identity? How does that play out in your daily life? What can you do to mitigate any unfair advantages you may have received? Miller says “If we don’t understand the ramifications of how we enter spaces [like worship], how we are viewed, and how our lives and experiences differ from those around us . . . we will end up harming people by our lack of awareness.”[46]

Fourth, empty yourself. This is how Jesus handled His own divine privilege. He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:10). The call to imitate Christ’s self-emptying is particularly important for white Christians who wish to engage in the work of racial healing. While you may not be able to prevent the racializing of your identity, you can choose to deconstruct it by taking radical steps that demonstrate you value people of color above yourself and that you are looking to their interests over your own (Philippians 2:3-4).

Fifth, break the silence. The silence of white Christians has been deafening and, to a large extent, is responsible for the lack of racial healing in the church today. To be clear, engaging in the race conversation does not mean speaking for black people. Rather, it entails speaking frankly as a white person about the invention of the white race in America, about the role white Christianity has played in the history of racial oppression, about the ongoing injustices perpetuated within America’s white racial frame, and about practical, gospel-infused steps white Christians can take to address those wrongs.

Sixth, tell many stories. Does your worship service perpetuate limited or limiting narratives about people of color? In “The Danger of a Single Story,” novelist Chimamanda Adichie told her TED audience, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”[47] The imaginative space of worship must be populated by many voices and many stories if our churches are to become a “house of prayer for all people” (Isaiah 56:7).

Finally, take action. Wokeness without works is dead. Miller observes, “Activism is the external work of transforming or overthrowing the systems we critique. It is one thing to be woke in your mind and online, but another thing completely to fight for justice in your everyday life, neighborhood, and relationships.”[48] Our worship services may be diverse and aware on every level, but if as individuals and a congregation we are not stepping up to interrupt the injustices that exist in our communities, then our worship has fallen short of the mark, as the prophets would surely attest (Isaiah 58:2-10; Amos 5:21-24).

It is my prayer that, as more predominantly white congregations do the work of becoming educated, empathetic, self-aware, humble, outspoken and active, God will open up a more racially just church and future for us all.

Black Panther And The “Problem” Of Black Conferences

Black Panther and the “Problem” of Black Conferences

Black Panther has inspired amazing interest in black consciousness, self-determination, and all- things African. For many, it wasn’t enough to buy a ticket to the movie, they bought entire African-inspired outfits, and posed for pictures in front of life-sized Black Panther posters. It was an event.

But I noticed something interesting as I read comments from several Adventists who attended Black Panther. It seems that a number of people who took pride in Black Panther have problems with black (Regional) conferences. Interesting. There’s seems to be a disconnect here.

How can you applaud black self-determination in a movie and criticize that same black self -determination in the church? How can you applaud black ingenuity and black invention and black institutions in a movie and not support them in the church?

Regional conferences were formed in the Adventist Church in 1944, at a time when the church and country refused blacks full participation. Their growth over the years is nothing short of a miracle. Stanford Economist Henry Felder noted that between 1945 and 2008, the Adventist church in North American grew 242%. But the growth in Regional Conferences over that same period was 1059%. Amazing!

But Regional Conferences have become a “problem” for some in the church because they seem divisive and dated. Doesn’t Christ want us all to worship together? Haven’t we reached the point where black and white conferences are unnecessary? As I often say, this is a blog and not a paper. The issues of Regional Conferences and missional structures and Adventist ecclesiology are far too complex to be handled in 1000 words, but let me share some comments and you can share yours.

Regional and State Conference are BOTH Multicultural

It is a passion of this present generation. The desire for different cultures to work and worship together. Well, it’s the reality of both Regional and State conferences. They are open and welcoming to all cultures, and cultures across the spectrum are represented.

Now the labels might be a bit confusing if your assumption is that State=White and Regional=Black, because things have changed. If you attend a camp-meeting in the Greater New York Conference, a State conference, you’ll probably see fewer white faces than in some Regional Conferences. It’s rapidly approaching the same situation in the Florida Conference, the Potomac Conference, and other State conferences. It’s already the case for State conferences in all of the major urban areas: Atlanta, Orlando, New York, Chicago, etc.

Here’s the thing. If your passion is desegregation, then you’ll be happy to know that all State and Regional Conferences are open and inviting to all. But if integration is your passion, not so much. People continue to choose to worship in their own ethnic and cultural groups, regardless of conference affiliation. Why is that? This blog’s not long enough.

The “Colonizers” Are Back!

The rumor was that our racial problems were over when we finally elected a black president. “Post racial” was the term. But there was a backlash during the Obama presidency and a total collapse with the election of Donald Trump. Now the rate of hate crimes has exploded, frat boys are marching with tiki torches, Muslims are demonized, and the “other” could be anyone from a white liberal to a black professional.

“Colonizers” Come To Church

As amazing as Regional Conferences have been, they weren’t what Black Adventists requested in 1941. They requested full integration and participation- and they were denied. Why? Because there’s no racism like religious racism. Then and now. There were two organizations that gave Donald Trump 83% support in the 2016 election – The Ku Klux Klan and white evangelical Christians.

And frankly, if you look up the word “colonizers” in the dictionary, you might find a picture of the Adventist church. Why? Because you can’t fix a problem that you refuse to face.

Colonizers Offer Suggestions, Not Sacrifice

Some suggest closing Regional Conferences because they “duplicate structure.” Now, State Conferences and Regional Conferences are both legitimate church structures. Both welcome everyone. Both advance the mission of the church. But an argument can be made that Regional Conferences do it more efficiently.

9 Regional Conferences cover the same territory as 42 State Conferences. Historically, they have done more and grown faster for less.  So, if duplication is the problem, then some State Conferences should be first in line to be closed. And if we’re talking mergers, why not merge the low performing State Conference into the local Regional Conference?  But that’s rarely the discussion. Why?  Because it’s easy to talk about sacrifice if you’re not making it.

“Colonizers” Come In All Colors

“Colonizers” do more than capture territory, they capture minds. I support the freedom of choice. Attend the church that allows you to serve most effectively. I pastored for years in Regional and State conferences. My churches were predominantly black in both settings. That’s my call. That’s my passion. I have no desire to pastor a Korean church or a Spanish church or an Anglo church, although I support those who do.

But I was always amazed by black people who would argue the value of multi-culturalism and the evil of black conferences- while continuing to attend black churches! It’s hypocrisy 101.

No one can advance the agenda of the colonizer like the brother that’s been colonized.

It’s All About Mission

I am a pragmatist by nature and a missiologist by trade. My mantra is, “form follows function.” I am for the structure that most effectively advances the mission of the church. The mission of the church is to make disciples-fully developed, fully devoted followers of Christ.

That is why I challenge both Regional conferences and State conferences. I support churches that are missional, and I support closing or merging churches that have demonstrated- over time- that they are not. Same for conferences. There is nothing- absolutely nothing- sacred about structure. They all need change!

But that’s me. What do you think?

Adventists and the Wakanda Weakness

Adventists and the Wakanda Weakness

By the time you read this blog, Black Panther will have reached $1 Billion dollars in box office sales. It was at $944 million world- wide on Wednesday, but it opens in China on Friday, (and I understand there are a few folks living there.) From comic book to cross- cultural sensation, Black Panther is impossible to ignore.

But it hasn’t been without controversy. The ancestor worship, blood rituals, talking with the dead, and astral projection have stirred up conservative Christians and not a few Adventists. Believe me, I think I’ve heard from most of them!

My feelings? It’s a comic book not a Bible. It’s literature. It’s art. It’s certainly not without flaws, but short of the Bible, what medium is? And even the Bible at times uses flawed parables to teach flawless lessons. If you don’t believe that, then you’re ignoring the Rich Man and Lazarus. If God uses imperfect people to communicate the gospel, he can certainly use imperfect art to teach noble lessons- and Black Panther is full of them.

I think there are good reasons for not attending movies, if that’s your choice. I think it’s more sensible to carve out some personal guidelines for movie viewing, whether it’s at a multi-plex or on your phone, and last week I listed 4 questions I ask media all the time

  • Will I leave worse?
  • Will I leave weak?
  • Will I leave bored?
  • Will I leave broke?

Works for me. Work out your own. But let’s move on.

It looks like the real star of Black Panther is not T’Challa, or Nakia, or even Okoye and her female fighting force. The real star of Black Panther seems to be the kingdom of Wakanda. It has caught the imagination of the world. Carvell Wallace wrote in the Washington Post, “What makes Wakanda so attractive is the fantasy of an African nation untouched by colonial influence.” Yes, but it’s more than that.

This fictional East African nation is intentionally hidden from the realities of a messed up world. The mysterious and expensive metal vibranium has made Wakanda prosper in a number of ways:

  • It’s the most technologically advanced nation in the world.
  • It offers free universal health care.
  • It offers free education from kindergarten to university.
  • It has one of the highest life expectancy rates on the planet.
  • It has discovered the cure for cancer.

No wonder Wakanda is the star of the show! But in spite of all of her strengths, I think Wakanda has one glaring weakness. It’s a problem for imaginary kingdoms and it’s a bigger problem for “imaginary” Christians. It’s the problem of isolationism. The intentional or unintentional decision to separate from the people who need you the most. What do I mean?

Well, Wakanda’s answer to crime, confusion, and “colonizers” is to hide. That’s an oversimplification sure to rile some Wakandans, but it’s basically true. They won’t even allow their youth to attend non-Wakandan universities. King T’Challa was a rare exception.

Wakanda is right about the dangers of the world but it is wrong about the solution. Like many Christians in general and Adventists in particular, the answer to evil in the world is to hide in plain sight. It doesn’t work for at least 2 reasons.

It Hides The Benefits

Wakanda is rich and in need of nothing. That’s a call to responsible engagement. That’s exactly the point Nakia made early and often to T’Challa, the Black Panther. Wakanda had enough resources to help itself and others. That’s not just a word to Wakandans, that’s a word to the church.

In 2011, a major health study of more than 11,000 subjects confirmed that African American Adventists defy health disparities and experience a much better quality of life than average Americans-white or black. Life expectancy was even longer. It ain’t Wakanda but it’s significant!

Our unique combination of healthy living and practical spirituality is desperately needed in communities of color. But far too often they don’t get it because we “don’t get it.” There is no impact without contact. We can’t be salt and light if we’re not connected.

It Hurts The Benefactor

Isolationism presents another problem. It creeps back to kill you.  You see it clearly in Killmonger, the villain of Black Panther. Killmonger grew up in the world that Wakanda neglected. They neglected him when his father was killed. They neglected him through his struggles as an orphan. He grew older and bitter, and he finally came home to destroy. They didn’t help, so they got hurt.  The Bible records an almost identical story in the life of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20.

When you live disconnected from the real world, you generally stop offering help and start offering criticism. You live in an echo chamber. You’re hearing voices, but the voices you hear are your own. No criticism, no accountability, and becoming more useless by the minute.

T’Challa got it only after he’d lost his kingdom and almost lost his life. Wakanda was almost destroyed by a monster of their own making. Will we get it before it’s too late.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it. Comments, cracks, critiques, and criticisms are welcome.

Black Panther and the Adventist Movie Myth

Black Panther and the Adventist Movie Myth

I’ve been tricked! Hoodwinked! Bamboozled! …I think that’s a word. After a time of research and writing, it’s dawning on me that Ellen White never actually said that our guardian angels “stand weeping at the door of movie theaters.” (Actually, she came pretty close. But that’s for another blog.)

Now why is that mythical but missing quote on my mind? Because it occurred to me that if it’s true, a lot of guardian angels have been patiently waiting outside Black Panther showings lately. The movie has become a movement. I’ve already seen it -for purely research purposes- 2…. ok, 3 times. It has taken the nation by storm.

  • Cinema Blend reports that it will be the most financially successful superhero origin movie of all time. In 2 weeks it has grossed $412 million domestically and $700 million world – wide.
  • Black Panther is the first mega budget project – super hero or otherwise- with a black director and predominantly black cast.
  • The stars and cast are everywhere. Chadwick Boseman, T’Challa, is on the cover of Time magazine this week. The feature article title sums up the phenomenon well, “The Superpower of Black Panther.”
  • #Wakandaforever has become more than a hashtag. Millions of people have adopted the mythical African nation as a symbol of everything from self- determination, to black liberation, to artistic excellence, to feminism for women of color.

But this is not a Black Panther blog. Believe me, I’ll be back for that. For a black academic/preacher, Black Panther is the gift that keeps on giving! No, this is a quick word on Christians as consumers of popular culture; movies, music, sports, you name it. In a world where we are bombarded by positive and negative sounds and images, what are we to do? How are we to choose?

Before I suggest what does help, let me suggest what doesn’t. Myths. Unthinking, unbiblical, unresearched urban legends. They do more harm than good. They offer quick answers to often complex questions. Here are 3 unhelpful movie myths.

  1. Adventists Don’t Go To Movies – Perhaps you don’t, but that myth is way off base. Adventists have visited movie theaters, in large numbers, for years. In 1975, Insight Magazine sited a survey that showed 48% of Adventist youth attended the movie theaters. And that was almost 50 years ago!
  2. Adventists Can’t Go To Movies – This is the myth that the movie prohibition is buried somewhere in our baptismal vows or fundamental beliefs. Not there.
  3. Angels are weeping at the door – I began with that one. Believe me, if our angels dropped off every time we dropped in to the wrong places, we’d have bigger problems than Black Panther!!

So, what is a Christian consumer of popular culture do? It would be a lot simpler if immediately following the book of Revelation, the Bible provided a comprehensive list of appropriate books, movies, and music. Simple, yes, Sensible, no. We don’t mature by having decisions handed down, we grow by exercising our powers of choice under the direction of the word of God and the influence of the Spirit of God.

The favorite colors in the Christian crayon box are black and white. We don’t do well with grey. But popular culture is full of grey areas that demand that Christians think, watch, and pray. Now let me be clear. I fully support those who choose not to attend motion pictures. I can think of several good reasons for that choice. But the fact is, most Adventists are probably already choosing to attend movie theaters. So instead of acting as if they don’t, we should probably invest our time exploring guidelines that will help them make wise choices.

For those who choose to visit the local movie theater, let me suggest some quick questions you can ask about the movie before you buy that ticket.

Will I Leave Worse?

Philippians 4:8 is a helpful measure, “  Finally brethren…whatever is true…noble…right…pure…lovely…and admirable. If anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think on these things.”  The Christian battle is staged primarily between your two ears. Motion pictures, at one level, are pieces of art. They have the power to teach powerful lessons in creative ways. But they can’t be divorced from the same standards you apply to other influences.

Will I Leave Weak?

This is a personal question. I Corinthians 8 and I Corinthians 10 are passages that illustrate an important principle.  What might be fine for me, might be bad for you. Your experiences have made you vulnerable to certain temptations that mean absolutely nothing to me. For instance, Black Panther was packed with noble lessons, but if you have a thing for bald- headed black women, you might not want to go. Just sayin.

Will I Leave Bored?

Life’s too short to waste on bad media or entertainment. Some of the most creative minds in media today are in the motion picture industry. Some hit close to home for Adventists. Hacksaw Ridge was the true story of Desmond Doss, an Adventist who was the first pacifist combat medic to receive the Medal of Honor. It got 6 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. If you’re choosing, choose well.

Will I Leave Broke?

That’s the stewardship question. Is it the best use of my money?  If you take a date to a $15 movie and leave broke, you don’t need a movie, you need a job!

Just a few thoughts on the Black Panther and consuming popular culture. What do you think? Did you like the movie? Did you see the movie? Is it safer to stay away from movies altogether? How do you choose what to see?