NBEA President Rev. Dr. Walter A. McCray
Today when the world hears the word “evangelical,” it often associates the term with a white, politically conservative brand of Christianity. Those within the evangelical movement, however, know the reality is far more diverse. In fact, defining the identity of the movement and sorting out its many theological and cultural dimensions has been the subject of countless books and conferences over the past 200-plus years. One group that has helped assert the existence and valuable contributions of non-white evangelicals is the National Black Evangelical Association (NBEA). Over the years, the group has provided intellectual community and spiritual support to a who’s who of Black scholars and preachers — influential leaders such as Tom Skinner, Tony Evans, Howard Jones, Clarence Hilliard, Carl Ellis, and Melvin Banks (founder of UrbanFaith’s parent company, UMI).
Next week in Chicago, the NBEA will host its forty-ninth annual convention. Rev. Dr. Walter A. McCray, author of several books, including The Black Presence in the Bible, has been president of the NBEA since 1999. UrbanFaith recently spoke with him about the history of the organization and why this year’s conference has a special focus on missions and Christianity’s African roots.
URBAN FAITH: Give us some brief background on the NBEA. How was it formed and what’s its purpose?
REV. WALTER McCRAY: In 1962, Black evangelical leaders prayed. They were praying in different locales across the nation. They prayed in California, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and other places. They prayed about themselves and how they could reach their Black communities with the Gospel of Christ. They prayed earnestly, and they prayed for their unity and cooperation in the ministry of Christ. Women prayed, men prayed, ministers prayed, laypersons prayed, young prayed, old prayed. And God answered their prayers in an exceptional way. He gave them an idea, and an organization through which they found Black Christian fellowship and empowerment to accomplish their goal — reaching the lost, making the wounded whole. So in 1963, in L.A., the National Negro Evangelical Association (NNEA) was born.
The co-founders of NNEA, which later became the NBEA “National Black Evangelical Association,” composed an impressive gathering of dedicated servants of Christ, who were committed to the Lord’s church. It was a small but powerful group that included the likes of Rev. Aaron M. Hamlin, Mother Dessie Webster, Rev. Marvin Prentis, Bishop Holman, and the host pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Rowe. Others joined this number at the inaugural convention: Rev. William H. Bentley, Missionary Ruth Lewis (Bentley), Rev. Tom Skinner, Rev. Howard Jones, Rev. Charles Williams, and others.
So, this new association of brothers and sisters, which also included some white believers, formed around three important values: fellowship, ministry, and networking resources. Their overriding passion was to win the lost, and to provide support for churches and leaders who were attempting to do this amidst the revolutionary times of the 1960s. It was no small task, but their God was not lacking the necessary greatness and power for the challenge! So they marched forward.
You’ve been leader of the NBEA since 1999. In your view, what is the state of black evangelicalism and the wider evangelical movement today?
The state of evangelicalism today, as intentionally labeled and defined, is one that has a changing face. Due to its emphasis on “diversity,” its face is changing from white to other ethnic groups. Yet, it maintains its centeredness and dominance in maleness, and White and Western culture. I recommend Soong-Chan Rah’s book The Next Evangelicalism for an overview of where things are going. The next evangelicalism in America is discoverable in immigrant and indigenous ethnic communities. Evangelicalism is growing in areas of the Southern hemisphere. Black evangelicalism, of the intentional variety, is undergoing redefinition along cultural and theological lines. There is a reawakening of Black consciousness and its theological applications within the socio-political sectors of White evangelicalism, and especially as a pushback against politically right-wing evangelicals. Some White evangelicals also are pushing back against their very socially and politically conservative counterparts. When it comes to the implicit side of African American evangelicalism, vis-à-vis the Black Church, we see a state of flux, wherein traditional Black Christian faith, amidst pressing social challenges, is grasping to reconnect with the core cultural and social values of their African-descended peoples.
I believe Intentional Black evangelicalism must wed with implicit Black evangelicalism to serve the best interest of African American people, and to fulfill our divine purpose in God’s world. This is something that I explore in my next book, Pro-Black, Pro-Christ, Pro-Cross: African-Descended Evangelical Identity.
The annual convention convenes next week. Could you tell us a little bit about what you have in store for those who attend?
The theme is “Looking Black to Move Forward: Reclaiming Our Heritage, Fulfilling Christ’s Mission” (Psalm 68:31). This is our second meeting of a two-year emphasis on missions. We will emphasize looking back into our past, so that we can see how God has historically used Black people in His redemptive work. We will also look into our present so that we can appreciate the Black spiritual contributions and other resources that the Lord has placed at our disposal to do His work. We have jam-packed our program with a wealth of speakers, and topics that can benefit local Black communities, as well as Africa and other places to which Christ calls us to serve.
Could you talk a little bit about the African American church’s relationship to local and global missions?
The African American church needs more intentional involvement in missions. Pressing needs among Black Americans have served to capture the focus of our churches — sometimes to the abdication of our responsibilities of spreading the Gospel of Christ throughout the world. Our people must recapture the missionary fervor of Black churches and missionaries of previous generations. We must be both indigenous and international in our mission endeavors. For instance, we must work to redeem our imprisoned men especially and others from “the New Jim Crow” that Michelle Alexander talks about in her important book. At the same time, we must send bi-vocational workers to the mission fields of Africa to dig wells for clean water and stem the tide of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Then, we must rescue women and young girls who are enslaved in sex-trafficking. Black believers and churches have a “both and” responsibility. Validated “charity” begins at home, but it must then spread abroad in the true fashion of the divine love of Christ, whose giving and sacrificing continues to manifest itself beyond the sectors of one’s immediate group or culture.
The African roots of Christianity will be one of the topics discussed at this year’s convention, and I understand the theologian Thomas Oden will be addressing the event via Skype. Could you talk about the importance of this and what the church needs to understand about the church’s historic African connection?
So-called Black evangelicalism has existed for over two-millennia. Those roots are found in the Black/African peoples of the New Testament, and in the early African church of the second century A.D. and beyond. Tom Oden and the Center for Early African Christianity have been doing a premier, paradigm-shifting work in demonstrating, in the words of Oden’s book, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.
As Black peoples, we must look back to the earliest stages of the Christian faith to discover how God worked through and used African people and African Church Fathers in His work of salvation and redemption. We must discover how they wed their faith to their culture in ways that were positive and made tremendous contributions to the Christian faith worldwide. From the second century onward, the Christian faith first spread from south in Africa to north in Asia and Europe. NBEA’s Institute for Black Evangelical Thought and Action will explore these topics and more at the convention.
What else can people look forward to at the convention?
Prayer, fellowship, food, networking, information, celebration, book signings, workshops, preaching, teaching, mission-opportunities, and much more happen next week. We invite all: Blacks and non-Blacks, women and men, youth and young adults, pastors and laypeople, churches and organizations, professionals and non-professionals, missionaries and sending agencies, community workers and global partners — we invite all who desire to strengthen themselves in holistically sharing the Gospel of Christ with their Brothers and Sisters in the Christian faith. Together, we want to “Reclaim Our Heritage” as we “Fulfill Christ’s Mission.”
The NBEA convention takes place April 25-28 at the Chicago/Oak Lawn Hotel. Click here for more information.
If spiritual renewal breaks out in a forest and no American Christians are around to witness it, does that mean it never happened?
Pardon the paraphrase of the old philosophical riddle, but this probably sums up the thinking of many in the evangelical community in years past. But the times are a-changin’. According to Soong-Chan Rah, author of The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (IVP), if the American church is going to be a relevant participant in the future of global Christianity, it had better recognize the church’s new multicultural reality. And the future is now.
Today African, Asian, and Latin American believers make up 60 percent of the world’s Christian population. According to researchers, the United States and Europe will soon no longer be the center of evangelical activity in the world. With this in mind, Rah calls the North American church to break free of its de facto allegiance to a Western, Eurocentric, and white American mindset and to embrace a new evangelicalism that is global, diverse, and multiethnic.
Soong-Chan Rah is a pastor, theologian, and activist who has (how to put this lightly?) ruffled a lot of feathers over the years by calling attention to issues of racism and cultural insensitivity in the evangelical community. Those familiar with the Rickshaw Rally incident and the Zondervan/Youth Specialties controversy, both covered in his book, will know exactly what we’re talking about. But his passion for reform is surpassed by his compassion and concern for the health of the church.
For years Rah led Cambridge Community Fellowship Church, an urban, multiethnic, post-modern congregation in the Boston area. Now a professor at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, he has inspired many a spirited discussion among Christians with The Next Evangelicalism, a book he confesses is intended to provoke its readers. One Christian radio station abruptly canceled its interview with Rah on the day of the broadcast after the host took a closer look at the book.
Rah doesn’t pull any punches in his critiques of the evangelical movement, but he hopes any discomfort he creates will motivate his readers to pursue positive change. He recently responded to questions from UrbanFaith readers.
How do you respond to those who suggest that your challenges to the church do more harm than good?
Soong-Chan Rah: I understand that this is a challenging topic for American Christians, and I know that I can come across sometimes as pretty intense about these issues. I am concerned that some folks will dismiss my book as an angry rant or will consider it to be excessively critical. I state early on that my intention is the reform of the church, rather than the downfall of the church. My hope is that we would bring out into the open the issue of race and racism in the American church — particularly given the changes in the demographics of American Christianity.
Practically speaking, do you think the strong tone and language of your book will change the mind of someone who isn’t already passionate about diversity in the church?
One of the questions I often grapple with as a pastor and as a professor is, how do people change? How do they grow? Particularly when I teach a course on discipleship, this question seems to emerge repeatedly. My theory on spiritual growth is that growth does not occur without the combination of two factors: the creation of a safe place coupled with the introduction of discomfort. Having just one of the two factors is not sufficient for growth. If you only create a safe place, you can become too comfortable and feel no need to change and grow. If you only have the presence of discomfort, you generate too much stress to allow for growth. Both a safe place and discomfort must exist to move towards growth. My book is an attempt to introduce a bit of discomfort to the overly comfortable culture of American evangelicalism.
Won’t ethnic-specific churches suffer from becoming multicultural, particularly those that serve immigrant populations?
I don’t hold the position that all churches in the United States have to be multiethnic. I believe that there is still a place for ethnic-specific churches, particularly among the immigrant communities. The need for language-specific churches still exists. Racism in America still necessitates the existence of the African American church. We are still many years away from multiethnic churches being the norm in American Christianity. We don’t want to mandate that the church enter into an era that we are not prepared for. I would want the church in America to be prepared and moving towards that multiethnic reality. I think, however, that we need to take a hard look at what we are doing and what cultural captivity we need to break off in order to enter into this multiethnic reality.
On the local church level, how will minority and immigrant groups maintain the kind of close-knit community that gives them encouragement and empowerment?
Part of the success of the immigrant church in America is the ability to develop a strong community in the context of suffering and difficulty. Throughout the book, I talk about the “language of primary culture,” which is the type of personal relationships that many ethnic churches develop and maintain. I think the ethnic churches will benefit from interacting with secondary cultural dynamics (usually Western cultures), as long as their primary culture is not obliterated by coming into contact with secondary culture. Maintaining the positive primary cultural dynamic of ethnic and immigrant churches is more likely to happen if we understand these dynamics to be an issue of relationships and power rather than simply an issue of culture.
You seem to suggest a connection between the Korean/Korean American church and the African American church. Where does this come from, and why do you establish such a connection?
Actually, I’m not the first to make this connection. Theologian James Cone makes this assertion in the commonality of suffering that is found in the Black church experience and the experience of the Korean community. As a Korean American, I do think there is a powerful common thread in both the Korean and Black communities in the stories of tremendous victory amidst great suffering and persecution. Both communities have experienced oppression (slavery, Jim Crow laws, racism, conquest, persecution, etc.), but both communities have experienced God in very deep ways in the context of great suffering. I talk about the contrast between the theology of celebration and theology of suffering in chapter seven. I think both communities have experienced the theology of suffering, and we have embraced an ecclesiology that reflects that suffering.
How do ethnic minorities begin a conversation amongst themselves about reaching out to other racial and ethnic groups?
I feel that dialogue across the races and ethnic groups is an absolutely necessary element of the Next Evangelicalism. Part of freeing the church from Western cultural captivity is the ability to move beyond a conversation that puts Western cultural values at the center or considers Western expressions of faith as normative. One of the ways we can facilitate this dialogue is by having a stronger sense of identity for every ethnic group. For example, it may be difficult for African Americans to relate to Asian Americans if Asian Americans are simply parroting the values of majority culture. Part of engaging in an authentically cross-cultural dialogue is the ability to define one’s own identity in the context of others. In other words, we need to know who we are if we are to truly talk to one another and move the conversation further along.
As I wrote the book, I realized that my style of writing might surprise some who had a particular assumption about the Asian American community. I felt that it was necessary to assert a strong identity that would provide a strong voice in the dialogue about what the next evangelicalism could look like. I hope that my book offers an encouragement to many non-white voices to assert a strong identity and voice in the dialogue — an identity that God delights in rather than seeks to wipe out.
You offer a blistering critique of the emerging church movement, suggesting that it is overhyped and lacks diversity. Is diversity possible in the “emerging” or “emergent” churches”? It seems as if Christians involved in that movement are extremely cultural bound, even more so than “mainstream” evangelical Christianity?
Yes, there is always hope. Any organization can change and adapt if they desire, and if they are willing to pay the price. There is also the importance of self-awareness. I think when there is a new thing that comes up, its advocates should exercise enough self-reflection to say, “We’re saying some really exciting things, but what are the unintended negative consequences of what we are saying? What are our blind spots and the areas that we need to grow in?”
What challenges or exhortations would you issue to the young “justice and reconciliation” minded folks, particularly those that are part of the “emergent” or “new monastic” crowds?
I think it is critical that we are willing to hear the stories and receive input from various points of view. I think even a new thing like emergent or new monastics can get stuck in a vacuum and not recognize that there are divergent voices that can contribute to the dialogue. I would encourage any new movements to consider and hear from disparate — and even oppositional — voices.
If you were a mentor to one of these young “justice and reconciliation” Christians and they asked for specific, clear advice on what type of church to attend and how to engage “the Next Evangelicalism,” what would you say?
First of all, I would encourage them to broaden their reading list. I would begin with works of fiction. I find that works of fiction tend to communicate the best insight about a culture. There’s a variety of novels that I’d recommend: Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease; Chang Rae Lee’s Native Speaker; Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake; Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner; Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. There also are a number of nonfiction works that provide insight into different cultures: Eldin Villafane’s The Liberating Spirit; One Church, Many Tribes by Richard Twiss; Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum; Yellow by Frank Wu.
I would look for places of interaction across cultures. Many of us may find these opportunities at our place of work or in our neighborhood — it’s probably our church and Christian world that is more likely to be segregated. I would encourage the building and deepening of healthy cross-cultural relationships in your current context. My recommendation has been to seek out mentors or spiritual leaders from a different ethnic/cultural background. There will be different contexts (single-ethnic churches that are of a different ethnic background from you, or multi-ethnic churches with a diverse staff) where you may be able to find cross-cultural mentors. These relationships should not be forced, but it really needs to have the foundation of a genuine relationship and commitment. In other words, there are no quick solutions, and it’ll take time to build the relationships and connections that will broaden your world.
It seems that often the conversation is how white churches can become more diverse, which can come off as an expression of white dominance or perpetuate the phenomenon of “white guilt” as a motivator. Would you suggest that some white and minority churches serving in the same neighborhood merge rather than having white churches glibly trying to be diverse?
The idea of a “merger” is a lofty concept that is very difficult to pull off. It is very hard to pull off the equality of power, or even an understanding of how power dynamics work, in the different cultural contexts required for a successful merger.
I think there needs to be a clear understanding of the reality of power distribution before engaging in talks about a merger. One of the most ignored aspects of any discussion on multi-ethnicity is the aspect of power. Those who have the power are oftentimes the ones who are unwilling to discuss the issue of power and dominance. Part of white privilege means the capacity and ability to not talk about the issue of power and the wielding of that power. I think one of the great things that a majority culture church can do in preparing for multi-ethnicity and diversity is to become more aware of white privilege. Instead of taking the lead and trying to fix the problem and create diversity, it might be better to be in a place of listening and preparation — particularly in the practice of yielding power.
1.) How do predominately white organizations (Christian colleges and seminaries, Christian magazines, etc.) become multicultural without somehow developing the sense that they — white Christianity — are the impetus for multiculturalism?
2.) How willing do you think evangelical seminaries are to embrace both contemporary and historical ethnic minority theologians and scholars? Will these theologians be in the primary fold of essential theologians, or will it be a tag on (i.e. solely having a course on African American theology rather than adding these theologians to the basic theology courses)?
Great questions. Again, the main issue is the issue of power. Are white institutions willing to yield decision-making power, theology-shaping power, curriculum-shaping power, culture-shaping power to non-whites? Will predominantly white organizations be willing to share power — and initially that will require a yielding of power — with non-whites? Any discussion about diversity will need to engage in a discussion about power. Otherwise, we reduce our efforts to tokenism.
For more information about Soong-Chan Rah and The Next Evangelicalism, visit his website: www.profrah.com. Special thanks to Joshua Canada, Joel Hamernick, and Ariah Fine for their questions to Professor Rah.
What led you to leave Boston for Chicago?
Soong-Chan Rah: Leaving Boston was a very difficult decision. One of the most difficult decisions in my life and it was certainly the most difficult decision that we faced as a family. We had a great community in Cambridge, and our family has always been committed to incarnational and local expressions of ministry. The church in Cambridge was a church that I planted, and it still holds a very special place in my heart. Aside from my family, I think planting the church is the best thing I’ve been able to on earth so far. I also had deep and meaningful relationships with peers and mentors throughout the city who were some of the most formative mentors in ministry.
A few years ago, I was offered the opportunity to join the faculty at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. It meant a significant change: moving from the East Coast to the Midwest, shifting from being a local church pastor to a seminary professor. I was beginning to sense God’s calling into a ministry that connected the academy to the local church. Being on the faculty of my denominational seminary would strengthen my ability to integrate my academic interests and study with my experience and heart for the local church. While it was an extremely difficult decision, I felt that the church was at a place where a new lead pastor would be a good opportunity and that God was calling our family to be part of a new venture at North Park Seminary.
What church do you currently attend?
Our family has always believed in neighborhood churches. I really don’t like the idea of driving a great distance to attend church (bad for the environment and bad for the family). We attend Immanuel Covenant Church on the north side of Chicago, about three blocks from our home (which is about three blocks from the seminary where I teach). Our home, my place of work, our kids’ school, and our church are all in the 60625 zip code of Chicago, which is one of the most diverse zip codes in the United States. We were told that our kids’ school has over 50 languages and over 70 different nationalities.
Our church reflects that diversity. The church at one point had been a Swedish immigrant congregation. Less than a decade ago, the church was overwhelmingly white. Now it’s home to 15 different first generation immigrant groups — including Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Korean, Chinese, Mexican, etc. There is no clear majority at the church. Furthermore, we have a joint worship with a Filipino congregation adding to the diversity. There is great diversity in the church and that creates many challenges. But we have loved the community at this church and appreciate the genuine effort by the church to reflect the diversity of our neighborhood.
Are you still a Boston sports fan, or have you transitioned over to Chicago teams? If so, Cubs or White Sox?
I’m very loyal to my sports teams. I grew up in the inner-city of Baltimore, so I’ve been an Orioles fan since I was about 8 years old and haven’t changed my loyalties in over 30 years. I still follow the Orioles via fan websites and online games. While I was in Boston, I developed an affinity for the Red Sox (especially since they gave me a free clergy pass to the regular season games). I’m thoroughly convinced that it was the prayers of the clergy members who received free tickets to Red Sox games that led to Boston’s breaking of the curse and their winning two World Series championships. In contrast, when we moved to Chicago, I wrote to the Cubs asking if they had a clergy-pass program. They replied that they didn’t. So it’s a 100 years and counting for the Cubs.