John C. Richards, Jr.
The Rise of Woke Evangelicalism
Updated: Apr 30, 2022
Been in the ‘burbs for quite some time,
But I still might hit up the gas station for some lemon heads and pork rinds,
And I live in multiple worlds, call me a hybrid because I’m so black,
A young theologian whose educated but still be at that Chicken Shack.
Where Are They?
A Pew Research Religious Landscape survey] found that only 6% percent of Black Protestant Christians also identified as Evangelicals. On the other hand, 76% of White Protestants identified as Evangelicals. That might make some people feel some kind of way. But as my friend Ed Stetzer says, facts (and stats) don’t care about your feelings.
This leads to the obvious question. Where are all the Black Evangelicals? Are we moving in a direction where Black Evangelical is as oxymoronic as the phrase “true myth”? Are we to a point where the term Evangelical is now synonymous with White? God forbid. I would argue that Black Evangelicals exist. They just don’t exist in the box we have created for them.
Let’s take a look at the historical shaping of Black Evangelicalism, where we find ourselves today, and where I believe the future of Black Evangelicalism is headed.
The Shaping of Black Evangelicalism
Historically, Black Evangelicalism has long tried to exist in a country where Black ancestors were treated not as men and women created in the image of God, but as property. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation and decades of Civil Rights work and advances, Black Evangelicals have lived in the long shadow of White Evangelical constructs.
Dr. Anthea Butler, a fellow Fuller Seminary graduate, adds some great context to this discussion. In [a talk ]she gave at Fuller at the dedication of the Pannell Center, she notes that “the history of American Evangelicalism suffers from the problem of whiteness.”
By that she means, historically, Evangelicalism has always been associated with our White brothers and sisters in Christ. Black Christians have always lived in the peripheral vision of White Evangelicalism—our stories remaining unearthed and untold.
The battle for many Black Evangelicals has always been the fight against assimilation—losing one’s culture for the sake of “gospel unity.” The problem for many Blacks? White Evangelicals are never asked to assimilate. Their culture is seen as default—an out-of-the-box factory setting that defines what it means to be Christian.
Bebbington and the Black Experience
What does it really mean to be Evangelical?
Many believe the [Bebbington quadrilateral ]best defines what it means to be an Evangelical. It identifies Evangelicals as Christians who share four main qualities: Biblicism, a high regard and obedience to the Bible as ultimate authority; Crucicentrism, a focus on Jesus’ crucifixion, Conversionism; a belief that humans need to be converted; and Activism, the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts.
Many Christians who consider themselves evangelicals would render a hearty amen to each one of those identifying markers. Here’s the rub. Evangelicals have diverse opinions on how those identifying qualities are lived out.
I would argue the diversity of opinions has not had an impact on what it means to be an Evangelical.
Why? Because White Christians have historically controlled the Evangelical narrative. After the Civil Rights movement, there was a movement toward evangelicalism that focused primarily on moral issues. For many White evangelicals, there was a concerted effort to focus on issues like abortion, the war on drugs, and other perceived social issues. For them, racial issues ended with Brown vs. Board of Education.
On the other hand, African-American Evangelicals still felt like race was an important (and primary) issue to address. They knew the battle wasn’t over. They knew that legislation doesn’t always bring transformation. The water fountains and signs may have been taken down, but our country’s sordid past still required addressing systemic issues that disproportionately impacted Black communities. From the start, White and Black Evangelicals were moving in different directions when it came to what it means to be Evangelical.
In fact, two separate organizations were formed to help “shape evangelicalism.” The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was founded in 1942. It was meant to serve as an umbrella organization, representing evangelical interests and views on a wide array of spiritual, social, cultural, and political issues. [Conspicuously absent] from past and current NAE membership are major African-American denominations and churches.
Founded in 1963, The National Black Evangelical Association (NBEA) was formed to represent the interests of African-American Evangelicals. Though the NBEA exists to promote “unity in diversity without forced conformity.” The BEA has done great work and I love its President, Dr. Walter McCray. But I would argue there remains a void in defining, convening, and resourcing Woke Evangelicals.
And I think it’s important to continue to stoke the flame of Woke Evangelicalism. Why is this important? I believe African-Americans are best positioned to embody all four identifying factors of the Bebbington quadrilateral.
Pew Research recently revealed that African-Americans as a group have the highest view of Scripture. A greater percentage of African-Americans also deemed [religion to be important] in their daily lives. (Biblicism).
As Dr. Butler notes in her talk, quoting Mark Noll, “Black Christians are the ones who have experienced the Cross most traumatically in American history, yet have not been included in the stories of Evangelicalism.” (Crucicentrism).
The Historically Black Church has thrived, survived, and been inscribed in American history. This history includes a conversionist heritage little told in White Evangelicalism. For example, AME founder, Richard Allen, was as much a circuit rider as John Wesley. Yet, Allen and other Black evangelism forerunners are largely ignored in most evangelism narratives and models. (Conversionism).
African-Americans and activism have become synonymous in our country for centuries. It was a necessary practice for a community experiencing injustices at every turn. An activism tethered to the gospel needs Black voices to make it authentic (and not black voices who assimilate to White Evangelical ideas of activism). (Activism)
John Perkins, who lived to see the shaping of Evangelicalism, was in attendance at the[Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern] in 1973 and signed the declaration. The statement was supposed to be the beginning of the recognition that evangelicals had been involved in racism. The statement sought to lead Evangelicals toward recognizing the pains of social injustice as gospel issues.
Even Perkins has recognized that the effort fell short. He recently challenged the term Evangelical in a [Wheaton chapel service] saying, “I had to [define evangelicalism]from the Bible…The mission of the mission is to know God and make him known…That to me is an Evangelical.” He spoke of the need for discipleship (which includes tough conversations on race). Perkins went on to say that this isn’t how mainline Evangelicalism presently identifies itself (at least in practice). He lamented that Evangelicalism is now more ideological than it is biblical.
We’ve already discussed what true evangelicalism means, but what does it mean to be woke?
Amid racial tensions created by national reports of Black men and women killed by police, a new generation of social justice pioneers emerged. These Gospel-centered advocates for change lamented the silence of their White Evangelical brothers and sisters. It was then, in my opinion, that Woke Evangelicalism emerged.
The term “woke” has been tied to the Black Lives Matter movement. The phrase “Stay Woke” has accompanied many thought pieces and social media conversations surrounding racial injustice, mass incarceration, and other matters that disproportionately impact minority communities. In fact, there are quizzes out there [to test how woke you are].
[Some White Evangelicals] reject the idea of wokeness as being too aligned with the Black Lives Matter Movement’s founders. Let’s be clear here. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t belong to the Southern Christian Leadership Council; it belonged to a people. In the same way, wokeness doesn’t belong to an organization (or website); it belongs to a people. A culture that has been awakened by the injustices happening around it.
Characteristics of Woke Evangelicalism
So what are the characteristics of Woke Evangelicalism? At the very least, I’ve seen Woke Evangelicalism defined by these five characteristics:
1. They Possess An Embodied Theology
Woke Evangelicals model the life of the Word made flesh (John 1:14) and work toward true incarnational gospel proclamation.
2. They are Actively Involved in Culture Making and Shaping
Woke Evangelicals blow the lid off of Richard Niebuhr’s [Christ and Culture taxonomy] and redefine what Christ Transforming Culture means.
3. They Live in “Orthodoxy Tension”
Orthodoxy, to most, was shaped by White theologians disconnected from the minority experience. Drawing from the positive qualities of much of that orthodoxy, Woke Evangelicals seek to add their voices and concerns to the conversation on what it means to be orthodox in sharing and living out the Christian faith.
4. They Have a Willingness to Disrupt Harmful Theological Constructs
Woke Evangelicals confront terms long used in Evangelicalism and point out their deficiencies to help move toward a more holistic understanding of what they actually mean.
5. They Possess a Willingness to Critique and Learn from Failures of the Champions of the Faith
Evangelicalism has long held prominent figures out as “above reproach” when it came to offering critique and learning from their failures. Woke Evangelicals are not hesitant to analyze and critique perceived champions of the Christian faith.
This list is by no means exhaustive. And I’m still processing the characteristics and DNA of this new, necessary movement. But it’s a start. And I’m hopeful this new movement continues to challenge the status quo.
I’m excited about the future of Black Evangelicalism. And I’m not ready to give up on the phrase yet. This world very much still needs to gospel. And I’m confident that no one has a monopoly on this Good News—*the evangelion of Jesus Christ*.
I believe Woke Evangelicals will be important to the future of effective gospel witness in North America. I anticipate some very tough conversations in the years to come. The only question that remains: How uncomfortable are White Evangelicals willing to get for the sake of effective gospel witness?