Bryan Loritts: Building Bridges—Part 2

How a diverse, reconciled church can lead us to a faithful future deeper than white evangelicalism.

In Part 1 of this interview, Bryan Loritts lays the foundation for understanding the stewardship of privilege in the context of ministry.

Given the racial and ethnic rhetoric that’s come up over the past year or so, especially in politics, many pastors feel that reconciliation in the church is moving backward. What do you think?

Well, while the numbers are trending upward, it’s deceptive. As I’ve said, we have more multiethnic churches, but they are monocultural. That’s missing the whole point.

Elder boards are a good example of this. You have to watch out for what I call “plantation politics” behind the closed doors of elder boards. Unless you get minorities who are really comfortable in their identity, you leave room for white idolization that shapes decisions and church direction. If you have minorities who are not really sure of their own ethnic identity nor comfortable in it, and you partner them with powerful white men in the name of Jesus, then minorities will give in when there is a difference of opinion. I’ve seen this happen so many times. You have powerful white men, godly men. They make good money. Then you have godly minority leaders who may not be on the same economic base as the white person. Now, that shouldn’t mean anything under the banner of Jesus Christ, but it creates a disparity in the room, a power imbalance.

Case in point. I remember celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Fellowship Memphis. In the black church, an occasion like that is a big deal. We celebrate it—even in ways that some people might find uncomfortable: checks are written, money is given, that sort of thing. “We want to honor the man of God.” That’s how the black church sees it.

But at Fellowship Memphis, nothing was done for me at first. I had to bring up the topic of the anniversary—not in any kind of self-serving way, but because I was genuinely curious what had happened. The issue was not that nothing was being done for me. The issue was why. We had white brothers on the elder board who don’t come from that kind of honor culture, and black elders who did. I wasn’t there in the inner workings of those meetings. Maybe the black elders brought up, “We should do something for Pastor Bryan.” If that happened, then they were shot down. But what I suspect happened was that simply they didn’t say anything. Why not? Well, now we’re back to multiethnic sharecropping—a black face, but the power is white.

White folks tend to run multiethnic churches. Even without saying a word.

So what do we do with that?

Again, white Christians, especially leaders, must be aware of their whiteness. They need to understand the power that it wields before any positive change can be made.

It’s the same thing for me in the role of a pastor. I operate out of a position of power, just by being what I am. In my younger days I wasn’t as attuned to it, and I didn’t realize how weighty my voice was. A lot of times, when I made what I thought was a simple request or observation, people interpreted it as a directive. I didn’t realize that the power dynamics that were at play meant that what I intended and what others perceived were very different.

If you’re a white person, and you walk into a church, join a church or exercise a position of leadership in a multiethnic church, you must realize that you are walking in with a perceived measure of power. Once you understand that, then you can understand sensitivities for being accused of stuff that really wasn’t on your heart.

A lot of what white people get accused of in terms of racism is a misperception of the stewardship of their power. The first thing is to flip a switch and realize that you’re white, and because of that, that you’re an image of historic power in our country. Try to steward that well. As best you can.

With that in mind, how can white Christians like me move toward empowering others?

The secret sauce is a bit disappointing: Do life with people who are ethnically different than you.

Look at Acts 9:43. That verse sets up chapter 10, which is going to be the “Gentile Pentecost,” the first major recorded outpouring of the Spirit of God on a group of Gentiles.

God is preparing Peter, a Jew, to take the gospel to the Gentiles, but he has some hang-ups. They’re ethnic barriers. Peter represents a community of the historically marginalized and oppressed who’s being called to steward the gospel to his historic oppressors: a Gentile Roman centurion named Cornelius. (My black eyes don’t miss that nuance of the text.)

In preparation for his encounter, God has Peter stay at the house of Simon the Tanner. As someone who is constantly working with dead animals, which Jews would never do, scholarly consensus is that Simon was a Gentile. For Peter to stay in Simon’s home would have been violating how Peter was raised. But what Peter doesn’t realize is that God is setting him up to be a proper carrier of the gospel. But in order to fish out his ethnic biases, God doesn’t have Peter read a book or go to a conference; he puts him in community with what Dr. King called the “beloved other.” Peter’s dream in Simon’s house reorients him. That’s in the context of relationship.

This is exactly what Reggie Williams gets at in his phenomenal book, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus. He describes Dietrich Bonhoeffer coming to the United States in his early ’20s as a bit of a prodigy. He’s graduated with a Ph.D. at a young age and comes to Union Seminary, part of Columbia University in Harlem, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s.

Bonhoeffer thought he was a believer, but in hindsight saw he wasn’t. When he gets to the States he starts looking for a church. All these white churches didn’t do it for him; he joins a historic black church. It’s there he hears the term “cheap grace” from his black pastor, he teaches a Sunday school class, he follows black leadership and immerses himself in the black narrative. I’m paraphrasing a little, but basically Bonhoeffer later wrote that this was his first experience of the gospel in all its vertical and horizontal implications. He did not go back to stand for the oppressed Jews without first taking a pit stop at the black church in Harlem.

All of us have to have a Simon the Tanner. All of us. It’s the only way.

What keeps you growing personally in this area? I imagine it can be deeply discouraging.

Well, what keeps me calibrated in this work are close relationships, especially with white people. I have great friendships across all kinds of ethnic lines. I enjoy them all; they are all “home.” I am as much at home with my mentor Dennis Rainey, who is a Jesus-loving redneck from the Ozark Mountains, as I am with my African-American godfather, Bishop Kenneth Ulmer. My wife and I vacation every year with a white couple who have become dear friends of ours. One of my great friends is the grandson of the founder of Holiday Inn. We couldn’t be more unalike. Whatever your image of wealth is, it’s him—but we’ve been Simon the Tanner to each other.

Whenever I’m tempted to write off all white people and wipe my hands clean—usually after seeing the reactions of white Christians to an event like Charlottesville, or the latest police shooting—the Lord taps me on the shoulder and brings my friends to mind. I am not afforded the luxury of writing off a whole group of people.

Proximity breeds empathy. Distance breeds suspicion. The real grieving point over all the way we engage divisive racial issues are the polarized responses of people of color and white Christians—you listen for a moment to how people are talking, and go “Wow. We don’t know each other.”

How do we build a multiethnic staff poised to be authentic and healthy?

We need to get the right kind of leader to guide our culture. Just getting someone of the “right” diverse color doesn’t guarantee healthy results. Why? Because there’s a difference between ethnicity and culture. No ethnicity is monolithic. Within every ethnicity, sociologists tell us there are different layers of culture.

How does that look in a church context?

In my book Right Color, Wrong Culture (Moody, 2014), I discuss three categories of leaders, based on their relationship to culture. I call them C1, C2 and C3.

C1s have embraced another ethnicity or culture. Like Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He’s African-American, but he is pretty white, culturally. I’m not being pejorative there or questioning his blackness. It’s just who he is as a character.

On the other end are C3s. They’re culturally inflexible. The Pharisees, who Jesus always clashed with, were culturally stuck. This is how Paul describes his journey prior to Christ in Philippians 3: “A Hebrew of Hebrews”—that’s culture. On Fresh Prince, that’s Will Smith:

In west Philadelphia born and raised,
On the playground was where I spent most of my days …

When he goes to the private school in Bel-Air, the producers had Will Smith wear his blazer inside out. That was their way of saying, “he doesn’t fit, and he’s not trying to.” That’s a C3.

What organizations need, at the highest level of leadership, are C2 leaders. They are secure in their identity, to the point that they can be culturally flexible and adaptable. They can go in and out of various situations, yet not lose who they are. Read 1 Corinthians 9. Paul says he is a Jew for Jews and outside the law toward Gentiles. That’s a C2.

Now if we’re astute, we notice that in Paul’s story, he moved from a culturally inflexible C3 to an adaptable C2 after he became a Christian.

What does that tell us?

That culturally flexible people are made, not born.

Paul tells us. “I have become … I have become … I have become.” One scholar tells us that this is the ability to get into another person’s narrative and to feel what they feel. This is why minorities are best poised to be C2s—and not white people—because they have had so much more practice.

You cannot be a successful minority today without spending a significant amount of time around white people. Show me any minority who’s successful by the world’s standards, and I’ll show you a person who can relate to our white brothers and sisters. That’s not a two-way street. You can still be successful as a white person and never have to adapt to minority cultures.

When I teach this, many whites think that these principles just have to do with minorities. But they have to do with every ethnic group. The problem is that most white people are C3s. You can’t flex, because you have been raised in an environment that caters to and favors whiteness, to the degree that you have never even learned to see your whiteness. Your cultural way of seeing the world and doing things is normalized and entrenched.

When I teach preaching at various seminaries to classes of mostly white students, I always ask, “What’s black preaching?” They all chime in. “What’s black theology?” Again, they have a ready answer. Then I ask, “What’s white preaching? What’s white theology?”

They have a hard time. And I don’t give them a pass. I say, “Leave the room in small groups. You have 45 minutes, then come back and tell me.” They stumble. Why is that so hard for them? Because we label what’s unique and variant, and we tend to not label what’s “normal.” But of course there is white preaching. There is white theology.

How do you mark someone maturing in that way?

One real sign of maturity is the ability to honestly critique your own tribe.

This is where I get in trouble with my African-American and minority friends. They put on pom-poms and cheer me when I speak truth to our white siblings, but we also have to call a timeout and end our own ethnic tribalism.

It’s interesting, right after that great outpouring of the Spirit of God in Acts 10, the Jews pull Peter to the side and say, “Wait a minute—why in the world did you do that?” They pretty much castigate him for relating to Gentiles.

I’ve been called Uncle Tom for leaving the black church. There are people who question my “blackness.” It’s laughable—I grew up in the black church, among the gatekeepers of the black church. But I’m constantly being asked by condescending African-Americans when I am going to “come home.” When am I going to stop this multiethnic experiment and return to the black church? But home is where Jesus calls you.

We need to speak truth to power. If we are in it for a paycheck, or to extend our brand, we are not going to speak truth to power because we’re going to be too worried about not getting the next invitation.

I’ve had white folks get up in the middle of my sermons and walk out. I’ve had black folks get up in the middle of my sermons and walk out. Because if you preach the gospel right, it brings equal-opportunity conviction. To use political language, Tim Keller is really right when he says that if we preach the gospel right, on some Sundays people will leave thinking you’re a liberal, and on other Sundays they’ll leave thinking you’re a conservative. You’ll catch it on both ends. That can be a lonely place.

So we need to speak truth to power, but we also need the courage to speak truth to the powerless.

Tell me more.

Well, this is gospel stuff. You have to construct a philosophy of ministry where you show people that diversity and reconciliation aren’t fringe issues, but that they’re tethered to the gospel. No one gets a pass on it.

Whenever I meet with pastors who say, “Listen, this is on my heart, but it’s not where the church is. How do I approach this?” I say, “Do not do a four-week series on race. Preach the gospel, and show that Ephesians 2 isn’t just 10 verses long. It has 22 verses. The first 10 are about vertical reconciliation, but the second half is about horizontal reconciliation. You have to show people that Jesus says that the great commandments are supposed to be vertical then horizontal.” The second is like it—“love your neighbor as yourself.”

It’s central: John asks how you can claim to love God if you hate your brother. The biblical understanding of “hate” was not what we think of today. It was separation and the indifference that led to that separation. So when Jesus says in Matthew 10 that you can’t follow him unless you “hate” your family, he’s not calling you to feelings of ill will, but to a new degree of separation, a new allegiance.

So when you have one member of an ethnic group refusing to do authentic community with someone from a different ethnic group, biblically, that is the kind of hate that John is talking about. And if that’s present, it invalidates our gospel.

That means we have to be able to connect the vertical with the horizontal or we miss the gospel. We have to show people that it is incongruent with Scripture to claim to be reconciled to God and yet remain unreconciled with your neighbor.

Does the surrounding world right now sense the hypocrisy that’s in our racial relations as Christians?

Absolutely. This is why I’m done with the term “evangelical.” I’m thoroughly orthodox, in all the traditional ways, but that name has become worse than meaningless.

And unfortunately, monocultural church has been a big part of the problem. Korie Edwards observes that homogeneous churches entrench racism. What she’s saying is that necessary instruments for our sanctification are people who see things differently. When done right, the multiethnic and multicultural church helps unearth our biases. But if you don’t have people around you who see things different from you, your political, ethnic, economic worldviews are only going to be entrenched. So as a matter of your own personal health, you need to be around people who are different from you.

But you need to do it in a healthy way. I tell my white friends all the time: Don’t just get into diverse relationships; get into diverse peer relationships. If the only people you’re doing life with are people you are helping, you will inevitably entrench the very thing you’re trying to combat, which is a patriarchal inequality. You need peer relationships with people who don’t need you.

Like me—I can actually take you out to lunch and pay for it. [Laughs] I have great credit. I own a home in the Bay. So yes, help people. Yes, adopt cross-ethnically if that’s what God leads you to. But you also need peer relationships with people who can help you learn how to do the hair of the ethnically different baby you just adopted.

We’re back again to relationship. What parting words would you have as encouragement for church leaders?

Do not bear the burden alone. Don’t try to shoulder the task of diversifying the whole church or the whole ministry by yourself.

First, you have to inspire people. It’s simplistic: If people are still coming to church out of relationships, then our sanctuaries reflect our dinner tables. So if you want a diverse sanctuary, then you have to have hundreds of diverse dinner tables. We all share that invitation; we all share that burden.

Second, you cannot authentically lead people to a destination that you are not traveling to yourself. Any leader who trumpets multiethnic ministry but has monoethnic relationships is a hypocrite.

I sometimes wrestle with why Paul said “all Scripture is profitable” when it comes to genealogies or lists of names. But then I read the ends of Paul’s letters. Those give us a bird’s-eye view into the multiethnic cohort that Paul traveled with and the multiethnicity of the churches that he planted. There are Jewish names, Gentile names, even a black name—“Rufus,” he had to be black [laughs]. In fact, the reason that Paul’s thrown in jail for the last time is that he’s accused of taking his dear friend Trophimus into a place forbidden to his ethnicity. But Paul wasn’t skewed! He did a lot of things as a Jewish man to show sensitivity to Gentiles, but he also did a lot of things as a Jewish man to show sensitivity to Jews. One of the most hilarious examples is when Paul picks up Timothy, who only had a mom and grandma, and says, “Listen, buddy, we’re gonna be hanging out with Jews, so …”

… So time to get it snipped! [Laughs]

Yeah! “It’s a 20 shekel copay …” [Laughs]

But that’s really beautiful when you think about it. We see Paul concerned about all ethnic groups. Romans 1:16 is a popular evangelistic verse, but hear it through its sociological lens as well: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

All that to say, Paul did not just flock together with birds of his feather. He did life diversely. If you don’t have that, pray for it. Then keep your eyes open. God will answer that prayer.

What are you praying for right now?

I remember sitting at our last Kainos conference, with about 1,500 people, thinking that the only people in the room were the ones interested in the conversation. I need to figure out how to get in the room those who aren’t interested in the conversation, I thought. I need to figure out how to get people who not only aren’t interested, but are antagonistic to the conversation.

That’s what I’m trying to figure out. That’s what I’m praying for—how to connect with those who aren’t even interested in having the conversation with the renewal that comes when you honestly embrace the reconciliation of the gospel.

Read the 4-part Ken Wytsma series on race and the gospel here.

Read Efrem Smith on how Christians can seek transformation, reconciliation, justice and healing in these deeply divided times here.

Read Brenda Salter McNeil on why pursuing reconciliation is essential to the gospel here.

For more on the topic of racial reconciliation: