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"The U.S. Racial Crisis and World Evangelism"
Tom Skinner's challenge to white evangelical missions and evangelism projects
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What follows is an adaptation of a presentation I am giving at the Missiology Lectures at Fuller Seminary on Wednesday, October 25th and 4 pm PT. Details HERE.
They had invited him to speak on precisely this topic, but they still weren’t prepared for such an incisive and pointed commentary.
Tom Skinner, the Black evangelical and evangelist who in his early days had been dubbed the “Billy Graham of Harlem,” took the platform at Urbana ‘70 and delivered a message called “The U.S. Racial Crisis and World Evangelism.”
The conference brought together nearly 12,000 college students from across the nation to gin them up for overseas mission trips and evangelism projects. They heard about the urgent mandate to “bring the gospel to the nations” and commit their lives to telling people about Jesus.
But Skinner brought a message designed to give his nearly all-white audience pause.
Before they sailed across an ocean to talk to Black and brown people worldwide about Jesus, they had better check their own racial biases.
According to Skinner, most of the white Christians he knew taught only a Euro-centric version of Jesus.
He talked about growing up in Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s where nearly all of the residents were Black but the images of Christianity were white.
“All the pictures of Christ were pictures of an Anglo-Saxon, middle-class, Protestant Republican. There is no way that I can relate to that kind of Christ.”
Skinner urged his listeners to focus on the domestic sphere of evangelism rather than solely its international dimensions. He invited them to ponder the racism of their own communities and country so they wouldn’t spread the same poison to far-off nations.
“To a great extent, the evangelical church in America supported the status quo…. [I]t preached against any attempt of the black man to stand on his own two feet.”
Huddled in their suburban enclaves, white evangelicals looked at Black communities with a combination of apathy and fear that kept most of them from proclaiming the good news in inner-city Black neighborhoods.
Unlike white evangelicalism, Skinner presented a race-conscious version of evangelicalism that did not wave away issues of racial injustice by assuming that change would automatically happen after enough people converted to Christianity.
Instead, Black evangelicals such as Skinner recognized the material concerns of Black people and insisted that comprehensive change had to occur at both the social and the spiritual level.
Yet Skinner’s emphasis on a race-conscious Christianity also posed a threat to white evangelical myths of colorblindness and racial innocence.
The very realities of which Skinner made his audiences aware had the potential to undermine white evangelical power structures and patterns of ministry.
In regard to missions both domestically and internationally, Skinner’s expression of evangelicalism disrupted ideas of white centrality and Eurocentric version of Christianity that sought to convert people not only to a religion but to a white way of life.
Skinner’s race-conscious approach to Christianity inherently threatened an ideology of missions based explicitly on colorblindness and implicitly on the superiority of white theology, culture, and conceptions of Christ.
Those same patterns of white centrality play out today through the rise of U.S.-based multimedia ministries, usually led by white men, and exported to Christians across the globe through books, movies, podcasts, videos of sermons, and social media clips.
The implicit message is that the version of the gospel that should be learned and shared is Western, white, and male.
Tom Skinner, stood in a long line of Black Christians who denounced the white supremacy often present in missions activity and presented an alternate, more inclusive Christianity that sought to make people imitators of Christ not whiteness.
To what extent have we as a church in the United States progressed in our conceptions of evangelism and missions and in what ways do these activities remain largely dominated by white sensibilities? Comment below.
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