The Social Disruption of the Church in the Midst of the American Racial Milieu

Shortly before his untimely death in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. prophetically declared in his final book Where Do We Go From Here:

The church has an opportunity and a duty to lift up its voice like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of segregation. It must affirm that every human life is a reflection of divinity, and that every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man…. But declarations against segregation, however sincere, are not enough. The church must take the lead in social reform. It must move out into the arena of life and do battle for the sanctity of religious commitments. And it must lead men along the path of true integration, something the law cannot do.[1]

Martin Luther King Jr.

King is correct that the fight for humanity as a “reflection of divinity” is a work that the church should engage in because it is the church that reflects God’s redeeming presence in the world. However, the flaw in King’s proposal is in highlighting to what extent the Church actually engages in this reform. Clearly at that time, most churches were either complacent or complicit with the enactment of segregation. Any involvement would be a great first step. Unfortunately, the presence of the church in America today has drastically changed to the point where its relevance in these reforms fifty years later is largely nonexistent, relegated only to systems of power to make the necessary changes. 

King appeared to be working from within what Charles Taylor calls the “immanent frame” of Christendom encompassed within our secular age. This means over the course of the last five hundred years, the Western world became increasingly secular, functioning within a “closed frame with a brass ceiling” that abandoned transcendence, while various aspects of the church inhabited an “open frame with skylights open to transcendence.”[2] The result of this in 1968, and into the present-day, saw the West adopt two types of humanism: Christian and exclusive. As James Smith explains, “Exclusive humanism has a hard time accounting for the demands of universal justice and benevolence relying only on immanent sources.”[3] Therefore, the way we as a church approach matters of social justice, particularly the racial desegregation King says is necessary for the church to be involved in, depends upon how the church understands the underlying ideologies, humanistic or otherwise, around it and which narrative it chooses to embrace. While I believe King is ultimately correct that the church needs to get involved in areas of racial injustice, I do believe the means to accomplish this task will be much less evasive than King desired, but still providing a much more holistic, multi-functional structure to accomplish. 

Reimagining our Church Leadership

In Churches, Cultures, and Leadership, Mark Branson and Juan Martinez propose a multicultural approach to church leadership. They suggest a “leadership triad” that consists of interpretive, relational, and implemental styles of leadership. First and foremost, leadership is to be interpretive, meaning it is to ask the fundamental question: What does it mean to believe the gospel and how do we participate with the Spirit already at work among us?[4] This requires the exploration of the Christian narrative both theologically and practically. It is not the dissemination of information on Sunday mornings, rather, it is the invitation for the church “to see their current praxis in light of sociocultural perspectives, media studies, organizational perspectives, psychological insights and communication theory.”[5] Much of what Branson and Martinez state in this description of leadership involves a theological recontextualization. By this, I mean churches need to be intentional in creating space to shift away from theological constructs that are bound to power and “whiteness” as the primary lens which churches practice theology. As Roxburgh and Robinson affirm, “It was the Euro-tribal, North American white story that became the central story through which all other stories were read…”[6]Therefore, as it pertains to racial justice, it is imperative for the church to begin to craft a renewed lens that values the interpretive insights of the community and their own particular understandings of the text. 

The second leadership style Branson and Martinez introduce is relational. As they define it, “Relational leadership attends to all of the human dynamics among a church’s participants and with the world around them.”[7] The American church places high value on an autonomous individual (pastor/elder) where the rest of the church functions as means to an end, much like a business exists to exchange goods and services. As Clemens Sedmak explains, “Jesus did theology as if people matter—irrespective of his own reputation and the categories of political correctness of his time.”[8] This form of leadership is often scary for North American church leadership because it involves the releasing of power. It involves asking questions that have generally never been asked within many Euro-tribal churches, which requires taking risks that may result in economic hardship. However, that is essentially the point. Relational leadership requires dismantling “ecclesiocentric defaults,” and much like the new monasticism, “break with the acquisition of consumer capitalistic societies” and “reengage with Christian practices such as hospitality, welcoming the stranger, living simply, and caring for the poor.”[9] Relational leadership challenges and disrupts a political and economic approach to ecclesiology that replaces money and power with people engaged in a theological praxis “characterized through the service renders,” namely, “the kingdom of God.”[10]

Finally, Branson and Martinez introduce leadership as implemental. As they describe: “Implemental leadership draws attention to activities and structures, discovers the sources of those ways of life, helps to discover the fruit and consequences, and encourages experiments with new approaches that lead to commitments to the modes that serve the church’s life and mission.”[11] 

The key phrase in this description is the encouragement of experimenting with new approaches. Older Euro-tribal churches, regardless of their historical efficacy, do not have the monopoly on faithful Christian witness. If Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, I think he too would realize that even his proposal, though calling for experimentation in its own right, is too limiting when viewed through the lens of classical liberalism. It is at this point where a serious theological engagement with culture needs to be implemented into our leadership strategies. For far too long, there has been an unhealthy engagement with culture within much of American evangelicalism. Most evangelical churches take a defensive posture when it comes to culture, as they tend to reject anything they feel is an imposition upon their own presuppositions about what it means to live and exist as a Christian in a world they feel is generally displeased with its presence. Therefore, in order to avoid these polarizing extremes, Sedmak proposes,

We also need the dialogue between theology and culture because Christian identity is constantly negotiated within local cultures. Christians live within local cultures. They do not live within a Christian culture. There is no such thing.[12]

Clemens Sedmak

This is largely true to an extent. If we take Sedmak’s statement and interact it within the focus of a disruptive theological praxis, we will see that what we mean by the word “culture” needs to be reframed a bit. American evangelicalism has in fact become its own culture, particularly as it has been performed within the last four years. Clearly the evangelicalism that has grown synonymous with the personality cult of former President Trump raises some serious questions about what exactly is “Christian” about evangelicalism. However, the point for our purposes reveals that, rather than creating false dichotomies between Christianity and culture, it is important to juxtapose the fundamental presuppositions between American evangelical culture and secular political culture as a whole. Church leadership needs to become decentralized in order to open space for these leadership models to take shape. One man or woman cannot discern various cultural models in a vacuum, rather utilizing these approaches will enable the community to participate as a collective.

Reimagining our Cultural Presence

If the American church is to have any serious impact on various social issues, including the racialization of society, it needs to seriously reconsider itself as a distinct culture existing within the frame of a larger culture. King’s approach in the statement above lends itself to the belief that Christendom still exists within America, meaning we are not dealing with two opposing cultural worldviews, but rather one worldview with contrasting opinions. However, Christendom does not exist, rather we are in what Charles Taylor calls the secular age “in which the plausibility structures have changed, the conditions of belief have shifted, and theistic belief is not only displaced from being the default, it is positively contested.”[13] America is the product of the dismantling of Christendom, and the igniting of modern project. Central to this dismantling was the philosophy of John Locke wherein his Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Second Treatise of Civil Government, both published in 1690, provided the basis for what would become the American Revolution almost one hundred years later: 

The project of a reconstruction of the human found its historical opportunity with the revolutions of the end of the eighteenth century, in America, then France. It is not insignificant that the idea of a self-constitution of man first imposed itself where it was a matter of defining the power that society exercises over itself via legislation. The idea of sovereignty was incarnate in a new subject, the “people.”[14]

Remi Brague

The very basis of the modern project began with the liberation from tyranny, which led to an anthropology where “man must be the sole origin of man.”[15] Among the results of such an anthropology was a form of “atheistic humanism” that “manifested itself first by the refusal to place anything above man,” which undoubtedly would include any form of deity.[16] In fact, Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, in response to Benjamin Franklin’s proposal for prayer at the American Congress, said, “I do not see the necessity of calling in foreign aid.”[17]

The unraveling of Christendom into the modern project has a direct impact on American religious life and the way Christians are to interpret the world around them. The inability of most American churches to recognize how their worldview has been impacted by redefinitions of humanism in the last four hundred years has seriously impacted Christian public witness. Much of what passes in modern-day evangelicalism is what has been called “civil religion.” Summarizing Charles Taylor, James Smith defines civil religion as, “a ‘natural’ religion, which can allegedly transcend denominational strife. (Welcome to America!) the ultimate and transcendent are retained but marginalized and made increasingly irrelevant.”[18] In other words, the inability to discern how the language of modernity has impacted the language of the historic Christian faith, has rendered the American church as a tool for political advancement, but essentially meaningless in creating space for any meaningful change and human flourishing. 

As an example of where the church is missing the mark with the broader culture is in its interaction with Critical Theory (CT) as a whole, and Critical Race Theory (CRT) in particular. As Branson and Roxburgh define it, “Critical theory is the term to use for a variety of frameworks, developed in the West, that can help us see how many structures of modern societies, such as economics and politics, when practiced lead to oppression.”[19] As an academic discipline, CT helps American society identify its various power structures and how it impacts its citizens. Most American evangelicals reject CT, however, because of its development out of German Marxism, which poses a fundamental threat to capitalism. 

Similarly, CRT as a legal theory helps to define social structures which have historically caused oppression and tyranny upon black people throughout the history of this country. As Nicholas Hartlep describes, there are five basic tenets of CRT: “(1) the notion that racism is ordinary and not aberrational; (2) the idea of an interest convergence; (3) the social construction of race; (4) the idea of storytelling and counter-storytelling; and (5) the notion that whites have actually been recipients of civil rights legislation.”[20] Both CT/CRT provide a narratival structure by which various cultures can begin to interpret their world. The gospel, on the other hand, also provides its own unique narrative by which followers of Jesus view their lives and the world around them. Therefore, without affirming outright, the church can utilize the tools of CT/CRT by extending a more holistic solution to the world’s problems, that can only be found in Christ. As Branson and Roxburgh suggest, “In this way, the benefits of critical theory (to gain competencies to look behind experiences and systems) need a theological correction (that God’s agency is present, and God’s invitation is for humans to be agents in collaboration with the Spirit regarding relationships and creation).”[21]

Among the ways the church can provide this theological correction is to begin reimagining how it utilizes language about itself (orthodoxy), and its approach to what it does (orthopraxy). One of the ways the church perceives itself in contrast to surrounding cultures is through the use of metaphors. Metaphors help the church discern its present disposition within larger cultural and political frames, especially where it relates to its relationship with power. While these metaphors can be helpful, they do not tell the full story, and at times can fall a bit short. For example, Roxburgh and Robinson interact with a few metaphors that have dominated over the last thirty or forty years: exile, resident alien, journey, and diaspora.[22] While Roxburgh and Robinson were less favorable of resident alien as a metaphor, I actually think this metaphor provides a helpful way forward in the church’s self-understanding.[23]

In their book Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon propose,

“Christianity is an invitation to be part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot otherwise be seen without Christ.”[24] 

Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon

Therefore as a unique colony, the church is to exist as a distinct politic within a culture that has also crafted its own political milieu. Thus, Hauerwas and Willimon argue that rather than accommodating American democracy and individualism therein, resulting in mere political social activism, “the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world.”[25] As I mentioned earlier, in attempting to reclaim primitive notions of Christendom, the American church often becomes nothing more than a political tool for the state. However, if the church distinguishes itself as a distinct political witness, “The loss of Christendom gives us a joyous opportunity to reclaim the freedom to proclaim the gospel in a way in which we cannot when the main social task of the church is to serve as one among many helpful props for the state.”[26]


There is no secret that the American church has a plagued history as it relates to ideologies of race and its views of racial superiority. While King’s proposal for the church to be the necessary prophetic voice in this country to end segregation and racial inequality was correct, it fell short since it presumed the American church had an adequate understanding of its own history and also lacked the foresight to see where it was headed. It is understandable that if the church is following in the footsteps of John Locke, as well as America’s founding fathers, then it is the duty of the autonomous individual to correct racialization of America. This project fails because it is not Bacon, Locke, Jefferson, or even Martin Luther King Jr. whom the church follows, rather, it is Jesus the Nazarene who was executed on a cross and raised to glory, who sent his Spirit to dwell amongst his people whom he called “church.”

The cross and resurrection caused disruption among the Jewish elite and the Roman authorities of Jesus’ day. So too, this same Spirit of Jesus is causing disruptions against the powers and authorities of all times and places where human life is devalued. Sadly, the church has become complicit with power over the centuries. However, there is a unique movement in America where perhaps, though it is functioning differently than how he had hoped, King’s prophetic call for the church to become the church is beginning to take place.

For Further Reading

Dr. King’s final book, published shortly after his untimely death. Here, amongst the height of his unpopularity, King envisions the future of America on the tail end of the civil rights movement.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 105. 

[2] James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 92. 

[3] Ibid., 101n13.

[4] Mark Lau Branson and Juan F. Martinez, Churches, Cultures, and Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 55. 

[5] Ibid., 56.

[6] Alan J. Roxburgh and Martin Robinson, Practices for the Refounding of God’s People: The Missional Challenge of the West (New York: Church Publishing, 2018)158. “Euro-tribal” is the designation Roxburgh and Robinson give to church movements and denominations largely shaped throughout Modernity. 

[7] Branson and Martinez, Churches, Cultures, and Leadership, 56.

[8] Clemens Sedmak, Doing Local Theology: A Guide for Artisans of a New Humanity (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002), 34. 

[9] Alan J. Roxburgh, Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in Our Time (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2015), 21-22.

[10] Sedmak, Doing Local Theology, 43.

[11] Branson and Martinez, Churches, Cultures, and Leadership, 57.

[12] Sedmak, Doing Local Theology, 80.

[13] Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, 60.

[14] Rémi Brague, The Kingdom of Man: Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project, trans. Paul Seaton (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 2018), 133-34.

[15] Ibid., 122.

[16] Ibid., 136. 

[17] Ibid.

[18] Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, 54.

[19] Mark Lau Branson and Alan J. Roxburgh, Leadership, God’s Agency, and Disruptions: Confronting Modernity’s Wager (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2020), 103.

[20] Nicholas Daniel Hartlep, Critical Race Theory: An Examination of its Past, Present, and Future Implications. (accessed February 28, 2021). 

[21] Branson and Roxburgh, Leadership, God’s Agency, and Disruptions, 104.

[22] Roxburgh and Robinson, Practices for the Refounding of God’s People, 120-25.

[23] Ibid., 122. Roxburgh and Robinson contend that resident alien may be helpful for the Boomer generation “with their memories of high church attendance,” suggesting that the newer generations have little memory of this. I disagree; the mega-church and church growth movements of the last thirty years seem to indicate that a variant of these memories is still alive and well, even if functioning slightly differently. 

[24] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, 2d ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 24.

[25] Ibid., 38.

[26] Ibid., 38-39. 

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