Yep, you still need to be talking about race at church

If your church has stopped talking about race, it’s time to bring it up again.

The world is still reeling from the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which were just the tip of the iceberg of our country’s racism problem. And if your church has stopped talking about racism, it’s missing out on the greatest opportunity in years to bring the Kingdom of God closer to earth. 

I’m not going to pretend like I’m an expert on building an anti-racist church. I’m a white worship leader who works at a majority-white church, and I know most of my readers are as well (and shoutout to my readers of color!). I am stumbling through this, making mistakes, and reckoning with my own whiteness in this journey. One thing I can do, however, is encourage you and help you continue beyond step one. 

And step one is: yep, you still need to be talking about race. 

What this doesn’t mean

It doesn’t mean that you should make BIPOC do the work for you. Now is the time to minister to your members of color, not the other way around. Check in on them, listen to them, and care for them (if they want you to)—they’re experiencing this situation on a whole different level than you are. But don’t put the labor on them to carry all the burden of designing, implementing, and recruiting for your racial justice initiative. Do your own work first. (More on that below.) 

It doesn’t mean that there’s one quick solution. A single “racism makes me sad” sermon is not going to do it, no matter how heartfelt it was. One social media post is not going to do it, even though making antiracism part of your online presence is good. If we’re ever going to heal from racism, anti-racism must now be the thread we weave through every area of our ministry, from sermons to confessions to small groups to staff training. Eliminate the temptation to ask “Are we good now?” 

It doesn’t mean it’s time for white people to sing Black spirituals. Take a break from playing Black spirituals until you do some research on cultural appropriation and have an honest conversation about what’s behind your desire to play these songs. There’s so much to talk about on this complicated topic, but for now, it’s important to ask yourself “Am I doing enough to center Black perspectives through these songs, or are they just fun to sing?”

What this does mean

It means you’re going to have to reckon with your whiteness. This is a toughie for me. My whiteness makes me want to run out of this racial discomfort, to throw up my hands and say, “This is overwhelming! Let’s just go back to what we were doing before!” I can also feel defensive: “Are you saying I need to reject my German and Scandinavian heritage?” But it’s the history and construct of whiteness that keeps me from embracing my true heritage; it’s the construct of whiteness that causes this racial discomfort. White supremacy harms everyone, which is why the work of dismantling it is so necessary. 

It means you need to have some tough conversations. Some people are not going to want to talk about this. Your lead pastor may not want to talk about this. Get ready for a sensitive, reasonable comment about how we shouldn’t be too divisive. Ask any queer advocate in the church: “We don’t want to be divisive” is just another way to say “We’re prioritizing the comfort of our members of privilege over the safety of marginalized people.” 

(Plus, Jesus was pretty darn divisive.)

Part of this should probably include a racism audit, in which you seek out and remove racist symbols, images, and language in each of your ministries. And yep, that picture of white-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Jesus needs to go. Be ready for someone to say, “My grandmother prayed in front of that same picture of Jesus her entire life. Are you saying she was a racist?” You’re going to have to explain how that picture has one meaning to her grandmother, and a completely different, violent meaning to someone else. Both meanings are valid, but Jesus calls us to put others—especially the marginalized—first. It’s not easy, but building a community that follows Jesus more closely is worth it.

(There’s also a chance that no one will notice that you removed the picture of Scandinavian Jesus.) 

It means your church’s other prejudices aren’t safe, either. The Holy Spirit is intersectional. You won’t be able to talk about white supremacy for long without talking about the patriarchy, then LGBTQ+ exclusion (queer Black people exist too!), then ableism, and so on. Better start loosening those knots now. 

This is hard work, friends. As always, Jesus beckons us forward. 

“We must take the lead, Church. Us. There is no one else. … We are called through baptism to teach the Holy Scriptures, to teach the world about the power of prayer. We have confessed the Apostle’s Creed, and now it’s time to renounce the devil. Now is the time to renounce the forces that oppose God and defy grace. It’s time to stand up.”

Rev. Lenny Duncan

Help for the journey 

Reading a book isn’t going to fix everything, but it helps. Maybe these resources can help catalyze some action within your church, and maybe it starts with your worship band! It doesn’t matter where you start; just start. 

Dear Church: a love letter from a Black preacher to the whitest denomination in the U.S.
-Lenny Duncan

I’m Still Here: Black dignity in a world made for whiteness
-Austin Channing Brown

How to be an Antiracist
-Ibram X Kendi