Why White-Centered Discipleship Hurts Us All
In the last five weeks, our #AmplifyWomen series has addressed ecclesial accountability, mentorship, platform, hospitable orthodoxy, and male support for women’s discipleship. This week, Helen Lee explores the deep need for diversity in discipleship.
For my 14-year-old son, the word needle used to evoke feelings of pain. But last Saturday, he woke up with a strained neck that no amount of massaging or ibuprofen could improve. His grandparents convinced him to see an acupuncturist, and only out of sheer desperation—because he had a piano performance later that evening—did he agree. Two hours after the appointment, he walked out of Dr. Qi’s office praising the power of acupuncture, his image of needles forever transformed from instruments of pain to those of healing. Just as acupuncture is all about unblocking and rebalancing energy flow in our bodies, my Korean in-laws’ perspective removed the mental barriers of my third-generation, American-born son.
Similarly, we in the church don’t always pursue that which could truly be healing and transformational because we don’t know what is standing in our way. When it comes to women’s discipleship, we tend to default to the old ways of training and teaching women in the church. But a growing number of women—particularly those of color—see barriers and imbalances in our discipleship, especially regarding issues of race, culture, and reconciliation.
“We cannot wholeheartedly or effectively make disciples of all nations and fulfill the Great Commission if we have limited scope and poor vision,” writes Natasha Sistrunk Robinson in Mentor for Life. “Seeing people as God sees them means we acknowledge our differences and embrace the diversity within the body of Christ.”
And yet the key influencers shaping women’s discipleship today are almost all white—from those who write or curate curricula, to those who have achieved a notable measure of platform, to those who lead churches, organizations, and conferences. Most people with the power to shape women’s discipleship may not even recognize the imbalances that are so apparent to those of us who are on the cultural margins of the church. And when white leaders with clout do address issues of race, they often do so sparingly, which does little to remove the systemic blockages that continue to cause racial pain in the body of Christ.
Audrey Lee, a Chinese American leadership and inclusive diversity strategist in New York City, grew up in conservative fundamentalist evangelical churches. She recalls her desire to talk about race with church leaders when she was in high school. “I felt like my own questions and struggles with race and gender issues were part of my spiritual life,” says Lee. “But others in my spiritual circles had a quick answer—such as ‘Christianity transcends race’—and didn’t see them as gospel issues.”
Ruthie Johnson, a transnational adoptee who lives in Minneapolis and studies intercultural communication, says Christian communities “have often upheld an image of Jesus that is white. That whiteness has historically been used to suppress and oppress” in the form of white supremacy.
Those who find Johnson’s statement jarring and unsettling may discover imbalances in their own discipleship journey if they look closely enough. However, Jesus’ own ministry offers us a model for diverse discipleship. In Scripture, we see Christ owning his identity as a Jewish man with multiethnic ancestry and also building bridges of restoration with people who are vastly different from him.
With that in mind, here are suggestions for cultural “needles” that individuals, churches, or organizations can apply to catalyze healing and transformation, especially in the realm of women’s discipleship:
Do a discipleship diversity check.
The trajectory of my entire spiritual journey changed when I was 20 years old and I met Asian American Christians who were able to help me integrate my ethnic identity and my faith. Although I’m grateful for the spiritual mentors I’d learned from up to that point, they were all white. What women of color like me often need is to find mentors of color who can reflect a fuller picture of the image of God than they can receive through discipleship relationships with only white women and men.
The opposite principle applies to those who are white. For those who recognize that all of their spiritual disciplers are white, there is a simple solution—to intentionally submit to the spiritual leadership of someone from another cultural or ethnic background. There is no substitute for building long-term relationships with those who are culturally different than you. Nonetheless, you can start by diversifying your reading list and also reading books from white authors who delve into issues of race and reconciliation.
Leverage your influence as a consumer.
If women use their buying power to advocate for diversity in publishing and conferences, then that collective voice likely carries more weight than any individual voice of color. So before saying “yes” to that next conference, take some extra time to look at the roster. Does it show diversity in actual plenary speaking spots? Or are the speakers of color largely relegated to a panel (often about race) together? How does the board leadership look in terms of its racial and ethnic makeup? Does the organization display any diversity at its highest levels? It’s one thing for individual women of color to point out these gaps and another thing entirely if white women, especially in substantial numbers, begin to do so as well. If enough women start shifting their dollars to events that reflect God’s value for diversity, then organizations will start to notice.
Attend to the lament.
I’m seeing a challenging dynamic in evangelicalism right now. The persistent blockages in women’s discipleship are actually driving away the very women who could do something about the problems. A combination of post-election discouragement and the lack of awareness in the church have tested this group to its limits. In my research for this piece, I reached out to numerous women of color to ask for their partnership in writing it only to be told over and over again, “Sorry, Helen, but I am done with the white evangelical church.”
“How many more times do we have to be an afterthought instead of being invited into the planning?” lamented one of these leaders. “How many times will we have to see another all-white conference lineup? How many times do we have to express that we are tired, so tired, of being invisible and ignored? I have no more patience with the white church.”
As Joshua Lazard wrote in his recent thought-provoking post, “How ‘Race Tests’ Maintain Evangelical Segregation,” “When the representation of holiness—in pastors, lay leaders and worship leaders—is still overwhelmingly white, it will consistently perpetuate white institutional space. … If one expects to see a culture shift, it will require a shift in power.” I fear that if these shifts don’t start happening, we’ll see more and more leaders of color withdrawing from traditional evangelical spaces to forge their own paths and programs.
Nonetheless, there are ways to ensure that these crucial parts of the body do not withdraw for good.
Make intentional room for marginalized voices.
Meagan Gillan, who leads the women ministries program in the Evangelical Covenant Church, is a positive example of someone trying to rebalance women’s discipleship. In particular, she is working to ensure that marginalized voices are represented in the various events and programs they do in the ECC. “I’ve learned that we must include every voice, not as an add-on, afterthought, or ‘oops,’ but as equals who have voice, power, and influence,” says Gillan. “I don’t want an event or team that has a few women of color involved so the majority women can feel good about themselves. The whole experience must communicate that this is for all of us, and everybody may feel uncomfortable or may experience cultural difference at some point. As a leader, part of my job is to coach women in this and to encourage the kind of discomfort that leads to blessing.”
Receive race-related discipleship with grace.
When discussing issues related to race and racial justice, discomfort may be a part of the experience, especially if you are being discipled by a leader of color. When those moments occur, it’s important to respond with humility and a teachable spirit. My friend Reesheda Washington recently launched L!VE Café in Oak Park, Illinois, to provide high-quality coffee as well as high-quality community conversations. As part of this journey, she has had to disciple her white female staff in unexpected ways. “I have had to walk with them through their own recognition of white fragility and how it shapes and colors the lens through which they lead and do life,” she says. “But because of their willingness to be disciples in this way, they have been able to wrestle with it, grow from those conversations, and continue to engage.”
My son’s decision to embrace a new way of healing came as a result of his desperation, and perhaps that is what it will take for the body of Christ to be open to change. Evangelical women as a whole might not realize that we are in a desperate state—with huge swaths of our sisters of color feeling a mixture of betrayal, exhaustion, and exasperation towards white evangelicalism—but we are. For those Christian leaders (women and men alike) who are aware and want to participate in the “discomfort that leads to blessing,” I invite you to set aside what is familiar and comfortable, lay down power and privilege, and allow other voices from the cultural margins to chart the way forward.
These are prickly issues, for certain. But like acupuncture, inserting needles of color to rebalance and release new energy into our discipleship may be just what the Great Physician ordered to bring true and lasting healing to the body of Christ.