Lance Lewis: A Black Pastor’s Reflections on the Presbyterian Church in America

Between the Pew, a podcast produced by the African American Ministries (AAM), recently got to speak with father/son duo Lance and Charles Lewis. Lance Lewis is pastor of New City Sacramento Church where he proclaims Christ, pursues justice, and promotes redemptive ethnic unity. 

Lance’s Background

Lance Lewis is a child of West Philadelphia. His earliest exposure to church came from his grandmother, who, when he was still very young, occasionally took him and the rest of her grandchildren to Holy Temple Church of God in Christ. He got saved, sanctified, filled with the Holy Ghost, however, at a different church, National Temple Church of the Living God, through the witness of his friend. Thankfully, after Lance got saved, both of his parents did too before they went home to be with the Lord. 

After two years attending National Temple Church, Lance began going to West Oak Lane Church of God, where he met Sharon, his bride of 36 years, and where his parents had begun attending. It was during this time that his theological views changed to Reformed. As his reception of the beliefs of predestination, unconditional election, and eternal security grew he grew cold on the doctrine of the baptism of the Spirit. By that point, Lance already felt called to ministry and was one of the young ministers at West Oak Lane. At the same time, his close friends Kevin and Sandy Smith were experiencing the same theological shift, so the Lewis’ and Smiths all left West Oak Lane together and joined Tenth Presbyterian in the spring of 1990, a few months before Charles was born. Lance revealed, “We didn’t know anything about Presbyterian, Reformed. We were just like, this is what we believe. They believe it. So this is where we’re gonna go.

Joining the PCA

Tenth proved to be a radical change from his prior church experiences. Lance recalls, “It was strange, different, stiff, stand-offish. It was overwhelmingly white. The culture was completely different from the church culture that we had known. If West Oak Lane was a family gathering to have a good time in the Lord before our Father who loved us, there were times when Tenth felt like a board meeting where we heard a lecture and then went home.” What saved his experience there was that Kevin was asked to come on as an intern and take charge of one of their small adult Sunday school groups. Lance described what a difference that made, “We really sort of had a mini-church there, and that’s where we got connected to friends. In fact all—many of them are still friends of ours today. That became kind of our lifeline to Tenth.”

Lance recognized much of the good that Tenth was doing in their community with those with AIDS and their commitment to the city at large. He also really appreciated the opportunities Tenth gave him to minister and serve. But when it came to issues of race, he felt they missed the mark. They had adopted a colorblind approach. Lance explained, “ It’s like, well, they’re here. They’re black. But we don’t have to deal with that. We won’t mention that. We’ll just treat them the way that we would treat any others.” 

This approach had its advantages, he and his family did not feel intentionally marginalized. On the other hand, there was a lot of unintentional hurt from insensitive or racist remarks or actions that could still make them feel unwelcome. He dealt with it by looking past a lot of it and focusing on ministry, “That’s how I rationalized it. I said, well, the theology is great, and so what we need to do is take this theology into the black community. And so that became the mission, the call, and the goal.”

Planting PCA Churches

Lance and his family continued to worship at Tenth Pres for several years before moving his then family of four to Fredericksburg, Virginia. He was eager to do full-time ministry and the pastor of New City Fellowship Fredericksburg asked him to come down to be a pastoral assistant, since it was a church focusing on racial reconciliation. So in February of 1995, they left Philadelphia behind for Fredericksburg. While there, he wrote a series of letters to the editor about issues of race, disagreeing with the predominant conservative thinking. Lance recalled the consequences of his outspokenness, “At one point, they basically had a tribunal, and I was sat down, and someone looked me in the face and said, are you a liberal?”

His next move led him to the first black-led, middle class church plant for the PCA under Reverend Lewis Wilson, Redemption Fellowship in Fayetteville, Georgia. In 2000, the Lewis’ returned to Tenth Pres for another plant. Finally, in February of 2001, Lance was ordained in the Philadelphia presbytery.

New City Sacramento

Lance has been at New City Sacramento now for going on eight years. When he first arrived, the church had a different name, Soaring Oaks. After what Lance described as “a pretty bad, traumatic, ugly split over issues of race evangelism” shortly before the pandemic started, a number of members of the congregation were praying and seeing what the Lord was doing in their community, and felt that it was time for them to move on from their former name and church culture to embrace a new name and mission focus. New City is actually located in Elk Grove, a vibrant little suburb of Sacramento of about 175,000. Elk Grove is technically very diverse in terms of its demographics. But while there is “diversity,” Lance explained, “we live among one another, but not really with one another.” The church itself is diverse too: about 50% black, 30-35% white, 20-25% Asian and Hispanic. Lance shared, “I love it that way, and I want to grow it that way.” 

About four years ago, some serious, vile racist incidents in Elk Grove that made national headlines shook the city. Because Elk Grove seems diverse at a glance, Lance said it’s easy to buy into the illusion that everything’s okay because everyone’s all here together. Elk Grove is a relatively new city, so you don’t have entrenched ethnic neighborhoods that you would have in some other cities. With those racist incidents, the atmosphere went from one of seeming harmony to being an ugly reminder of the world we live in.

While Lance is happy and settled with his life and ministry in Sacramento, when asked about whether he’d stay in the PCA in a different ministry context, he replied, “Absolutely not.” He firmly believes in the work of his church. Since the split and renaming, New City has focused on their mission and, by the grace of God, made great progress. For example, one of their young ministers preached a message on hope and as part of the message, he talked about the groaning we all have. He talked about groaning for the murder of George Floyd. And his groaning for his three black sons. For him to have the freedom to do that, without any session or congregation push-back is not normal for the PCA. Lance added, “We’ve done our best to make it clear that we’re gonna pursue these things. We’re gonna pursue the whole counsel of God. And if you’re not up on them, that’s okay. There are other PCA churches in the Sacramento area.” Lance could not see himself in a context where he did not have the freedom to speak out on these issues or where his entire theology could be called into question if he didn’t toe the party line on race.

He also loves his presbytery, which he finds a refreshing outlier from others within the PCA. At a recent Northern California Presbytery meeting during one of the regular exams, the chairman of the credentials committee took questions from the floor about what the candidate knew about the PCA and race. Moving forward, they decided questions of PCA history and how we begin to grapple with issues of race and justice will become a standard practice. Lance shared, “As far as I know, I don’t think I would find another presbytery like that.”

Being in Elk Grove also provides him with other opportunities to impact his city he might not have elsewhere. He explained, “The city started a community advisory board to work with the police to give the police inroads in the community. I’ve been on that board for coming up on three years. I just got an email today from the chief of police. It’s rare that you get an opportunity to potentially shape how a city responds to God’s new society in Jesus Christ. And I don’t know if that would happen in any other city.”

Learn more about Lance and New City Fellowship here: https://www.soaringoaks.org/

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