Charles Lewis: Associate Pastor of Northside Church

Between the Pew, a podcast produced by the African American Ministries (AAM), sat down with PCA teaching elder father/son duo Lance and Charles Lewis. Charles Lewis is the new associate pastor of Northside Church in Richmond, Virginia. While it might seem like having a father in ministry would have led Charles naturally to follow his footsteps, Charles’ journey was his own.

Like his father, he is West Philadelphia born and raised. Although he cannot pinpoint the exact moment the Lord saved him, Charles remembers saying the prayer with his mom in their West Philly home at a very young age. Unlike Lance, who grew up mostly unchurched, from Charles’ earliest memories until he was about four–he can distinctly remember being in either one of two places on Sundays: Tenth Presbyterian, a historic and majority-white PCA church he called “as high church as you can get for this denomination” or with his grandparents at their black Pentecostal church, West Oak Lane Church of God. He considers it a gift to have grown up with these two pictures of the church side by side. Charles explained, “For me they weren’t competing. They were just different expressions.” He found both in their own ways good and faithful pictures of the body of Christ. He continued, “being able to see God’s people meeting separately, out of a sinful history, but still see them both as the family of God.”

For the longest time, he hadn’t given much thought to his father’s journey from State Farm agent to seminary to the pastorate. These changes were mostly experienced geographically through how much they moved, going from Philly to Fredericksburg, then from Fredericksburg to Fayetteville, and then from Fayetteville back to Philly. At those times it felt most like his father’s call to ministry was a whole family mission. Relocation was part of his call, and therefore the call of the family. This left a deep impression on Charles who thought, “If he’s willing to shape his life and his family’s life around this thing, he’s really about this call and mission.” Seeing how his father moved in some of these spaces, and especially his love for his people, and being in a place like Tenth and seeing the type of church he sought to plant, Charles described as “amazing for me to see.” Seeing his father so fiercely love people increased his admiration.

He also recalls seasons of resentment, however, especially in middle school, where it felt like his father put ministry before family. Charles was less than thrilled to be uprooted so often. He reflected, “I think because we are created in the image of God—a complex God—that we are capable to feel multiple things at the same time, and experience multiple things at the same time. So even though there was this frustration, there was also a deep admiration. Both were happening at the same time.” 

Charles first sensed a call to ministry his junior year of high school after discovering his love for theology in his systematic theology class. His teacher, Dr. Kunkel, noticed he had taken a liking to the subject and approached him once after class to ask if he’d ever considered becoming a pastor. At the time, Charles saw a future for himself as a counselor and planned to pursue licensure in marriage and family counseling. Dr, Kunkel suggested he needn’t choose but could do both “You could be a pastoral counselor. That is something that’s a viable option for you.” He explained. Charles took those words to heart. 

Later, on a walk around their West Philly neighborhood with his dad, he brought it up. His dad’s pace slowed as he attempted to ease any expectation that his son follow in his path. Charles recalled his father’s words, “Charles, this isn’t something that you have to do. You can go to State Farm and make good money. You don’t have to choose this life. This doesn’t have to be your trajectory.” He took these words to heart as well.

Charles attended Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia for college. He majored in psychology but went with an open hand. After graduation, he stayed in Chattanooga and worked for Covenant as a missions representative for a couple of years. It was during that time, through the council and encouragement of men like Wy Plummer, Kevin Smith, Randy Nabors, and through Carl and Karen Ellis, that he began to consider pastoral ministry more seriously. He then went on to do Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), the PCA’s college campus ministry, for a year at the University of Pittsburgh and loved it. 

RUF internships are typically for two years, but one year into his internship he was offered the opportunity to intern at a church in the northern Virginia area, McLean Presbyterian. So in the summer of 2016, months before the presidential election, he left for Virginia to accept the position and to finish up seminary. 

His reasons for taking this particular opportunity were strategic. McLean Presbyterian is a large, politically conservative, wealthy church of about 2,000 that Charles described as “the type of church I would never want to pastor or be a member of.” He was drawn to this opportunity, however, specifically because McLean is the type of church he thought many other churches in the denomination aspired to be like and would love to model themselves after. Knowing a lot of his white peers in the denomination would love to pastor at this kind of church, he thought it was important to familiarize himself with the types of people he would one day be working with in presbytery and the types of churches they would be pastoring.

Charles had initially thought he would get to help this group of wealthy, white, conservative image-bearers get through the Clinton presidency. Had he known the outcome of the election, he would not have gone. But God knew. His three years there were incredibly difficult and he experienced anxiety like never before. When his contract ended in 2019, he was hired at Northside, where was ordained a few months ago. 

Northside is more diverse than McLean: roughly eighty-five percent white, thirteen percent black, and two percent Asian American. Although still majority white, the cultures of the two churches couldn’t be more different. Northside Senior Pastor Matt Lorish is very intentional about not calling Northside a cross-cultural church but instead a “church striving and seeking to be cross-cultural.” They have cross-cultural values, cross-cultural commitments, and cross-cultural goals but recognize that they can’t call themselves a truly cross-cultural church quite yet. But that’s the goal. 

What encourages Charles about Northside is its leadership. Before arriving at Northside, Charles had heard how black leaders in the denomination spoke of the senior pastor there. Since arriving, he’s been impressed with how they live out their mission. From their website to their ten-year goals–and their plans to implement them, the seriousness of their commitment to cross-culturalism is clear. 

For example, this past summer, they went through an entire sermon series called “The Bible, Race, and Justice: A Christian Path Forward.” They named things like white supremacy and spoke the names of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Elijah McClain and Breonna Taylor from the front. They didn’t skate around these hard issues but gave voice to them. Charles shared, “It actually feels like freedom compared to where I was before, so there’s a sense in which I’m in a season of deep gratitude. Deep joy. Even in the midst of national sorrow and heartache, I just feel like I’m in a space where I can bring my sorrow.” 

More recently, they made a staffing decision in which, by the vote of the session one of their associate pastors is stepping down and moving on because one of the goals of the church is to not have majority white pastoral leadership. Pastor Matt is trying to prepare his church to pass its leadership on to a black senior pastor. “If you were to look at the departing associate pastor’s resume and a black man with the exact same resume, they still wouldn’t be equals.” Charles explained. “The black man is able to reach people that the white pastor—no matter how hard he tries—just isn’t able to. And our church recognizes that.” This is the path forward the church believes in and these are the kinds of sacrifices they see as necessary to realize their broader kingdom vision. It’s these fruits of conviction that Charles finds most encouraging and that make Northside feel like a breath of fresh air. Being in a setting like this feels like a gift that he’s aware so many like him in the PCA don’t have.

On his future in the PCA, Charles is committed to following God’s lead. On the one hand, pastoring in the PCA feels like a call of necessity–there are not really many other places for him to go as a black man who is theologically conservative, who believes in covenant theology, and believes in a presbyterian form of government. He also shared that “If I were to stay in the denomination, it would have to be in a church like Northside, or further along than Northside.” Talking with other young, white pastors who are eager to learn and who share the burdens of their black brothers and sisters is probably what gives him the most hope in this denomination and makes him think that progress is happening. 

But while a decade of pursuit and exploration brought him to pastoring in the PCA, Charles shared, “If there comes a point in time where God says, Charles, pastoral ministry ain’t it for you, I’m gonna listen. If there comes a point in time where he says the PCA ain’t it anymore, I’m gonna listen. But just like that’s true, it’s also true that I’m listening now. And right now he’s saying, no, it is pastoral ministry. It is the PCA.” And for both of these, he is thankful. 

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