The hosts of Between the Pew recorded a special episode exploring the question “Why do we stay?” In the first half of the episode, the AAM staff answered the question themselves.
In addition to asking the AAM staff, Jenell asked a handful of Black people in the PCA to answer the question “Why Do You Stay?” In the second half of the episode, Jenell shared their answers and asked the AAM team to respond.
We Love Our Church
A couple of responses indicated people were loyal to their church above the denomination.
“I’m not tied down or loyal to the PCA. We love our church. If we left our church, I can’t say we would be specifically seeking out PCA churches. I don’t ascribe or agree to everything in the Book of Church Order, but my church, not the PCA is where my family and I feel called to be at the moment.”
“I believe God has called me to be in a church that just happens to be PCA. I’m not sure that he has called me into the PCA, but rather this specific church. I am not sure I would stay in the PCA if I had not been called into my church, even within my church, which aims to be multiracial.”
Charles agrees that those two reponses are probably similar to congregants in Charles’ church. “That’s one of the challenges for us as ministers in these churches that have Black people,” he shared. “And it’s not just for Black people, but for the white pastors as well.” He feels the tension of both desiring to bring Black people into this tradition because you want them in with you but at the same time feeling the need to protect them from “all the craziness and nonsense that sometimes goes on by being a person of color in this denomination.”
He’s found that a lot of Black people love their specific church, but once exposed to the larger denomination – especially if nominated to be an officer responsible on a level beyond their local church – it becomes very challenging. Only then do they voice they are committed to this local expression of the PCA, but aren’t sure they can make that commitment to the denomination.
Alex noted the same trend in his church, which would not be considered a traditional PCA church. “Most people attending our church come from non-PCA, non-Presbyterian backgrounds. And so they’re all committed to our local church but would not say they are committed to the broader denomination.” But he does not see this as specific to Black congregants. “I think that’s what most American Christians think, too. Even if you think about a National Baptist, which is historically Black, most of the Black people who may go to those churches are committed to the local body, more so than to the overall denomination.” He feels this speaks to the importance of the local church and its role – especially in the PCA – in reaching Black people. No overture at the General Assembly will have the same type of impact on an individual congregant basis.
Most of the minority members at Alex’s church come because of the teaching and the Reformed theology. They’re not necessarily coming because they’re drawn to its multicultural or intercultural vision. That probably does not even make the top five of their list of reasons for attending. They eventually grab hold of the vision, but that is often not what first attracts them. But when people stay, they become committed to the cross-cultural work of the church.
Someone else raised a related reason: “Honestly, I’m not sure this is the right question anymore. I stay in the PCA because I ended up here and God hasn’t told me to go.” While this person didn’t feel particularly called to the PCA, they didn’t feel called to leave it either.
To Witness Reconciliation
One individual had more lofty reasons to stick around the PCA:
“I stay in the PCA to experience the miraculous reconciliation promised by the gospel that is only made possible by the grace of Jesus. I believe that the love that we could display once genuinely reconciled is the type of love and grace that will draw more people to Jesus.”
According to Alex, the church on earth will never be what it could and we are only able to be given a foretaste of the blissful picture of the diversity of the church we get in Revelation 7:9. But that, to him, doesn’t mean we don’t long and work for it. “Even in those churches that strive to be multicultural, there will be hurt feelings and reasons to repent. But this person articulates a worthy goal and the whole church should be centered around that goal. If churches are to commit to it, it should be reflected in its leadership – who’s up front, who’s teaching, who’s ordained, who’s coming on staff? Mission statements don’t make reality. Confessional reality and functional reality must match. And so confessionally, if we say we want to have racial reconciliation functionally, what does that look like on your website? In the staff and leadership?”
He added that once you say you want to have a church committed to reconciliation, you shouldn’t expect to bring people in from different cultures without shaking things up. Most people are not ready for that.
Howard shared about his and Kellie’s experience starting Christ Central, a church attempting to be multi-ethnic. “Kellie and I felt it was going to be a good platform in a city like Charlotte where there were no other Black or multi-ethnic PCA churches. It was a good start to reaching a critical mass of Black people. That’s where our hearts were.” They knew they could get a pastor and a bunch of white members. But their hearts were for African-Americans finding the same love and joy and affirmation they enjoyed in the PCA. They knew their Reformed theology, love of the Scripture, and teaching were going to draw a big white tribe but their goal was to make sure the church was truly representative.
“What we’ve missed is the idea of true genuine reconciliation and instead, it’s spoken of in a rudimentary way where cultures are watered down to make space for the dominant culture.” But he explained that’s not the vision presented in Revelation. Each culture is allowed to show up in its fullness as God wanted them to be. Once that happens, genuine reconciliation can happen.
At present, however, Charles believes not enough time or attention has been given to imagining what healthy Black Presbyterianism looks like let alone a reconciled Black and white Presbyterianism. “We need some time to figure out what would it look like if we were able to do this without having to compromise it. And we just haven’t. That’s one of the things I’m praying we can actually pursue in this next season in the life of this denomination.”
“My spouse is deep in the PCA. If not for that, I wouldn’t be here. But I see God’s sovereignty in all of it.”
In the PCA, this happens a lot, particularly to women, because of their relatively limited roles in the church. Kellie acknowledged that’s just what marriage is, “You go together.” While there aren’t a lot of men who come to the PCA because of their wife’s role, at least one example came to mind. Vanessa Hawkins got hired and her husband went with her. Kellie added, “As a spouse, you gotta work that out beforehand. I hope men are listening to their wives. I hope men are asking their wives how they’re doing, being at these churches like this. I hope there was some buy-in and agreement to terms for her. These are very difficult spaces to be in as women, especially if you feel like you’ve got any kind of giftedness or want to have a voice or just see other women have a voice. But if you’re a Black woman on top of that…” She hopes husbands are not taking for granted that their wives are fine. They need to be intentional about checking in on how they’re doing.
For these reasons, Howard sees women of color in the PCA having it hard on two fronts: the expectations of ministry wives and expectations about Black women.
Black women do not lose their culture when they join the PCA. Kellie explained, “We bring a culture. Everybody brings a culture and there’s nobody that doesn’t bring a culture. And so when you talk about a Black marriage in these spaces where it’s tough to find people like you it’s a challenge. I think we have come a long way. In the beginning, there was some comparison all the time of me to other white women. I’m not like that. I want to be in the room. I want to know what the session meeting was about. I want to go to presbytery. I’m a different type of person that way. I don’t even know a lot of Black women in the denomination like me. When you compare me to other women around, I just don’t fit. That was hard for us in the beginning, we really struggled. The expectations when you are the Black spouse are higher.”
She added a word of caution, “I went into the situation thinking we’re just going to a spiritual space where there’s good teaching, good Bible studies, good marriage counseling and indeed the PCA has much to offer in those areas. But it is also a cultural space and that affects Black love and Black marriage. You are face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder dealing with the same macro- and micro-aggressions at the most intimate levels.”
To Challenge Misconceptions
Another response was admirable yet potentially costly.
“I stay in the PCA to use my influence to challenge the misconceptions of my white brothers and sisters about the Black experience. And also because no one owns the PCA, not even old white men, except God. And so I belong here.”
To this, Alex encouraged nuance. “There’s not just one Black experience and there’s not just one Black culture. They can only talk about their own experience, and let others know that Black culture is broad and can’t all be lumped into one experience.”
Due to his long tenure in the denomination, Howard is in a position to speak not only to Black people in the PCA but to the hearts of his white brothers and sisters as well. He’s been encouraged by anyone who wants to see a difference.
Charles worships with those who don’t fit into the picture most often presented of what white people should be, especially those who don’t fit into the traditional PCA church. “We get the odd ones, the liberal ones, the ones who would not be accepted into discipleship in another church.”
He did, however, challenge the notion that one’s misconceptions need to be corrected before treating people as they should be. “Let’s assume everything you think about Black people is true. You’re not going to still love me?” He believes the burden to challenge misconceptions should be released along with the responsibility to present a model of Blackness more palatable to white taste buds.
Several hosts agreed they’d all spent more time than perhaps they wanted or was useful talking about the Black experience. They wanted to be seen as having more to offer. Charles said, “I actually could teach the Bible. I don’t have to always talk about being Black.”
Kellie added similar sentiments, “I have more scope than just helping white people figure out Black culture and experience. Some of us can do that. And if you are called to that, fine. But when I look at all my other Black girlfriends, they didn’t sign up for that. I will if I need to. But I also can talk about the Bible experience, the Christian experience, and the American experience. I have a lot of different experiences that I can help somebody work through.”
Alex offered a word of encouragement, “For our young Black listeners you have the freedom to say to your white brothers and sisters, ‘If you’re gonna love me, this cannot be the topic of conversation.’ If they love you, they will receive that. You have more to offer your church than just the Black experience and talking exclusively about Black issues. Don’t feel guilt or shame about it wearing you out.”
What will it take for us as black people to flourish here?
Flourishing came in stages for Alex. The first was recognition of a call. The next stage was connections in his local church, with brothers in his presbytery, then finally with other Black leaders and people in the PCA. Then came community — real community — with both Black and white members of his church as well as with people outside the PCA and even outside his church made possible through events like LDR.
Also, for him and his wife, counseling has helped. “If you are a leader in the PCA, counseling can definitely help make sense of the calling, the connection, and the community. It is part of my regular schedule in life because I know eventually I’m gonna hit a rough patch, and knowing I got my therapist meeting coming up, helps me navigate this space.”
Howard added another way to flourish, for teaching elders, is being able to be cared for by your church with a working wage where you can be free from worldly concerns in that way to focus your attention on the kingdom work at hand. In the PCA, teaching elders are part of a denomination that allows them to be full-time and pastoral work. You get to be a part of a loose confederacy of churches that provide freedom to shape your church – within certain parameters, of course – to culturally reach who you want it to reach. African-American leaders and movements can flourish within the freedom the denomination has already established within itself.