The Enduring Questions of Black Christians | Sojourners

The Enduring Questions of Black Christians

Tyler Burns. Graphic by Candace Sanders/Sojourners

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

I am sick of the way many white Christians talk about “the Black church.”

My frustration is nothing novel: Some white Christians are desperate to ask Black Christians to justify their institutions and concerns. Other white Christians romanticize Black institutions, flattening complexities and nuances that are natural to any multifaceted group. And if I’m sick of it, I can only imagine how Black Christians feel.

So, when I sat down with Tyler Burns, pastor of Rise City Church in Pensacola, Fla., and president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, I told him explicitly that I would try not to subject him to that sort of conversation.

In his role at The Witness, Burns helps lead an organization that hosts writing, conferences, podcasts, and more centered on the Black Christian experience. He co-hosts the flagship podcast, Pass the Mic, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.

His background, which he called “eclectic,” gives him insight into the variety of this experience, from Pentecostalism and Independent Baptists to the “young, restless, Reformed” movement in Christian hip-hop and his multiethnic church that leans heavily into the cultural expressions of its majority-Black congregation.

We spoke in our conversation about building a Black Christian institution in the 21st century, how social media affects Black churches, learning from those who have left the church, and the possibility of ecumenism.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: The Witness describes itself as “existing to address the core concerns of Black Christians.” What are those concerns as you at The Witness see them?

Tyler Burns, The Witness: When we think of core concerns, that has evolved since The Witness was founded. When [Jemar] Tisby founded The Witness in 2012, the main theme was: “How can we be fully Christian?” And it was much more influenced by Reformed faith — Presbyterian Church in America, Reformed Theological Seminary, Christian hip-hop, etc.

When Mike Brown was killed in 2014, it expanded to: “How can we be fully Christian and still fully Black?” In the early days, being Black was important, but it was more so seen as secondary to being Christian. [In 2014], we realized the necessity of the moment in merging these questions together.

Post-Trump presidency, post-COVID-19, I think it’s expanded yet again. I think the core concerns of Black Christians revolve around three questions: “Can we be fully Christian? Can we be fully Black? Can we be fully human?”

We are moving toward the concept of a healthy human expression of Black Christian thought and Black Christian faith. All the other questions revolve under that umbrella: What does it look like to be healthy and whole? In whatever arena you may have been placed, regardless of your background, what does it look like?

Because of that, we will naturally ask questions of theology, sociology, and culture. We will ask questions of justice and politics. We will ask questions of faith and its expression. The Witness is an organization that majors in thought leadership and in convening spaces where people can work this out.

The final thing is that The Witness is involved in philanthropy. We’re involved in giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars, every year, to Black Christian enterprises so that we are not the only ones being benefited.

You mentioned that “Can we be fully human?” element. Two columns on The Witness right now are “Black Women Plant Seeds” and “(Non)Toxic Masculinity.” That makes me think the frame for “Can we be fully human” is being asked specifically in the context of [different identities, like] Black women, or Black men, or Black LGBTQ+ people; is that right?

We are all reckoning with — and you’ll see this in our #LeaveLOUD series — can we worship Jesus in our fully human, fully Black selves, and it not harm us? We’re really wrestling with this question. [Can] it not actively be harmful, manipulative, and deny who we are? Can it not try to oppress us?

And that’s not a new question [for] Black Christians. This is something Black Christians have been asking since we reached the shores of this country. But we are asking the question in a particular way now because so much of the work that we do intersects with spiritual abuse, church hurt, trauma, and theologies that have been weaponized against us.

As The Witness, we have landed on the side of still believing in Jesus and following Jesus with our lives. However, we know that a lot of people have stepped away from the faith because they haven’t been able to receive a human response from the church. So, we are reckoning with [this]: Can we serve Jesus well and fully and not feel like we’re also being oppressed in the process?

That’s an ancient question that we’re just asking in a new way, trying to figure that out together as Black people — regardless of our gender, regardless of our sexuality, our denomination — trying to ask those questions together in a way that will push us forward toward a fruitful answer that’s safe and healthy.

As a collective that has answered “yes,” what does it look like to be responsive to the people who have said “no” and to learn from them and be in community with them?

That is something that we’ve had to reckon with as we receive comments from people who listen to the podcast and would either not identify as Christian anymore or not be a part of a local, institutional church. We regularly hear from people that say, “I don’t attend church anymore. I don’t think that I will [again]. Pass the Mic is my church.”

Now, ecclesiology aside — because I’m a pastor — we cannot be your church. I cannot be your pastor by a podcast; that is impersonal. At the same time, what they are saying is the spiritual guidance and instruction that they would like to hear from a pastor, spiritual leader, priest, vicar, or whoever, they received that from Pass the Mic … because it feels more like a healthy expression of church than what they received in the church building.

That is both humbling and frightening. This is the tension point for me: As an active local church pastor, it frightens me that people have been that harmed by the church, and it seems as though we continue on as business as usual. [We continue] as if nothing needs to drastically change in the way that we approach one another. That scares me.

How has social media and online community affected what it means to organize as Black Christians, or as “the Black church”? What does it mean that folks can find space for that outside of the traditional institutions?

There are always ways to find spiritual community outside of the church building. We should always be looking for spiritual community and connection outside of the church building. I will say that I do believe in the power of the local body and a healthy local body being able to participate in the sacraments together — communion, baptism — and to be able to love one another tangibly and intangibly, to be able to sit under spiritual instruction together, to be able to wrestle with spiritual ideas in community. Some of those things you can do online. In certain cases, it’s more effective online.

But I think that social media has created a very flat expression of Black Christian thought. It has flattened Black Christian thought in an extremely unhelpful way.

I wrestle with this as a pastor because I have clips to share, and I don’t always feel comfortable sharing clips simply because it has turned something holy into a show. It’s turned it into mass marketing and “who has the best editing, who has the best entertainment, the best creative team, who can keep your attention in a shortening attention span?” I’m all for creativity. But at a certain point, some people are asking the question, “Is this it? Is this all the Black church is now? Is this all we are? Is this all we have to offer?”

That scares me, because the beauty of what the Black church was intended to do is to create a space where Black dignity can be seen and shown, and we can worship Jesus in our fully Black selves. I thought that’s why we were here. And now I feel like it’s become more pageantry than power.

Disclaimer: I’m a young pastor. I’m a very young pastor. I know that I saved most of these comments, these sharp critiques of the church for the OGs who have forgotten more than I know. But I can’t help but say this has affected how I pastor. People come in expecting some sort of show and spectacle. Unfortunately, they think that’s all we have to offer.

It’s funny, you’re speaking very deferentially to what the church may have been before social media, while critiquing the OGs —

[interrupting] I got smoke for everybody. [both laugh]

but how are you trying to mature as a pastor and learn from older generations?

One of the greatest benefits in my current pastorate is I have a truly multigenerational church. This past Sunday, we celebrated one of our members who recently turned 95 years old. I brought her up, because we always wildly celebrate who we call our “champions” — those who are above 60. It blows my mind that she has a 35-year-old pastor. That doesn’t make any sense to me. But we have 80-year-olds, 90-year-olds, going all the way down to two-week-olds in our church.

Part of the blessing and benefit of that is a mutual exchange in how we share community and how we study God’s word together. And there’s much more of a mutual expression of power in the church.

In terms of bridging those gaps, I really, truly believe that the older generations and expressions of the Black church and the Black Christian tradition have so much to teach us. [But] because of survival mechanisms, certain things were just not talked about openly. Ninety percent of the problems people have with the [Black] church lean toward [what we don’t talk about]. Sexuality? We just don’t talk about it — don’t ask, don’t tell. Therapy? We just don’t talk about it. Sex in general? We don’t talk about it.

One of my desires is to focus on leading people in emotional and mental health, trying to be as accessible as I possibly can, to make sure that people do not associate me or the pastorate with something separate and untouchable. For some people, [the pastorate] is the only proof that God is doing something in the earth still. Somebody recently joined the church and she asked, “How do you want to be addressed? Is it ‘pastor’? Is it ‘minister?’ Is it ‘bishop’?” I told her, “You can just call me Tyler.” It throws people off.

Some people come in and call me “Pastor Tyler,” cause they’re older. I just personally do not try to create the same conditions that existed before. Because for a lot of people, that’s what started their trauma — pastor manipulation, intimidation, condemnation. I’m trying to create a more mutual expression of power within the context of the church, both organizationally and in the way we navigate following Jesus together.

From my perspective, as a white Christian who grew up conservative and has become — well, someone at Sojourners — I see white Christians “discovering” the Black church through social media and getting excited. “Oh wow, Christians can be political; Christians can be activists.” [Understandably,] you get excited when reading about somebody like James Cone or Tom Skinner or John M. Perkins. White Christians are excited by a church that cares for people’s souls and material needs.

At the same time, there’s conversations [about the Black church] that we ignore, like you said, about the ways pastors abuse power, LGBTQ+ inclusion, or whatever else. Where’s the work of resisting that flattening and being both politically and socially active while taking care of souls within the church?

People romanticize and lionize one thing they saw, which is exactly what they did with [Martin Luther King Jr.]. My gentle critique to white progressives that are in these spaces: You will do the same thing and lionize and flatten King as the guy, as the activist, when there were people long before King who were doing the same exact thing. He was just the one who was promoted at the moment. There were Black women who were silenced and pushed to the side in favor of a young Black man. We can’t romanticize the picture that we’ve created in our head when we talk about activism or action in religious community.

I acknowledge that I have a role to spiritually throw gas on the fire of the heart of justice and the passion for justice within a church, but I do not have the skill to organize in the same way that someone committed and devoted to the work has. As a pastor, I need to not lead the movement; I need to come alongside the movement that is already being led.

Our role is to make sure that we are monitoring the souls of our congregation, loving them well, pointing them to Jesus, and inspiring them to get involved with the movement that already exists.

I’m [also] trying to build more of a theology around this. When people enter into civic engagement, they leave theology. They think theology doesn’t have anything to say about this. [That’s a mistake.] Whether it’s James Cone or J. Deotis Roberts, Renita Weems, or whoever, it’s helpful to lean into how you holistically think politically as a believer. This doesn’t [mean] “you’ve got to vote this way on this issue, vote this way on that issue.” It’s just there’s more to think about than what you’ve been taught.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that we [shouldn’t] enter into justice work, live a just lifestyle, or encourage it from our pulpits because it will make us look good. There is a massive cost. For the young people who are getting into justice movements, you have to know there’s going to be a major cost involved. Justice is not popular.

I want to ask you about ecumenism, specifically within your work at The Witness. What are you dreaming of when it comes to ecumenical networks for Black Christians?

I’m so happy that our team at The Witness is extremely ecumenical. I’m happy not because it’s easy; I’m happy because I have learned so much from them and from having Black Christians who are from totally different spaces.

Black Christians can be from different spaces but we all kind of know, culturally, the same thing. So, it’s not as much of a separation as it is [for others]. There are some things we know in our bones, in our blood, and we bear witness to in our bodies.

I’m dreaming of a moment where we can have one hub, a safe space for Black Christians from different streams to document their story in their way. I’m dreaming of one space — not the official denominations or websites — where our [African Methodist Episcopal] and [Church of God in Christ] and National Baptist and nondenominational leaders, and so on can have space to document, tell their story and say: “If you want to know how we became who we are, what we’re up to, what we’re doing, if you want to know what we’re wrestling with our siblings in different streams, this is the place where we can wrestle together. This is the place where we talk about what it means to live this thing out, not just in the thought, not just in doctrine, but in life and in humanity.”

Otis Moss III challenged us on our podcast last year [asking], “What does it mean to document the Black Christian story?” That challenge has been ringing in my heart ever since. At The Witness, we’re working on some things that will probably take us a couple of years to really get solid, but we’ve already started conversations.

I was going to ask you how others could support Black Christian spaces, but the answer is obviously money and resources and dedicating your time and volunteering and sharing the work. [both laugh]


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