Conversations in Evangelical Diversity

by Elisabeth Stringer and Victoria Greenwald

On Oct. 31, Evangelicals recognized the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a time when a few Christians looked at their tradition and said, “We are missing the mark.” With love for Christ and the church, they took the hard step of reforming how they expressed their devotion to God.

Some believe that the American Evangelical movement may be on a similar brink, though needing not theological reform, but cultural reform. While this discussion within the Wheaton community is only the beginning of a conversation, here we will highlight the perspectives of a few members of the College community. They see places of growth in the Evangelical movement and have already been thinking and speaking about those changes.

Entering the Conversation

On Oct. 19, Christianity Today published an article by Wheaton’s Ministry Associate for Discipleship Ray Chang titled “An Open Letter to John Piper on White Evangelicalism and Multiethnic Relations.” Pastor John Piper’s original article discusses what rapper Lecrae’s “loosening ties with ‘white evangelicalism’” means for multiethnic relations.

Piper’s article thanked Lecrae for his honesty but questioned what this means for Evangelicalism — is Lecrae’s exodus prophetic? And what should Evangelicals do about it? — questions to which Piper could not give an answer.

Chang’s post attempts to provide some insights into the long history of cultural shaping that’s happened within the American Evangelical church. He gives two definitions for  “Evangelicalism:” First, as “a movement of gospel centrality, focused on the primacy of scripture and justification by faith that emerged from the reformation.” The second defines Evangelicalism as “a modern movement within Protestantism,” which he explains is marked by four core tenets: the centrality of the Bible, Christ crucified, conversion of others to the faith and social activism. “White Evangelicalism,” Chang says, is “a segment of modern Evangelicalism that is led and shaped by a cultural agenda defined by whiteness.”

Ultimately, Chang expresses concern for the witness of the church as the watching world cannot discern evangelicalism from the white evangelical expressions that have long made it difficult for Christians of color to flourish since they are not able to shape the tradition or feel at home within it.

One notable response to Chang’s article came from Bryan Loritts, lead pastor at Abundant Life Church in Silicon Valley, Calif. Loritts’ response, also published on the Christianity Today website, applauded Chang’s “prophetic … diagnosis and insight” and includes Loritts’ own experience as a minority pastor in a majority white tradition: “I don’t care how good your team is; when you’re always the visitor playing in someone else’s stadium, your chances of true equality are grossly diminished.”

We talked to eight individuals on campus, both students and faculty, who were already engaging with the themes of Chang’s article, to give us a glimpse into what has, for them, been an ongoing conversation surrounding the term “Evangelical” and what its historically white culture means for the label going forward. We’ve compiled some of those interviews into snapshots that look at the conversation beyond Chang’s original article and point, from their own perspectives, towards a fuller picture of the Church.

The Label or the Tradition?

Many of our interviewees agreed that the term “Evangelical” doesn’t have a solid definition. Senior Hannah Garringer said, “Part of why is hard is because the term ‘Evangelical’ is so nebulous.”

There seems to be a strong generational divide over what “Evangelical” means — is it a label or a tradition? Senior EVP of Community Diversity Stephen Watts said, “I would say that I cannot consider myself an Evangelical because of the connotations that have nothing to do with theology, but are cultural.” Junior Sam Lee also has removed the Evangelical label from himself. “Like Lecrae,” he said, he does not share “that history ”. Growing up the child of immigrant Korean parents and in a completely Korean church, the white history “didn’t apply” to Lee. When he came to Wheaton, he adopted the label because he could “identify with the strict definitions of Evangelicalism.” However, Lee added, “it’s hard to disconnect them from the cultural history.” For some students, “Evangelical” has taken on cultural and political connotations that they can’t agree with, so they shed the label.

Some faculty members we interviewed suggested reforming evangelicalism in the tradition of the reformers it was established upon. “If we give up the word ‘Evangelical,’ what’s next? Just how much Christian vocabulary are we willing to cede?” asked Associate Professor of Art History Matthew Milliner. Professor of Old Testament M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas) labels himself as “very much so” an Evangelical, agreeing with Milliner that “it would be unfortunate if we negotiated away the label because of certain groups within Evangelicalism.” Carroll is confident in the core theological tenets of Evangelicalism yet identifies that there is work that needs to be done to change the connotation of the term culturally. Professor of Theology and Director of the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies George Kalantzis and Associate Professor of Theology Gregory Lee also ascribe to the Evangelical tradition while noting that the label has taken on political meaning outside of its theological intent.

“The community is undergoing significant turmoil and change,” Dr. Lee said. Yet Lee, along with the other interviewed faculty members, favors reform over abandonment. Kalantzis agrees: “If the ‘X’ expression of that identity has started to go down paths that are not expressive of the true identity of Christ, then the purpose of those within the tradition is to say, ‘We need to be reformed.’”

Contextualized Theology

Junior Noah Dunlap affirms that “Wheaton’s identity is Evangelical,” and he believes “there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.” Those interviewed tended to agree that Evangelicalism is a good thing, particularly the faculty who elected to maintain the label. The issue is when Evangelicalism becomes inhospitable. “Students who don’t come from that background, whether they’re Catholic students or students of color, may have never felt included by an Evangelicalism that has been shaped by white culture,” Dunlap said. “There are a lot of things that we need to learn as a white majority about how Evangelicalism has been historically exclusive of those ways of being or other peoples.” It is out of love for Evangelicalism and its members that Chang and these participants say they are choosing to speak into the tradition to direct it towards a fuller representation of the body of Christ.

Whether remaining within the tradition or shirking the label of Evangelicalism, everyone interviewed said Chang’s article highlighted a real change that needs to occur within the Evangelical church and its institutions — Wheaton in particular.

“I think that Wheaton, for the most part, thinks of its theology as unaffected by its cultural context. But the fact is that most of our world has been shaped by white … and yet we’re so certain that our theology has not been,” Watts claimed, urging people to realize “the ways in which their theological expectations are a function of their culture.” From his perspective, “the college’s identity is bound up with an Evangelicalism that’s bound up in white American identity.”

Along the same lines, Dr. Lee spoke to Loritts’ lament of constantly feeling like a visitor in his own tradition: “Minorities often leave Evangelicalism for cultural and not theological reasons. When they do, white Evangelicals often assume something is wrong with the minorities instead of asking how they may have facilitated the rupture.”

Kalantzis noted the “monocultural” nature of Wheaton: “We hear the, ‘We’re better than we used to be,’ which is fine, but that cannot be an excuse for not actively trying to be inclusive of what Evangelical identity ought to be — Latino, African American or black African Evangelical is not the same as suburban, white Evangelical.”

Hope in the Conversation

Many of our interviewed participants hope Wheaton, as a historically and predominantly white Evangelical institution, will be open to learning how to be more inclusive of other Evangelical identities.  Each of them voiced hope for positive change in the institution and the Church they love. Unity in diversity is necessary and possible, they said.

Our participants answered questions aimed at how Wheaton — and the Evangelical church at large — can respond to those who feel alienated by the label by suggesting that people engage in conversations. “It’s a tough question with a simple answer: actually listening — getting to know people,”  Lee said. “It’s about listening to stories and celebrating difference.”

“You see aspects of God in different people, which is even more evident across different cultures. So the more you learn about the diversity of humanity, the more you see who God truly is,” said Garringer. Dr. Lee elaborated, saying: “It is important for Christians to learn more about cultures not their own so that they can perceive their own blind spots and how they may unintentionally be contributing to an unfriendly environment — and that happens through experiences and relationships.”

A common response to Chang’s article asserts that engaging in diversity conversations will only divide the church more and that the church should allow the gospel to wash over divisive distinctions.  “We’re told we live in world of polarities, and we should be ‘colorblind,’” Kalantzis said in response, adding that “Christianity is exactly the opposite. Instead of being a black-and-white banal homogeneity, it’s actually full color.” Christians “celebrate” the particularities of people, all formed in “the image of Christ.” “When we buy into the narrative of lack of distinction, then we actually don’t see the other … And if we don’t see the other, we cannot see the historical relationship that we have had.” This, Kalantzis said, prevents Christians from identifying “the systems that have brought us into the current situation. I cannot repent of a sin — systemic, personal, individual — that I do not see. So Christianity is not a tempering down into this banal homogeneity; Christianity is actually identifying the particularity and saying, ‘In Christ, we get our bodies back. We get our identities back.””

Starting and sustaining conversation surrounding cultural diversity is a priority of the College, according to President Philip Ryken. “Students who value ethnic and cultural diversity in the body of Christ will be better prepared to do the difficult, joyful and sometimes painful work of worshiping in multicultural congregations, which tend to be uniquely effective in sharing the gospel,” Ryken said.

Carroll views change, especially on the institutional level, as a two-part solution: “you have to speak about the problem and towards solving the problem. Both of those need to be done well.” Watts also understands the value of conversation and believes that Wheaton “talks really well about diversity, but we don’t act very well about it.”

Dr. Lee and Kalantzis are both supporters of “meaningful and sustained cross-cultural learning, both globally and in domestic contexts,” through programs such as HNGR, Wheaton in Chicago and those offered through GEL. Those programs, Kalantzis says, are “steps in the right direction.” But, he says, “Can we make central to our character as a college?” That kind of commitment — one that goes beyond conversation — requires resources, which many of the participating faculty mentioned in their interviews. “There’s a reason underrepresented communities are underrepresented,” said Kalantzis. “Let’s put our money where our aspirations are.”

Garringer highlighted the systemic nature of change “coming from the top down” and her frustrations with seeing little change happen during her time at Wheaton: “I feel like I do a lot of things individually, but it’s harder to challenge the system without the power to challenge the system. And that power’s with the money and the trustees and the donors.” She felt as though many “attempts at change are very much pacifying rather than addressing the real issue.”

Chang, in his open letter, says that change happens at the highest levels, and he proposes a diversity of leadership as necessary for change. “At every layer of evangelical leadership, allow for a solid concentration of evangelicals of color to occupy culture-shaping positions of authority,” he argued. Currently, Wheaton has five white, and in the 150 year history of the college, Wheaton has never had a person of color on the Senior Administrative Cabinet.

The is currently planning to hire a Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer who will “play a central role in framing a compelling vision for biblical diversity and embrace the challenge of deepening ethnic diversity, promoting racial unity, and advancing intercultural understanding in the pursuit of campus-wide excellence,” according to Wheaton’s website. Some students have created an online petition calling for changes to the position, citing recommendations from the Diversity Review Team.

For some members of the Wheaton community, the American Evangelical movement carries with it political and cultural connotations that are in need of reformation. Milliner said he looks forward to effective reform: “I’m perfectly happy to see evangelicalism as we know it dramatically transforming as we look ahead to a unified and diversified, larger, broader church to come.”

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