The White Messiah Complex

If you’ve looked at my bio you may have noticed something about me: I’m white. And I’m not urban white. I’m folk music and chewing tobacco white. Yet I live in the inner city and I pastor at an inner city church.

Lately, there’s been some talk regarding white inner city church planters and pastors like myself. There aren’t many of us, but we are sometimes referred to as colonialists or imperialists. I don’t disagree with this assessment, however. From what I’ve seen, this accusation is often valid. I’d like to help my fellow white people avoid this stigma and serve better by learning from past mistakes. First, let me emphasize that I am by no means an expert in the field, and I certainly don’t have it “all figured out.”

As a white person in the inner city, I have faced some unique challenges, and I’ve also had some excellent guidance along the way. If you are white and are interested in living or ministering in the inner city or simply desire to have cross-cultural relationships, I’d like to share a few lessons with you that I’ve learned thus far.

SUBMIT TO MINORITY LEADERSHIP

There is a sad history of white Christians entering foreign contexts, imposing their culture on the indigenous people, and refusing to hand control over to them. This is often referred to as the “White Messiah Complex.”[1][2] It comes from the belief that, “we have all the answers and it’s our job to save these people.” This approach to ministry has caused serious damage to missionary efforts throughout the world, including the inner city. And it is no surprise that there is a mistrust of white people in virtually all minority contexts. Therefore, if you are white and you desire lasting relationships and effective ministry in the inner city, please don’t move forward unless you’ve first submitted to minority leadership.

I’ve been blessed to have an African American pastor as my spiritual father. Additionally, the vast majority of my colleagues, mentors, pastors, and coaches are African American men who serve in the inner city. The guidance I’ve received from these men has been so valuable, and I’ve learned the importance of submitting to minority leadership time after time. What follows are just three lessons I’ve learned in my experience:

Humility: As I said before, white people have a history of withholding control from minorities. It speaks great volumes when you place yourself under a minority leader and sit and serve in that place for years. This is a rare occurrence. It is an act of humility and healing that shows respect in a way that words never could.

Education: If you want to minister in a non-white context, you must first learn how to be effective in that setting. There are so many incredible books and resources created by minority leaders that are often overlooked by seminaries. Thankfully, my mentors have equipped me with many of these resources, and I’ve been introduced to a number of black theologians who offer valuable insight. Additionally, my pastors and friends have been a tremendous help as I’ve sought to grow as a white preacher in a mostly black context.

Affirmation: I have already written a piece on discerning your call to ministry, and you can find it here. While you may find that you are in fact called to ministry, you must further discern whether you are called to inner city ministry. This process cannot be done apart from submission to minority leadership. Receiving a stamp of approval from minority leaders who have lived and served in the inner city must be an indispensable part of your affirmation process.

BECOME A STUDENT OF YOUR CONTEXT

You cannot come into the inner city with a Rick Warren or Bill Hybels book and expect their methods to translate into this context. It doesn’t work that way. Church planting and pastoring in the inner city is unlike any other context. Methods that work in rural, suburban, and even urban contexts probably won’t take you very far in the inner city. Before you can effectively engage the neighborhood, you must first learn about it. Learn about the needs, the challenges, and the greatness that exists there. Ask a lot of questions. Talk to other pastors. Partner with schools and community organizations. You must be humble. You must submit to your context.

TAKE THE BACK SEAT IN RACIAL DISCUSSIONS

If you are in a minority context with minority leadership, racial discussions will occur much more frequently than you are used to. Don’t be surprised by this. Minorities have no choice but to think and talk about race on a daily basis. Their ethnicity is an inescapable part of their existence that has been the basis of undeniable injustice. White people don’t talk about race as much because we aren’t affected by it. As one of my pastors frequently reminded me, “Majority culture doesn’t feel culture.”

You may be confused by some of the anger and sadness you will witness in a largely minority context. As a white person you literally cannot understand much of this pain. But you can choose how you will respond to it. You should always respond in love, and love often looks like affirming people in their pain without necessarily understanding it. Do not assume that your opinion about a certain racial issue is correct. How can you speak into a situation that you have no firsthand experience with? That type of arrogance will completely stifle your influence and destroy your relationships. You must ask sincere questions and desire to learn. And if hearing about “racial stuff” offends you, then the inner city isn’t the place for you, as racial issues are a daily reality here.

CONCLUSION

I hope this insight has proven helpful, as I’m just scratching the surface. There is so much to learn about ministry and relationship building in the inner city. For many of us, the inner city is new and exciting territory, so let’s walk humbly, tread gently, and build real friendships. Trust me, it is so worth it. When I walk into a room and hear “white boy!” I’m glad to know that I am in the company of friends who have accepted me as a brother. In the future I hope to further expand on this topic and share some personal accounts of the damage caused by whites who desired to be “on mission” and “help the inner city,” yet refused to submit to minority leadership. Until then, I hope you can continue this conversation in your communities and circles of friends.


 

[1] http://www.advicegoddess.com/archives/2014/08/10/pathological_al_1.html

[2] http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/white-messiah-complex/

9 Comments

  1. Norman Tisdell II

    Your insights were both spot on and refreshing. I reflected to the cultures I have visited outside the United States and discerned that I should use a similar process.

  2. Maame Yaa

    Thanks brother for this article! Like you’ve stated, you’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. I look forward to seeing how you expound, and hear some of your experiences. This was an interesting article, as I am a African-American woman who attendeds a predominantly Caucasian church that has a desire to reach the local inner city. The Messiah Complex is still very present in the church at large, and the minority community is very aware of it. I would even say it has been a hinderance for some, causing them to detest Christianity and see it as the “white man’s religion”. Keep speaking on this brother, we need to hear more!

    • AJ Smith

      Thanks for the comment and encouragement. It sounds like you have a great story of your own to be shared. I will expound on this topic in the near future, Lord willing.

  3. Juan R Rodriguez

    I’m a Latino who has been called to minister in #CamdenNJ. This was wisdom and written with discernment. Everything you wrote even applies to someone like myself. I was born and raised in Camden but I still have a wealth to learn. If you can recommend so books or mentors it will only enrich my calling.

    • AJ Smith

      Thanks for the comment. I would always recommend a season of internship at a church where you can be assessed and affirmed in your calling. One book I’d recommend on this topic is “The Next Evangelicalism” by Soong Chan Rah

  4. Alon Robinson

    Great insight! And this can be applied to everyone as well. I know that as a black person not from the inner city, I still have limited insight into what those who live in the inner city face on a daily. So the importance of submitting to those who have been there in the trenches long before you came along is so important. Blessings!

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