As an employment attorney, I’ve become familiar with the phrase “constructive discharge.” In short, it’s the idea that your work environment has become so hostile that you have no other option but to quit; you’ve been forced out. And even though you have voluntarily left, the law treats it as if you were actually fired. You may have noticed a parallel within the church. I think it’s time we realize that many people of color are being constructively discharged from their predominantly white churches.
So what does it look like for a Christian to be constructively discharged from their church? The New York Times recently reported on the mass exodus of black Christians from predominantly white evangelical churches. It’s well documented that white evangelicals have often elevated their pursuit of political power above the lives and safety of their black brothers and sisters in Christ. The recent election, which has shined a light on the dark racial divisions that permeate the Church, has left many Christians of color feeling like we no longer belong (and wondering if we ever did).
Week after week, Sunday after Sunday, many of us have had to mentally and emotionally prepare ourselves for our church’s inevitable silence and indifference—or worse—when it comes to the racial injustice seeping from our nation’s capital and enveloping our country. In doing so, our relationship with the church has been strained, and at times, our faith has been shaken. Sadly, for many others, their faith has been shattered completely.
So it should come as no surprise that so many black Christians (and even some racially-aware white allies) have been left with no other option but to find a new place of worship. There is no other way to put it: black people are being constructively discharged from predominantly white churches. It has simply become too costly, too draining, and too toxic for many of us to remain in churches that claim to desire unity but practice a culture of exclusion.
It’s easy to mistakenly characterize these departures as voluntary, but to do so would be a significant missed opportunity. Any pastor or Christian who is asking “Why are black people leaving our church?” is asking the wrong question. The better question is, “Why are we failing to create an inclusive community for our black brothers and sisters, and how can we do better?” We should be examining our cultures to determine whether they are truly inclusive. Are people of color reflected in leadership? Are there opportunities for voices of color to be heard, to contribute, and to actually enact change? Or are people of color only welcomed to assimilate, to fit into a preconceived mold, or to serve as a token representative? In many cases, black Christians aren’t leaving the church because of a better opportunity, they are leaving as a last resort; an emergency procedure necessary for the restoration, if not resurrection, of their faith.
To my black brothers and sisters in Christ who remain in predominantly white churches, I see you. I see you struggling to bear the burden of racial reconciliation despite the lack of reciprocation from most of the white members of your church. I see you practicing Christ-like forgiveness, patience, and love in the face of indifference, dismissal, and, at times, thinly veiled racism. I see you embodying the biblical hope of restoration even though with every new police shooting, that hope becomes less rational.
But I also see you dying little by little. I see you willing to risk spiritual suicide by choosing to remain in a church community that brings you more death than life because you feel called to solve the race problem. But we are not all called to be martyrs and to suffer continuously for the sake of convincing our white brothers and sisters that our lives matter. We would not tell a battered wife to return to her abusive husband because it was her responsibility to make him a better person. And we would rightfully question any pastor who gave such marital counseling. So why do we continue to practice such terrible advice, returning to the source of our abuse every Sunday under the impression that we are the church’s only hope for racial reconciliation?
It is ok to find a new church.
And honestly, I’ve seen God use the departure of people of color from predominantly white churches as a catalyst for racial reconciliation. It has prompted pastors to examine their church and their heart, and to finally recognize that racism is not a secondary gospel issue. This won’t happen in every situation, but it’s a reminder that God is not leaving this issue solely in your hands.
This doesn’t mean that we should all leave our predominantly white churches nor am I encouraging casual church hopping. Some of you may have witnessed progress and have reason to believe that your church is on the verge of a breakthrough. Others may truly be called to lead their churches through some racial growing pains. But for many of us, we need to acknowledge that it is not ok to keep running back to our abuser and putting on a fake smile in the name of “unity” or “reconciliation.” It is ok to leave.