Preaching & the Woke Church

An Interview with Eric Mason

Eric Mason is the founding pastor of Epiphany Fellowship in Philadelphia and the founder and president of Thriving, an organization which seeks to develop ministry leaders in the urban context. Mason is the author of three previous books and his newest book is called Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christian’s in America to Confront Racism and Injustice, published by Moody Press.

Preaching: First of all, what do you mean by “woke church”?

Mason: One of the things that I think is very, very important, when we talk about the church, we’re talking about the called-out ones of God. I usually hate putting something in front of Christianity or church to give it its definition. But in this case, woke is really to extract one of the many multi-faceted pieces of the church’s defining function and mission as identity of a people of God, as well as worshipers of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So when we say woke, we’re really looking at Ephesians chapter 5, where it talks about “awake sleeper and rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you.” So as we talk about woke, woke for me points deeply to the great reality of the fact that we’re as believers in the gospel when we trust Jesus Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, through Christ alone, through the penal substitutionary atoning work of His death and resurrection on our lives, that takes us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of His marvelous Son.

Before we were saved, the Bible says in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 that the god of this world has blinded our eyes so that we won’t see the gospel. And when you don’t see the gospel, you’re not able to see the world in a totally different way as a new creation as 2 Corinthians 5:17 talks about. So when we go back to that Ephesians passage, that Ephesians passage is very, very helpful because it lets us know that everyone can have some sense of understanding of creation in general to point them to God.

So when we talk about woke we’re talking about people who are aware specifically of issues of racial injustice in this country. Now, you don’t have to be a believer to be aware of those things, however, being a believer should inform it more deeply, richly, and robustly, because of the nature of the gospel, the power of spirit, and the depth of the word of God in church history. The word woke is really just morphed terminology from the idea of being conscious.

We’re also aware of the need for restoring black dignity. You don’t have to be a believer to understand that dignity needs to be restored to different people.

The question is, is dignity merely to the physical image or the comprehensive imaging that God has given us through the Imago Dei. The word woke, when defined by me in relation to the church, in a deeper sense of the word impacts all Christians cross-ethnically, and how they turn the ship of their of life as it pertains to engaging and impacting racism in terms of biblical justice, being aware of racism and injustice and having solutions to be able to impact it.

Preaching: In the 21st century, why is racism still a pressing issue for the church?

Mason: I think the social construct of racism has been weaved into our DNA since the 1500s, all the way from 1619 until today. In the foundation of American culture, some people will call it the original sin of America. And now the original sin of America is the sin of racism. And so even when there were laws put in place, like laws abolish slavery, yet Jim Crow and the black codes were still present.

The stats, the numbers don’t lie. Like some hip-hop artists say: men lie, women lie, but numbers don’t. When you look at the inequities and the imbalances for everything from education to economics to redlining of housing and the redevelopment of neighborhoods through gentrification. We’re the most prison driven country to the point where you can buy stock in prisoners; it’s unbelievable that prisons are on the stock market. You’ll see a ton of inequities.

It sort of blindsides me when people talk like racism doesn’t exist, that it’s a minority philosophy. We’re not talking about merely individuals, we’re talking about racism. We’re talking about the systems and the people that run those systems that perpetuate the ideologies of racism that’s historic to the way this country has related to the people of color in this country for the last 400 years.

Preaching: Why do you think so many white evangelicals seem to be unaware of this challenge of racism and injustice in the culture today?

Mason: That’s a very good question. The lack of awareness comes from something in particular. It’s the way we’re socialized in this country. And the way we’re socialized in this country is the way history is told. If my kids go to a Christian school, one of the things you’ll find in that Christian school is they learn a lot of medieval history, a lot of Greco-Roman history. They learn the Western thread of history. Even at public schools, the Western thread of history.

Let’s say North African history – even if you’re in a seminary or in a school it’s what we would call whitewashed. Look at the covers of Christian books. I have a library of a couple thousands books. But look at the covers of most of the books, if you’re seeing Paul, if you’re seeing John Mark, if you’re seeing Moses, most of them are painted as European.

What begins to happen is, inferentially whites start realizing, they are indoctrinated with themselves being the historical norm and everybody else being a variant. That’s why you would hear things like “ethnic groups.” Everybody is an ethnicity. So when somebody is saying who is an ethnic group, what you are saying is that whites are the norm and everybody else is a variant of the norm which is white.

So when you begin to talk about issues of racism, that inferential normal-ness that everybody is supposed to be standardized towards feels like: “Man, why are you working against the way we all should understanding things? We want to set the standards. That’s not racism, that’s just the fact that we’re the majority. So, we have the right to be viewed this way. And you have the need to move our direction in order to be normalized.”

The reality is we don’t realize that we’re all socialized and educated in a way that moves us towards normalizing whiteness. We don’t know it’s in our DNA to particularly think of whiteness as superior, which whites wouldn’t see that as a variant of the Imago Dei. We would say no, it is against the Imago Dei to think one ethnicity is greater than the other, or is the standard for others. Christ is our standard, Jesus is our standard.

When all of that comes into play, everything around you plays into you beingvisually, sociologically and spiritually deafened to the reality of racism.

There’s less white in the biblical history than any other ethnicity. And somebody says, “Why does it matter, why are we talking about color?” You can’t ask that question when, historically, your culture developed color as a major issue that defines things. You can’t backtrack and now say “Why are we making it about color and culture and that type of thing?” You did it first; we’re just responding to the revisionist nature of what was communicated to us, to make us think that others globally weren’t influencers in the missiological movement of Christianity.

Preaching: Your book is a real challenge to the church. What are some specific things you think churches should be doing to engage this issue of systemic and personal racism in American culture?

Mason: Let’s go through the cycle. So I have a cycle of 4 A’s. I go through awareness, or be aware, be willing to acknowledge it. Then we talk about being accountable and we talk about active. I think one thing I want to be careful on the do side, is for my white siblings. If I tend to give them a few action items, they tend to view those action items as completing the cycle of eradicating that in their sphere. Whereas we didn’t get here overnight. So it’s not going to take a few outreaches and a few racial reconciliation summits to deal with the eradication of racism. I don’t think it’ll be eradicated until Jesus returns. But I do believe there will be systemic wins in fighting it and gaining grounds because the church is a moving entity and Hell will not prevail against it. And so there will be victims.

So we’re talking about being aware. One of the things I talk about in the book is just defining what it means to be aware; when we hear the words “racism” and “justice” stop saying stuff like “that’s cultural Marxism and ethnic narcissism.” None of us are talking about the social gospel. What we need to do is build common ground on what’s a biblical theology of justice.

Basically, Jesus gives us different forms of hermeneutics by which to look at different aspects of the Old Testament. We should look at the Old Testament, of course, through Christological eyes, based on Joshua 6:37, and based on the Emmaus Road experience. But then he gives us three other ones: mercy, justice and faithfulness. So Jesus is saying that we should be looking for the thread of justice. Not that every text has justice in it, but there’s a sense in which there’s a thread of justice as one of the big themes of the Bible that the people of God should be looking for as a way to make sure that we rightly express the intrinsic righteousness of God and the extrinsic experience of human beings.

I think the most practical thing we have to do is to fundamentally agree and be aware of where we need to agree. But I also think we need to look at Ephesians 4 – we’re family. So this is not a kick-out contest; this is a fighting from victory standpoint, where we believe that we are able to walk in unity because the gospel gives us the ability to be unified. But then we’ve got to begin having the willingness to acknowledge that the church was asleep. Just over the last 400 years, 75-80% of the church – if not more, except for the Quakers and a few Methodists and Baptists – for the most were hefty proponents of promoting slavery. We have to look at how the church was co-conspirators in all the way up through, all the way till now. There are some things to lament.

We’ve got to get to the point where we’re being accountable. We’ve agreed on these things; now we’ve got to start prophetically speaking out, and preaching out about this. This should be laced in our preaching and we’re doing biblical exposition. From there we begin talking about those issues. We begin to develop relationships with actual people so that we can hear the stories of people cross-ethnically – particularly whites hearing stories of African Americans and experiencing those stories, understanding and then finding ways. on the systemic level and on the individual level, to influence these systems, to turn the tide of the wave in which race is turned against people of color within the church of faith. There needs to be an awareness that pastors take to their leaders and leaders take to the congregation.

And in being a prophet you’ve got to know that if God has called you to do something, you have to be willing to takes the loss. That means you have to count the cost of the reality of talking about this stuff and engaging in this stuff and challenging these thinkers; it’s going to cost you something. But the Bible says that if you lose your life for my sake you gain it.

Preaching: Specifically in the area of preaching, how do you think pastors can use their pulpits to address this issue?

Mason: I think the question is not how; it’s just using it. I think white pulpits in particular, they know how to use it for abortion and sex trafficking and different things. I don’t think that’s going to be the problem. I think the problem is whether or not you want to have the Holy Ghost audacity to stand up there and know that you might lose some money. I think our brothers and sisters know how to use the pulpit. The question is, are you going to walk in the boat and actually do this.

We know how to create a theological framework for abortion being wrong. We’re going to develop legislation against these particular things. We’re going to close them out of neighborhoods – that’s why there are no abortion clinics in most white communities. The majority of abortion clinics are in black communities, not in white communities. So, somebody was doing something to make sure that those abortion clinics stayed out, based on them unifying their power to make sure legislatively they keep abortion clinics out of their communities.

So, I will push back on how do I use my pulpit. You know how to use it because you used it for other things. That question really is, how do I do this without losing is really the question?

Preaching: Tell me about your own preaching. If we come visit Epiphany Fellowship one Sunday, what would we experience?

Mason: I would say it’s culturally symphonic. Because most would say my preaching is heavily exegetical yet accessible. And intellectual yet engaging. And so, that’s what people from my congregation say to me. I tend to be expositional-topical and expositional book study, expositional doctrinal.

One of the things about having a lot of millennials is they keep me on the cusp of culture, so I’m trying to be Issacharian as well as Berean. I want to be Berean because I want to know how to work in response to different things and be clear in words. But then I’m Issacharian, I believe, because I want to know the times; I know what Israel ought to do.

Preaching: Do you preach mostly in series?

Mason: Yes. I think series are very helpful for the development of people. I’m heavily textually based, not using the text as a spring board. You may know the story, but I can’t do that where I am because I’m in a 95% unchurched part of the country. We’ve got to tell the story. So the majority of it is me going very, very text based. I’m aware of the need for my people to understand and know the Bible but then also to understand its broader framework for the practice of their lives.

Preaching: Do you mostly move through books, or do you use thematic series also?

Mason: It’s both/and, but topical expositions are still exposition. It’s about half and half or two-thirds books. But even the way I do books is I frame them’ I give it a subtitle that is connected to the book and where people are so that they can engage. Like I want to do the seven churches just now, and I’m calling it the Conquerors series. And under that, we think about conquering apathy, we think about conquering disappointment, conquering rejection. So you see those different themes in the Bible using the reality of our lives.

Preaching: How long is a typical series for you?

Mason: It’s according to the book. If it’s Corinthians it may take nine months to a year. If it’s the seven churches, seven to eight weeks.

Preaching: How long is a normal sermon for you?

Mason: Forty minutes long, though people don’t care if I preach an hour. We have three services, and I’ve got to conserve energy so it’s usually forty minutes.

Preaching: One last question: if you could offer any word of counsel to young pastors early in their ministry, what would it be?

Mason: Buy as many reference books as you can – whether it’s a digital library or a physical library – instead of buying fad Christian books, unless that book is a systemic book helping you to understand something about God or something you need to invest in the spiritual formation of your soul.

And the other thing is don’t underestimate prayer. Prayer is half the battle in preparation.