Time to Talk about Race: Colorblindness and Missiology

Kirsteen Kim is a graduate of All Nations Christian College (UK), Fuller Theological Seminary (US), and the University of Birmingham (UK), where she received her PhD in 2002. Kim is currently the Paul E. Pierson Professor of World Christianity at Fuller. She has also lived and worked in South Korea and in India. Her research straddles missiology, intercultural theology, and world Christianity. Recent publications include The Oxford Handbook of Mission Studies (Oxford University Press, 2022).

Mission Round Table Vol. 18:1 (Jan-Jun 2023): 8-15
To download a PDF of this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 18:1.


1968 was a tumultuous year in the US that has resonances with the current era. Among many other issues, race relations were front and center, especially after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Although brought up in England of white British parents, in 1967–1968 I lived for a year in Princeton, New Jersey, while my mathematician father had a sabbatical at the University. On CBS news and in Time magazine, we saw pictures of police setting dogs on unarmed black protestors, people giving the black power salute, and peaceful protests by black and white people together. I remember once being driven through a predominantly African American area of Philadelphia when my parents took a wrong turn. They were scared, but from the back seat I noticed that almost every window of the row houses held a black-framed photograph of the deceased civil rights leader who eschewed violence. Through our church, I learnt how Princeton was a segregated city, realized that the so-called public pool we swam in was for whites only, and that the famed university had hardly any African-American students or faculty to date.

To continue briefly with my personal experience to illustrate the main theme of the paper, my late parents were white British first-generation university graduates from the early 1950s who held a cosmopolitan outlook and made friends with people of many different cultures. They adopted the prevalent liberal approach to race in the civil rights era, which was colorblindness. In other words, they told me before we arrived in the US that we should integrate—not segregate, treat black people in the same way as white people, and not make any comments about racial differences. I carried this advice into my adult life. Although I embraced people of other races—to the extent of marrying one—and protested racism, I avoided using race as a category to refer to people. Instead, I used other categories like culture, religion, and wealth/poverty. Now living in the US again, since 2017 under the Trump presidency with racist innuendos and encouragement of race hatred, including the shocking murder of George Floyd, I have had to look at my teaching and research again from a race perspective. I have concluded that it is time for me at last to talk about race.

In this paper, I will trace some key developments in dealing with race issues internationally and among US evangelicals since 1968. My thesis is that after years of using concepts of culture, religion, and poverty as synonyms for race,[1] the time has come for missions and missiologists to address issues of race specifically and to move beyond colorblind approaches. First, I will identify problems with colorblindness. Then I will discuss how mission and missiology have been complicit with racialized agendas. Finally, I will put forward an agenda for missiology and missiological education and training in light of contemporary thinking about race.

Racism and the problem with colorblindness

In mid-twentieth century America, race was something you were born with, that defined you, and that determined your life experience. Moreover, the discussion was about only two categories of race: black and white. Racism was a legacy of centuries of slavery of Africans in the Americas, the fall-out from the US Civil War fought over slavery, and the repression of freed slaves by the Jim Crow system of segregation. The rhetoric of the freedom of the slaves was belied by the doctrine of the purity of whiteness—that you could only be white if you had two white parents. The children of interracial unions (which were illegal in many states until 1967) were automatically assigned to the black category (unless they could pass as white), although they might not find acceptance in the black community either. In other words, whiteness was deemed—by the whites who held political, economic, administrative, and cultural power—to be superior to blackness, and segregation arrangements always reflected that status quo. The white majority did not recognize that the blame for the state of affairs that perpetuated the suffering of black people a century after the end of slavery must lie with them because they held that power; instead, most blamed black people themselves for their problems and for race conflict.

Participants marching in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Photograph by Peter Pettus, https://www.loc.gov/item/2003675345/.

Colorblindness was endorsed by Martin Luther King Jr. himself, for example, in his famous prayer that his children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, and it was the foundation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that granted equal access to public places, schools, and other public facilities, and to employment regardless of race, as well as other categories. The anti-discrimination argument was built on the tradition of liberalism enshrined in the US constitution that was now expanded beyond the category of white males. From a colorblindness perspective, it seemed that the race problem would be solved if, from now on, people behaved as if racial differences did not exist. However, in the nearly sixty years since then, racism and its consequences have not gone away. In the US, although African Americans get more opportunities than before, and a black man, Barack Obama, even became president, the statistics for black Americans of poverty, infant mortality, low education, subjection to police searches, deaths in custody, and so on continue to be alarming. Over the last six decades, other communities—especially Hispanic and Asian— have grown significantly, and they too suffer discrimination, lack of opportunity, and marginalization.[2] This continuing reality of racialization has caused scholars of race to question the colorblind approach and propose alternatives.

Colorblindness was challenged first by African Americans, like King’s rival in the 1960s, Malcolm X, who saw deep-seated structural issues that could not be solved by legal or educational changes alone, and perhaps could not be solved at all. The phrase “institutional racism” was coined by a Black Power activist and an academic in 1967.[3] Progressive legal scholars, such as John Rawls, argued that justice should be blind, including colorblind,[4] but critical race theorists argued that colorblindness could address only the most blatant forms of racism,[5] and other legal scholars pointed out that people are necessarily encumbered by their heritage and connections.[6] Political theorists posited that, because a society is not homogeneous, it is impossible to eliminate bias in social administration.[7] Seeing that differences between people and groups lead to different treatment and life experiences, social scientists argued that what was needed was not equality but equity, which takes account of disadvantage and instigates affirmative action to help persons or groups who are struggling. In terms of race, an equity approach gives opportunities to African Americans, especially those descended from slaves, on the grounds that their families and communities have been systemically prevented from social advancement and accumulating wealth compared to white families. For the black activists from the 1960s, the affirmative action required is not only legal and economic but also cultural. They coined the phrase “Black is beautiful” as an expression of pride in their identity and insisted on the study of black history as a means of uncovering the contribution of black people to building the USA and educating their fellow Americans about their heritage.

Yet, despite their efforts, African Americans and other “people of color” exist as second-class citizens in a country in which “whiteness” is the norm.[8] Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes colorblindness as another form of racism that he calls “racism without racists.” It may be less overt but it effectively props up the status quo of the inequality and inequity faced by people of color.[9] He and others argue that unless and until racial inequities are addressed, racism will be a permanent feature of US society. Yet many US churches, especially evangelical ones, are resistant to ideas of equity and affirmative action. In fact, Jesse Curtis argues that colorblindness is embraced by evangelicals to defend the racial hierarchy in the US.[10] His point is that evangelicals—both in the US and globally—promote an inclusive gospel while simultaneously marginalizing leaders of color and refusing to hear their challenges to evangelical norms.

Missiology, race, and colorblindness

Although reference to race was taboo or suppressed in the West after the 1960s, the category did not disappear; instead, colorblind people tended to find other covert or euphemistic ways to refer to it. In this section, I shall argue that culture, religion, and poverty can also serve as ways of categorizing people of different races in ways that are respectable but can be as essentialist or deterministic as the category of race, and just as damaging.

The emergence of European race theories coincided with the appearance of the modern missionary enterprise. Both were features of European colonialism.[11] Not only were the two movements concurrent but the entwining of racist colonialism and Christian mission has been well documented.[12] It can be traced back further to a series of papal bulls in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that deemed that Christians—specifically the rulers of Portugal and Spain—who “discovered” non-Christian lands should enslave any non-Christians there and further authorized them to take their wealth. Not only did this “doctrine of discovery” bring untold suffering for indigenous peoples but it also began the transatlantic slave trade. The worldwide systems that developed from those teachings were largely kept in place as global power passed into the hands of the peoples of Northern Europe and to the US.[13] Although, in this century, the rights of indigenous peoples have been acknowledged by all the countries of the UN and the “doctrine” has been repudiated by many churches, its impact is still felt today.[14]

Race at Edinburgh 1910

The famous World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910, to which some look as the high point of world mission, certainly did not suffer from colorblindness. The prevalence of “race” as a category in the Edinburgh 1910 reports is indisputable, as Brian Stanley shows in his history of the conference.[15] The influence of the doctrine of discovery and the colonial context was apparent in the way that the world beyond the West was defined negatively as the “non-Christian world.” Moreover, the Christian mission of “carrying the Gospel” to these other races was described in the Edinburgh reports in the threatening, militaristic terminology of “forces,” “campaign,” “power,” and “comprehensive and aggressive policy.”[16] The word “missionary” was reserved for white people; so missionaries of any other color were not invited. Mission organizations responded poorly to the suggestion that they include in their delegations leaders of native churches. In the end, out of 1,200 delegates, fewer than eighteen were non-white. Most were not invited to stay in homes in Edinburgh like the white delegates and at least one traveled third class. Stanley further recounts how white supremacist attitudes prevented the conference from receiving what these leaders had to share, which included comments on race relations.

1910 World Missionary Conference Assembly Hall, University of Edinburgh (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

Although the category of race predominated at Edinburgh 1910, it was not the only category used to describe the “non-Christian world;” three other pervasive taxonomies are found in the Edinburgh documents: culture,[17] religion, and economic status. Regarding culture, many European missionaries conducted ethnographic studies of native peoples and these became foundational to the discipline of cultural anthropology. The reports of Edinburgh 1910 cite the leading ethnographer and anthropologist, E. B. Tylor.[18] Tylor replaced racial hierarchies with ranking according to culture or civilization that largely followed racial hierarchies, although he argued that cultural status could be changed through education, unlike race. This progressive view predominated at the conference, which was hopeful that the leadership of some “more advanced” nations, like Japan, China, and India, would soon become Christian, but expected that, in the case of “the more backward races,” especially in Africa, it would be at least a century before they could become part of the expanded Christian society of the West. Edinburgh 1910 demonstrated that the modern concept of culture can, and is, used by the dominant group to define and confine others just as race is.[19] For example, before the Second World War, German missiologists (following Gustav Warneck) emphasized the difference between Christian civilization and Enlightenment culture, which they criticized, and encouraged the Volkskirche—church of the people—approach. That is, they fostered respect for local cultures and opposed the link between mission and the expansion of the white race. Although it honored other cultures, Volkskirche missiology also employed the same essentialist language about other peoples as Nazism and was condemned by postwar continental missiologists for complicity with it.[20]

Tylor’s evolutionary understanding of culture was closely related to religion in that he understood animism to represent the first stage in the evolution of religion. The conditions of Western colonialism constructed other religions as pale images of Christianity, encouraged their systematization and unification, and classified them in relation to Christianity.[21] As part of struggles for independence, these religions were provoked into defining themselves over against Christianity, and so—not surprisingly—they now challenge Christianity as a global power and often make life difficult for minority Christian communities. At Edinburgh, various cultures and religions were ascribed to people of different races so that there was little difference between the two categories. In the atlas that was prepared for the event, religions were classified hierarchically as Christian, “Mohammedan” (an older and incorrect word for Muslim), Buddhist, Hindu, and Heathen.[22] Racialized classifications according to religion persist, for example, in Samuel Huntington’s division of the world into mutually opposed religio-cultural blocs.[23]

Of all the hierarchies at Edinburgh, the most obvious one was economic power and this was accompanied by the idea of development. The conference delegates represented the world’s most powerful nations. Although some, like Japan, China, and India, were considered more highly developed, it was thought that none of them could rival the Western powers. At this point of high imperialism, westerners regarded other peoples as lower in status than themselves because they lacked the wealth, technology, and goods that the West enjoyed. The lower a people were on the race ladder, the lower their economic status was likely to be. Although this attitude of material superiority was common to westerners, speakers at Edinburgh additionally claimed for Christian missionaries a moral superiority.[24] On the one hand, imperial power bestowed a duty on Christians to deal justly and keep colonial governments in check. On the other hand, this mandate was also a form of paternalism that assumed that Christians knew what was best for the other races and could justify colonial intervention. In sum, race, culture, religion, and stage of development were mostly parallel and overlapping categories.

Race debates in world mission from 1910 to 1975

The International Missionary Council that was formed in 1921 in the wake of Edinburgh 1910 perceived “race conflict,” especially in the US and South Africa, to be an issue for missions and commissioned a report on the matter for its first large meeting in Jerusalem in 1928.[25] At that consultation, two African Americans—the educationalist John Hope and a missionary to South Africa, Max Yergan—spoke powerfully and challenged the delegates about their un-Christian attitudes to race. The conference adopted a statement on “Racial Relationships” that condemned discrimination, exploitation, and oppression and committed the IMC to pursuing inter-racial unity.[26] Until it became part of the World Council of Churches in 1961, the IMC continued to make such pronouncements. However, these were belied by its own racialized structures as shown by the commonly used designations of “older” and “younger” churches, the “mission field,” “non-Christians,” and so on. Throughout the history of the IMC, such euphemisms were used instead of addressing the racism they represented.[27]

As the World Council of Churches (WCC) internationalized by receiving into membership newly independent churches in former colonial countries, its structure of membership by national churches offered a more level playing field that enabled black people to rise to leadership, from which they could strongly challenge white Christians. After its second assembly in Evanston, Illinois in 1954, the WCC adopted a statement that denounced segregation and discrimination. Seeing that they could be expelled, the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa left the Council.[28] No US denominations left because the churches that overtly supported segregation, mostly in the Southern states, had not joined in the first place. Eventually, by the end of the 1960s, the WCC approach to race issues had shifted decisively from seeing them as a problem of black people to being caused by white supremacy.[29] Had he not been assassinated beforehand, Martin Luther King would have been a plenary speaker at the WCC general assembly in Uppsala, Sweden in 1968. Soon after that event, the Council launched its Programme to Combat Racism, which controversially supported the African National Congress in South Africa. One of the main reasons for the WCC’s emphasis on humanization and social action in those years was the white supremacy of Euro-American churches.[30] For their part, US evangelical leaders strongly criticized the WCC for its neglect of evangelism in “The Great Debate in Missions.”[31] A key advocate of humanization within the WCC in the 1960s and 70s was Philip Potter, a man of African descent from the Caribbean who took over from Newbigin as secretary of the IMC’s successor body with the Council, the Commission for World Mission and Evangelism (CWME), and became the WCC general secretary in 1972. As a black theologian/missiologist, Potter regarded those who “vaunt their Christian heritage but deny by their attitudes and acts the very heart of the gospel” as those most in need of evangelism.[32]

Evangelicalism and race

To a large extent, evangelicals bypassed the challenges of racism that were being raised in the IMC and WCC for several reasons. First, the strength of evangelicalism was in the US which, unlike Europe, gained, rather than lost, global hegemony in 1945, so world missions could continue as before. Second, evangelicals often belonged to independent churches or faith missions that either did not participate in 1910 or, like the China Inland Mission, chose not to join the International Missionary Council, partly because they were not theologically inclined to work with governments or be involved in development work. Third, fearing “liberalism,” evangelicals did not sympathetically engage with local people who challenged their understanding of mission and evangelism. After the civil rights era, evangelicals avoided using race as a descriptor of other peoples but took up instead the other categories used at Edinburgh 1910—culture, religion, and poverty—as substitutes for race.

As evangelicals forged a post-fundamentalist identity in the US and became major players in global missions, they founded institutions and organizations that inevitably perpetuated the racism of prewar missions and reflected their segregationist tendencies. One such was Fuller Theological Seminary, which was founded in 1947 by Charles E. Fuller and Harold Ockenga. Fuller and Ockenga were also founding members of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) that aimed to revive the nineteenth-century category of “evangelical,” with its legacy of revival, world mission, and socio-political engagement. They envisaged a flagship seminary on the West Coast that would rival the most elite of the older establishments in the East and prepare young men to evangelize the world and defend conservative Christianity in a secularizing society. As it developed, Fuller also reformed its stance to be more open to other Christians, more engaged in wider society, and less defensive vis-à-vis other streams of thought.[33] Needless to say, the founders were white and they likely did not consider that their students would include people of color. Although some of Fuller’s earliest students were international, there was little or no attempt to recruit from minority communities in the US before the 1960s.

African Americans at white-founded seminaries were measured in handfuls until civil rights activism encouraged black Christians to test colorblindness by applying for admission. Apart from possible opposition by wealthy donors and white students, the main headache for white administrators in admitting black students was how to avoid the possibility of interracial dating.[34] In the 1960s, many white evangelical seminaries began to actively recruit African American students, but by the mid-seventies, in most cases, black enrolment had declined. The reasons for this included the refusal of the NAE to support the civil rights movement for the sake of the unity of the organization, which included segregated churches. In the polarized political atmosphere of the times, this was effectively siding with white supremacists.[35] Nevertheless, at Fuller, William E. Pannell became the first black faculty member in 1974, although his role was mainly to work with African American pastors.

Although racially segregated at home, US foreign policy did not follow the British use of race as the chief descriptor of other peoples. Instead, it adopted a cultural anthropological approach that understood the world as made up of peoples of different cultures. Fuller’s School of World Mission, founded by Donald McGavran, was heavily influenced by anthropologists like Alan Tippett, Charles Kraft, and Paul Hiebert. So much so that, at the turn of the century, when the word “mission” was perceived as inhibiting access to many countries, the new name Intercultural Studies was a natural choice.[36] Kraft was influential in encouraging the Lausanne Congress in 1974 to adopt a relativist approach to cultures as possible vehicles of the gospel, as reflected in the Lausanne Covenant (paragraph 10)[37] and later in promoting contextualization at the Lausanne consultation in Willowbank, Bermuda in 1978.[38] However, by the 1970s, the anthropology taught at Fuller and other evangelical institutions was already out of touch with secular developments.[39] Most pertinent to this article is that it maintained a structuralist understanding in which cultures were understood as homogeneous and discrete so that they determined people’s actions and attitudes. Such an essentialist conception of culture persists in mission documents even in the twenty-first century.[40] In other words, as at Edinburgh 1910, culture was used to label people in much the same way as race.

It was from the School of World Mission that some of the most influential evangelical mission strategies emerged and were disseminated globally. McGavran’s strategy for church growth encouraged utilizing existing sociologically “homogeneous units.” He used studies of the mass conversion of caste groups in India in the 1930s as a model for missionaries to use in other societies in the Third World.[41] Later, McGavran worked with Peter Wagner to apply these same principles to growing churches in the US as well.[42] Ralph Winter developed the “Homogeneous Unit Principle” (HUP) into the concept of “people groups” as the equivalent of the “all nations” of Matthew 28:19 that he believed, for a strategic approach, all “Unreached People Groups” (UPGs) needed to be reached—by achieving a critical mass of believers necessary to become self-evangelizing—in order to fulfil the Great Commission (Matt 24:14).[43]

It is worth noting that both McGavran and Winter expressed a debt to the missiology of Volkskirche[44] and neither understood why it had been abandoned by German missiologists as racist.[45] However, other evangelicals were better informed. Newbigin pointed out that if it was suggested to the Christians of India that they should organize themselves into caste groups in order to grow quicker, they “would reject this on ethical grounds” and he rebutted church growth theory as “both historically naive and theologically intolerable.”[46] David Bosch, who struggled against apartheid, criticized church growth as sacralizing the segregationist “American way of life.”[47] At the first Lausanne Consultation, which was called in Pasadena in 1977 to debate the issue, Pannell was invited only as an observer. McGavran used racist tropes and he and his colleagues—including Wagner, who was already in charge of Lausanne’s strategy group—showed little respect for the views of their critics. The report both censured the idea of homogeneous units as contrary to Scripture and simultaneously gave Church Growth Theory a bigger platform.[48] As Curtis summarizes, at a time when evangelical churches and organizations in the US were uncomfortable with church segregation but faced considerable difficulties with becoming multiracial, Donald McGavran and Ralph Winter made life easier for white pastors by developing strategies of church growth that relied on converting racially homogeneous groups.[49]

Lausanne II in Manila, 1989. Source: Lausanne Movement.

The 10/40 Window is another construction of the world used by evangelical mission agencies that defines other groups of people in ways that are rigid and negative. Coined by Luis Bush as part of the launch of the AD2000 campaign at Lausanne II in Manila in 1989, this map and accompanying rhetoric uses religion and poverty as motivators for mission. The map, which shows the influence of the UPG approach, consists of the rectangle formed by the 10th and 40th parallels of latitude north and by the Atlantic and Pacific—covering Northern Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia. Bush mobilized missions by claiming that thirty-seven of the world’s fifty most unreached countries lay within the window, which also comprised the main concentrations of people of three of the world’s major religions—Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism—and countries where Christians are severely persecuted. Further support for missions targeting this region was garnered by pointing out that it also included ninety percent of the world’s poor.[50] The map was and still is used globally among evangelicals to motivate what Peter Wagner called “spiritual warfare” in this most non-Christian part of the globe.[51] The vocabulary may be different but it still bears the imprint of the territorial and racial mission approach of Edinburgh 1910. Moreover, the 10/40 Window displayed that world mission was still largely a white-led enterprise towards people of color.

An agenda for missiology and missiological education/training

Given the reality that colorblindness disguises racism, which is still largely unaddressed in evangelical circles, what can and should missiologists and those involved in missiological education and training do?

2017 Missiology Lectures at Fuller

Returning briefly to the story of Fuller Seminary, successive Fuller administrators were slow to realize that successful integration of black and white students on campus required the institutions to move beyond colorblindness and face the attitudes, curricula, and faculty composition that made campus life so stressful for black students. Although, by the 1980s, Fuller had multiple programs for ethnic minorities, which then became “ethnic centers,” these existed to support programs and students of that ethnicity but were, for the most part, marginal to the seminary. However, the election of Donald Trump as president, largely because of the support of white evangelicals, caused a great deal of soul-searching. To students and faculty of color, it seemed obvious that the election of someone who encouraged white supremacism was part of a white backlash against the presidency of Barack Obama, a black man. In Fall 2017, the annual Missiology Lectures treated the topic of race for the first time since they began under McGavran in 1966. Led by three faculty of color—Love L. Sechrest, Johnny Ramírez-Johnson, and Amos Yong—the provocative title was “Can ‘White’ People Be Saved?” The organizers defined race as “a socially constructed category that has been used to divide humanity based on physical, cultural, and socio-economic realities”[52] and they defined the controversial term “whiteness” as not identical with European ancestry but “an idolatrous way of being in the world” that “orders global systems of dominance [in ways] that favor Whites and that have in turn nurtured racism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.”[53] They firmly rejected a colorblind approach on the grounds that to ignore race as an issue simply perpetuated the inequities and even rendered them permanent. The lectures encouraged student action, especially by African American students, at the following year’s baccalaureate that led to significant changes by the seminary to address the grievances, oppose racism, and achieve a more equitable campus that are still ongoing. These include cluster hires of faculty of color, promotion of people of color to senior leadership, relocating the “ethnic centers” (including Pannell’s black church center) to the center of campus and giving their leaders seniority over leaders of programs, auditing all syllabi for racial (and other) diversity, educating faculty, staff, and students on race issues, inviting visiting faculty from the Majority World, and appointing an African American, David Goatley, as seminary president.

An anti-racism agenda for missiology

Ibram X. Kendi explains that “The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It’s ‘anti-racist.’” Anti-racism refuses to turn a blind eye to attitudes and policies that deny black people equity and even locate the problem in people of color themselves. Instead, it names those inequities and strives to dismantle the structures that perpetuate them.[54] How would an anti-racist approach impact missiology in the US and the West more generally? My colleague Dwight Radcliff has recently shown how predominantly white US missiological discourse is. Missiological texts, curricula, and journals rarely address race explicitly and include few African American contributions, even though black theology manifestly deals with evangelistic and social issues.[55] By way of conclusion, I list below some of the learning for missiology from this study for overcoming colorblindness, talking about race, and opposing racism:

  1. Name racism as a problem and condemn it. Raise consciousness of racism as an issue that blights the lives of millions of people and take action to challenge it. Check discussions of culture, religion, and power for disguised racialization and racism.
  2. Decenter the West and whiteness using resources from the Majority World. The growing field of “world Christianity” is a deliberate attempt to do this. It shows how Christianity is not in origin a Western religion but arose in West Asia and has roots in Africa[56] and how it has always been globally widespread, locally rooted, polycentric, and interconnected as it is now.[57]
  3. Acknowledge and teach the history of supremacism, racism, and colonialism in the West and its ongoing practice and impact. Today’s pluralistic societies in the West, with their internal issues of racism, together with the inequities of economic globalization, can be understood as a direct result of slavery, empire, and global exploitation by the West especially. (Increasingly, Fuller students from the Majority World and US minorities see that and want faculty to name and renounce “the doctrine of discovery.”)
  4. Be prepared to accept criticism of white missions. Defense of colonial mission by a white person will only be heard by people of color as a justification of white racism. If there are good things to be said about colonial missions, let those who received the gospel that way say so. Only they can do so with credibility.
  5. Participate in the rethinking of missions and mission in the West that has been going on since the mid-twentieth century. In this endeavor, highlighting white supremacy as an underlying premise of empire may be more effective in helping other white people to understand the problem than discussions about the complicity of missions with empire more generally.
  6. Apply race theory for analysis of mission practices and issues. One example of race theory is “critical race theory,” which is closely related to postcolonial studies and black thought. It has exposed how endemic and insidious are ideas about race by drawing attention to the systemic nature of racism, to white privilege and entitlement, to implicit biases, microaggressions, and other manifestations of it.[58] Another source of critical reflection on race is black theology, which draws on black experience and resistance and has flowered since the 1960s. It typically pays close attention to biblical texts but may read them very differently from the dominant interpretations. In the US, James Cone is regarded as the founder. Black Theology and Black Power reflected the impact of post-civil rights black activism on theology. A more recent work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2015) is a moving reflection on the persistence of violence against black bodies.[59]
  7. Give people who have been on the receiving end of missions a safe space to share their experience. However much white people claim to understand what it is like to be on the other side of white supremacy, only the voice of people of color can be authentic. Appoint, and adequately support, people of color to posts based in the West or as leaders of formerly white-led organizations. Reach out for collaboration to scholars of color who raise issues of race and who are dealing with topics related to evangelism and mission, whether or not they are comfortable with those terms.
  8. Restructure missions and reframe missiology to recognize that “the God of mission does not regard race as a prerequisite for engagement.”[60] In this worldwide and multidirectional mission, the West is also a mission field and an integral component of the dynamics of world Christian mission. Furthermore, world mission cannot be limited to those who come from countries wealthy enough to be able to send missionaries. As Jehu Hanciles has written, “every Christian migrant is a potential missionary,” although white churches have struggled to see and receive their gifts. Historically, “the migration of Christians [whatever the reason] has typically contributed to the spread of Christianity and represents a predominant element in the globalization of the faith.”[61] Including studies of migration in missiology challenges fixed ideas of who is evangelizing.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What do you understand by white supremacy? Can you point to personal or historical examples of it? To what extent have Christian missions exhibited it?
  2. In light of white racism, what are the problems with popular mission constructs such as homogeneous units, people groups, and the 10/40 window?
  3. Identify the problems that could be caused by a colorblind approach to race, for example in a Western-led mission organization.
  4. What is the difference in practice between not being racist and being antiracist?


[1] The vocabulary of race varies over the historical period considered in the paper. Race has shifting definitions and synonyms, which I shall discuss. The term racialization has been used from early twentieth century to describe the structuring of societies according to race, and racialism as the attendant philosophy. Racism—originally a contraction of racialism—was used to criticize Nazi ideology and has largely succeeded racialism since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. For a discussion, see, Albert Memmi, Racism, trans. Steve Martinot (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

[2] Data can be found in Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).

[3] Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Anti-Racist (New York: One Word, 2019), 219–20.

[4] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).

[5] Richard Delgano and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 8–9.

[6] Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

[7] Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).

[8] For the concept of “whiteness,” see Love L. Sechrest, Johnny Ramírez-Johnson, and Amos Yong, eds., Can “White” People Be Saved? Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018).

[9] Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists.

[10] Jesse Curtis, The Myth of Colorblind Christians: Evangelicals and White Supremacy in the Civil Rights Era (New York: New York University Press, 2021), 8.

[11] Michael Banton, Racial Theories, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[12] For an example, see Hilary M. Carey, God’s Empire: Religion and Colonialism in the British World, c.1801– 1908 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[13] See Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (Downers Grove: IVP, 2019).

[14] The most recent repudiation is by the Catholic Church itself, which states that the papal bulls have never been considered “doctrine” in the sense of an expression of the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, it recognizes that they were used by political powers “in order to justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples” that the church authorities did not always oppose. Pope Francis asked for a pardon from indigenous peoples and urged that “Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.” Holy See, “Joint Statement of the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development on the ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’” Bulletin of the Holy See Press Office, 30 March 2023, paragraph 6,

https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2023/03/30/230330b.html (accessed 5 May 2023).

[15] Brian Stanley, The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 91–131.

[16] For example, World Missionary Conference, 1910, Report of Commission I: Carrying the Gospel to All the Non-Christian World (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1910), 1–2.

[17] See Kirsteen Kim, “Racism Awareness in Mission: Touchstone or Cultural Blindspot?” International

Bulletin of Mission Research 45, no. 4 (2021): 376–386.

[18] World Missionary Conference, 1910, Report of Commission IV: The Missionary Message in Relation to Non-Christian Religions (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1910), 6.

[19] Stanley, The World Missionary Conference, 307–309.

[20] Werner Ustorf, Sailing on the Next Tide: Missions, Missiology, and the Third Reich (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2000).

[21] For example, Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[22] World Missionary Conference, 1910, Statistical Atlas of Christian Missions (Edinburgh: World Missionary Conference, 1910), 107. A map of races precedes the one of religions.

[23] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

[24] The Archbishop of York, “The Duty of the Christian Nations I,” 272–77; The Honorable Seth Low, “The Duty of the Christian Nations II,” 278–82, in World Missionary Conference, 1910, Volume IX: History and Records of the Conference (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1910).

[25] International Missionary Council, The Christian Mission in the Light of Race Conflict: Report of the Jerusalem Meeting of the International Missionary Council March 24th.–April 8th., 1928 (London: Oxford University Press, 1928), https://archive.org/details/wccmissionconf031/ (accessed 20 July 2023).

[26] International Missionary Council, The Christian Mission, 237–45.

[27] This has been shown by Nico A. Botha and Eugene Baron, “The Protestant World Mission and Race Discourse: Edinburgh 1910 – Ghana 1958,” in The Oxford Handbook of Mission Studies, ed. Kirsteen Kim, Knud Jørgensen, and Alison Fitchett-Climenhaga (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).

[28] World Council of Churches, The Evanston Report: The Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, 1954, ed. W. A. Visser ’t Hooft (New York: Harper, 1955), 151–60, https://archive.org/details/wcca7/ (accessed 15 May 2023).

[29] Baldwin Sjollema, “Remembering the Legacy,” address at the Ecumenical Strategic Forum on Racism, 9 May

2019, https://www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/remembering-the-legacy-baldwin-sjollema (accessed 5 May 2023). Baldwin Sjollema was the first director of the Programme to Combat Racism in the WCC.

[30] Eugene Carson Blake, who served as general secretary of the WCC from 1966 to 1972, was a staunch opponent of segregation who, as a social activist, leader of the Presbyterian Church USA, and a delegate of the National Council of Churches of Christ USA, marched on Washington with Martin Luther King in 1963. See, Theodore A Gill, “Eugene Carson Blake: Renewal in Church and Society,” The Ecumenical Review 70 (March 2018): 84–88.

[31] See, Donald McGavran, ed., The Eye of the Storm: The Great Debate in Missions (Waco, TX: Word, 1972).

[32] Philip Potter, “Renewal in Mission,” in The Eye of the Storm, 264.

[33] George M. Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).

[34] Curtis, The Myth of Colorblind Christians, 50–54.

[35] Curtis, The Myth of Colorblind Christians, 45–46.

[36] Elizabeth “Betsy” Glanville, “Name Change at Fuller’s School of World Mission to School of Intercultural Studies,” in What’s in a Name? Assessing Mission Studies Program Titles, ed. Robert A. Danielson and Larry W. Caldwell (Wilmore, KY: First Fruits, 2015), 11–23.

[37] Available at https://lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant.

[38] Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, The Willowbank Report, Lausanne Occasional Paper, No. 2, 1978. https://www.lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-2 (accessed 5 May 2023).

[39] Michael Rynkiewich, Soul, Self, and Society (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011).

[40] See Kirsteen Kim, “Doing Theology for the Church’s Mission: The Appropriation of Culture,” in The End of Theology: Shaping Theology for the Sake of Mission, ed. Jason Sexton and Paul Weston (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), 73–99.

[41] Donald A. McGavran, The Bridges of God (New York: Friendship, 1955).

[42] Donald A. McGavran and C. Peter Wagner, Understanding Church Growth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990); Curtis, The Myth of Colorblind Christians, 78–108.

[43] Ralph D. Winter, “Unreached Peoples: The Development of the Concept,” in Reaching the Unreached: The Old-New Challenge, ed. Harvie M. Conn (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984), 17–43; Dave Datema, “Defining ‘Unreached’: A Short History,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 33 (Summer 2016): 45–71.

[44] Donald McGavran, “Forward,” in Christian Keysser, A People Reborn (Pasadena: William Carey, 1980), viii–xxi; Winter, “Unreached Peoples,” 20–22.

[45] See Ustorf, Sailing on the Next Tide: Missions, Missiology, and the Third Reich.

[46] Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995 [1978]), 142, 145.

[47] David J. Bosch, Witness to the World (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1980), 208.

[48] Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, The Pasadena Consultation: Homogeneous Unit Principle, Lausanne Occasional Paper 1, 1978, section 8; Curtis, The Myth of Colorblind Christians, 156–60.

[49] Curtis, The Myth of Colorblind Christians, 78.

[50] Hannah de Korte and David Onnekink, “Maps Matter. The 10/40 Window and Missionary Geography,” Exchange 49 (2020): 110–44, https://brill.com/view/journals/exch/49/2/article-p110_3.xml (accessed 5 May 2023). See, for example, the Joshua Project, https://joshuaproject.net/. The map is shown at https://joshuaproject.net/assets/img/maps/progress-scale-map-1040.png (accessed 5 May 2023).

[51] For spiritual warfare, see C. Peter Wagner, ed., Engaging the Enemy: How to Fight and Defeat Territorial

Spirits (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1991). For an appraisal, see A. Scott Moreau, ed., Deliver Us from Evil: An Uneasy Frontier in Christian Mission (Monrovia, CA: World Vision International, 2002).

[52] Sechrest et al., Can White People Be Saved? 15.

[53] Sechrest et al., Can White People Be Saved? 12–13. The definition was derived from the keynote lecture by Willie James Jennings, 27–43.

[54] Kendi, How to Be an Anti-Racist, 9.

[55] Dwight A. Radcliff Jr., “Black-ish Missiology: A Critique of Mission Studies and Appeal for Inclusion in the United States Context,” Mission Studies 37 (2020): 169–92.

[56] Vince L. Bantu, A Multitude of All Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020).

[57] Sebastian Kim and Kirsteen Kim, Christianity as a World Religion, 2nd ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

[58] Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory. For evangelical engagement with critical race theory, see Robert Chao Romero and Jeff M. Liou, Christianity and Critical Race Theory: A Faithful and Constructive Conversation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2023).

[59] James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (New York: Harper & Row, 1969); The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015). Contemporary US black theologians include Karen Baker-Fletcher, Katie Cannon, J. Kameron Carter, M. Shawn Copeland, Jacquelyn Grant, Marsha Snulligan Haney, Willie James Jennings, Linda E. Thomas, and Cornel West.

[60] Harvey Kwiyani, Sent Forth: African Missionary Work in the West (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2014), 203.

[61] Jehu J. Hanciles, Migration and the Making of Global Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021), 1–2.

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