Eric Mason is the founder and pastor of Epiphany Fellowship, a megachurch in Philadelphia. He writes Woke Church from the perspective of a prominent, conservative, well-respected and culturally engaged black pastor who deals constantly with issues pertinent to the African-American community in general and the church in particular. He has been addressing the issues concerning the Woke Church for several years and would represent the view of many, especially in black Christian circles. Therefore, whether the reader agrees or not with all of Mason’s views, they need to be considered carefully.
Mason defines being Woke as “no longer being naïve nor in mental slavery…it is a term for being socially aware of issues that have systemic impact…it has to do with seeing all of the issues and being able to connect cultural, socio-economic, philosophical, historical and ethical dots” (p. 25). A tall order to say the least. Mason sees the core of being Woke for the church as involvement in the issues that face the black community (p. 130). “The Woke Church,” he writes, “Must be in the business of doing something to stem the tide of injustice in our nation” (p. 133). As for the roots of the Woke concept, they are found in the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, the 20th century father of sociology who sees blacks in America struggling for “a strong sense of self and dignity, being fully aware of [their] perception…in eyes of white America” (p. 27).
Mason’s purpose for writing the book is “to encourage the church to utilize the mind of Christ and to be fully aware to the issues of race and injustice in this country” (p. 25). He sees the evangelical church asleep to these tensions and needing to be “woke” (p. 22). To that end Mason arranges his book around four themes: awareness, acknowledgement, accountability and action (pp. 32-37).
Awareness (chapters 1-3)
Mason wants a pursuit of “honest reconciliation that faces the issues of our broken past.” To begin this process, we must “revisit our history, proclaiming the gospel to each season and seek reconciliation, restoration, and restitution, as it is appropriate. This is the gospel mandate” (p. 43). The goal of the book then is to “shine a spotlight on one of the aspects of the gospel that has been neglected and dismissed” (p. 43). Such discourse will have to be grounded in the meaning of the gospel. At times Mason proclaims the biblical gospel message (pp. 119-120), at other times he expands the gospel to include good works. In John Perkins foreword, for instance, we read, “No longer can we afford to see justice issues as separate from the gospel” (p. 14). Mason clarifies this when he states that, “Regeneration is a motivation for good works. It is the fruit of gospel transformation” (p. 47). And he distinguishes the gospel itself (1 Cor 15:1-4) from what it does – change lives (Rom 1:16) (pp. 119-120). However, he misunderstands justification, claiming that it “extends beyond ‘being declared righteous’! Justified isn’t merely a position, but a practice” (p. 45). Of course, this was the very issue over which the Reformation was fought. His contradictory statements regarding the gospel are troubling. Mason, in the broader picture, is trying to show that, since God is just, we His people should be too (p. 52). To demonstrate the justice of God he tells us we should mirror Christ’s example (pp. 54-55). Fair enough, however he does not address the purpose for Jesus’ benevolent miracles, nor discuss why he did not attempt to change the unjust systems of His day. This is a significant oversight. Nor in Mason’s examples of the actions of the early church in Acts 2 and 6 does he note that the first Christians, in their benevolent acts, were exclusively concerned with believers, not with society at large (pp. 54-55). Before we can imitate biblical examples we first have to honestly determine what they were. And then we should just as honestly ask if we are commanded to do the same? The author wants us to be “incarnational missionaries” and “change agents” (pp. 57, 58), two terms drawn straight from the theological liberal’s Social Gospel movement from the past. After making a number of general and unfair accusations such as “no attention is being given to racial justice” (p. 60; e.g. p. 66) and claiming the world is waiting for the church to say something (implying that the “church” whoever this is, has never said anything) (p. 69), his solution is for us to learn to listen to one another (pp. 70, 97, 147-149) and to be a family (pp. 70-71). Both of these preliminary solutions are good. For example, Mason is correct that often we talk past each other and are not really hearing the concerns of different groups. However, while merely listening and emphasizing will not solve most important issues, it is a needed reminder to not be too quick to become defensive and enter into debate. Kindness, and the love of Christ, should motivate all involved to first listen and care.
Acknowledge (chapters 4-5)
To move forward, the Woke Church must understand its history, Mason asserts (p. 78). It is at this point that the author reviews American slavery and the church’s role in it (pp. 78-83), post-slavery injustice as exemplified by the Ku Klux Klan (pp. 83-87), and the Civil Rights Movement (pp. 87-89). Concerning the latter Mason thinks, “The Civil Rights era created a greater schism than already existed because it highlighted the differences in how the black church responded to the issue of racism…even to this day, the black church has never forgotten the brazen disconnect of Christian conservatives’ silence or verbal support of segregation” (p. 89). Today “we are at the cusp of another church movement that will determine the trajectory of the church in America for some time to come” (p. 89). By this, Mason is referring to the rise of black consciousness and “Black Nationalism” which seek the restoration of black dignity and respect (p. 90). The past binds the present to such an extent, Mason believes, that moving forward seems unlikely…unless “we can wake up from our slumber” (p. 93). Mason accuses America of telling African Americans to forget about the past, but he is convinced that we haven’t yet even talked about it (p. 96). While such an indictment stretches all credibility, the way forward, he suggests, is to “listen when people share their hurts” (p. 97). The author then offers 10 items we should lament, while admitting that he is not offering solutions. We should lament, for example, the dismissal of the black church, tokenism, perception of black preachers, selective justice, and that the church didn’t create and lead the Black Lives Matter movement.
Accountable (chapters 6-7)
With this section Mason moves toward offering some answers, beginning with prophetic preaching, defined as biblically soaked and culturally informed (p. 117). It is about seeing gaps between God’s Word and our social–spiritual realities and filling them (p. 117). One of his most concerning realities is the high concentration of black men in prison (p. 122). Mason challenges what he calls the school-to-prison pipeline, is against zero-tolerance policies in the public school system, and wants alternative school options for troubled black youth (pp. 140-141). Since so much injustice is in the system (e.g. p. 129), the Woke Church must stem the tide of injustice in three categories: intervening, preventative and systematic (pp. 133-141). And Mason is tired of racial reconciliation gatherings. He wants action (p. 132). Unfortunately, he misses the whole point of Jesus’ miracles which he sees as meeting needs in order to share the gospel (p. 139). Based on such misunderstandings of Jesus, and other scriptures, he has launched numerous social betterment programs which apparently are to lay the pattern for the Woke Church (pp. 138-139, 162). Borrowing again from the liberal branch of Christianity, and from Abraham Maslow’s now debunked theory of “hierarchy of needs,” he claims “You can’t help a person who has experienced injustice and a lack of the basic needs of life without first intervening for their current needs” (p. 135).
Be Active (chapters 8-9)
It is in this final section that Mason provides concrete suggestions for a Woke Church in action. They are (pp. 145-164):
- Having as a foundational Bible doctrine the image of God.
- Listening to and learning one another’s stories.
- Enhanced theological education.
- Facing our blind spots and apathy.
- The church as a family training center. Only here and very briefly does Mason address the importance of the family.
- Biblical womanhood training.
- Biblical manhood training. Mason views the black man as a victim who is under attack on every front. “From mass incarceration, under-education, social and psychological genocide, and self-hatred, black men experience an attack” (p. 56).
- Challenge the criminal justice system. Mason believes that 60% of people in prison being of color is unjust. This may be, but no discussion or documentation of the number of crimes by people of color are offered. He is correct, however, that we must advocate for equal and just sentencing (p. 57).
- Develop community partnership.
- Leverage our people resources.
- Create spheres for African-American discipleship and missiology.
- Creating a Woke Church think tank. This think tank would focus on health, behavioral sciences, education, history, economics and community outreach via sports programs and city investments.
- Joining swords. While grieving the increasing racial injustice in our country, “what needs to happen to the body if we are going to work together cross-ethnical is that white Christians must reach across the color line and begin building respect and trust for minorities. Minorities must respond with open arms and hearts to these efforts” (p. 163). “We would be light years ahead,” Mason claims, “if minorities weren’t the only ones talking about racism” (p. 163). This is perhaps the thesis of the book.
The Woke Church gives the perspective of one evangelical black pastor on the racial divide and tension facing both our culture and our churches in America. His perspective most certainly is representative of many others, yet the book leaves a lot to be desired. First it is not a perspective drawn from the Bible. Little scripture is found in the volume and what is there is often out-of-context or misinterpreted (e.g. pp. 23, 68-69, 130, 135, 138-139 the prayer of Jabez, and the ministry of Jesus). Second, Woke Church is filled with generalized, exaggerated statements, and misrepresentations. Third, documentation, scholarship, and fair analysis are lacking throughout. Fourth, virtually no discussion takes place about how to deal with crime, reform of the community and most importantly, the breakdown of the family. Fifth, gearing the church up for social programs to deal with the issues is not the biblical model. Sixth, the author unfairly ignoring the many good steps and actions that have been taken, or are in process, within white evangelicalism.
Still, some of the issues Mason identifies are real and pressing. Whites and blacks, even within the church, are often insensitive to the others’ respected perspectives. True, honest, loving, non-defensive dialogue and attempts to understand need to happen. The past must not be allowed to determine the present, but neither should it be dismissed. Our love and forgiveness for one another should be real and evident. Perhaps if the church of God, regardless of color or race, would take these steps, progress can be made and the world will know we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another.
Woke Church, an Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice by Eric Mason (Chicago: Moody, 2018) 190 pp., hard $14.99
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel