God's vision for the world is too wide to have one way of worship or understanding be the only way, said Tyler Burns. There must be space and respect for the black Christian perspective.
Burns, executive pastor of New Dimensions Christian Center in Pensacola, Florida, and vice president of The Witness, spent two days last week at Lee University meeting students and participating in worship services.
His visit included an hourlong lecture in front of dozens of students on "The Fierce Urgency of Black Christianity." Throughout the talk, which alternated strands of theology with history and current events, Burns emphasized how the black Christian experience allows believers to fully live out the greatest commandment in Christianity, loving God with body, soul and mind.
"I believe the black Christian perspective has a unique way of interpreting this greatest commandment," Burns said.
The styles of worship often found in black churches — call and response, dancing and the "whoop" to finish a sermon — allow believers to embody the word of God, Burns said. However, white Christians often view these styles as inferior simply because they are different, just as black Christians are often criticized by whites for not being true believers when their faith motivates them to take social action, he said.
A similar critique played out in Chattanooga last summer when a local columnist accused the Unity Group, a decades-old advocacy organization for black equality led by black pastors, of being "most assuredly non-Christian" when the group mobilized to call for Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond's resignation after an alleged illegal roadside body-cavity search in July.
The black Christian perspective is imaginative, requiring followers to imagine how the world can be more equitable for people of color and motivating people to act, Burns said.
Mary McCampbell, associate professor of humanities at Lee and faculty supervisor for the black student union, said Burns offers an important voice in helping people see the contribution and perseverance of the black church in America. The black church carries a lot of important history that is often overlooked, she said.
Burns' history allowed him to relate with Lee students. The Florida pastor grew up in a majority white Christian context and attended Liberty University, the evangelical college in Virginia. Those experiences taught him to resent his style of loving God, instead of realizing the black church has something to teach other Christians, he said.
Burns' visit included meeting with members of the university's black student union, which formed two years ago. He praised the students' work in organizing and providing safe spaces for students of color.
Kiara Quick, president of the union, said Burns' visit invigorated Lee students. Hearing Burns' thoughts and his critiques are empowering, she said.
"The two days he's been here, it's been really life-giving," Quick said. "I can look at this man and he's pouring into my life."
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