Lisa Fields on the Christian Heritage of Africa
Exploring African Christianity’s golden era and its continued impact on global Christianity helps Black millennials and Gen Zers see themselves in God’s redemptive history. It also provides a needed corrective to all who identify Christianity as mainly a white religion.
Lisa Fields is a Christian apologist who combines her passion for biblical literacy with a heart for sharing God’s love. She is the founder and president of the Jude 3 Project, based in Jacksonville, Florida, and Washington, DC. In this edited conversation, Fields talks about Unspoken, an in-depth documentary about the Christian heritage of Africa and people of African descent.
How do you describe the Jude 3 Project to those who’ve never heard of it?
The Jude 3 Project is a Christian apologetics organization that helps Black Christians and congregations know what they believe and why. We also equip local churches to engage skeptics. As Jude 1:3 says, we “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s people” (NIV).
We do this by equipping those of African descent in the United States and abroad through seminars, lectures, courses, podcasts, curriculum, and tours to HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities). Our annual Courageous Conversations conference brings together Black scholars from different Christian traditions to discuss difficult topics, such as whether Christianity is a white man’s religion or is homophobic and transphobic. So far we’ve produced two documentaries: Unspoken and Juneteenth: Faith and Freedom.
Who are you trying to reach?
We focus on Black millennials and Gen Zers. Some years ago, studies showed that churches of color were retaining youth and young adults better than white churches were. But in the last few years, church attendance has been trending down among Black millennials and Gen Zers. Lots of parents in these generations see the church as optional. They attend church less often than they did growing up, and they don’t take their children to church.
Why is that?
Those of us who grew up in larger churches have been age-segregated throughout our youth. It’s hard to move back into a general audience with varied demographics. We sometimes observe a gap between what the preacher is preaching and what we know. We don’t want to check our brains at the door.
Do you see overlaps between Black and white people who are skeptical that the gospel is truly good news?
Both Black and white skeptics may experience Christianity as oppressive, though in different ways. Both struggle with where God is in all the suffering in the world. Both notice hypocrisy in how Christianity is sometimes practiced. Some experience the church as bad for mental health. They leave Christianity to pursue other paths, hoping to move out of depression into peace.
Many Black people want to be connected to their roots, so they explore ancestral religions practiced in Africa before the introduction of Christianity. Some say that Christianity is just a copy of the ancient Egyptian Kemetic religion, so they’re drawn to the modern practice of Kemetic Orthodoxy. Others join Black Hebrew Israelites. That’s why it’s so important to show that Christianity has had a continuous presence in Africa and has made a major impact on the global church. Black people are part of God’s redemptive history.
Why do some Black people see Christianity as a white man’s religion?
It’s because of the way Christianity was introduced to many enslaved people. Plantation masters and clerics leaned heavily on verses from Paul and Peter about submitting to authority, but they omitted Exodus and stories about a longing for freedom. There was an actual printed slave Bible edition known as Select Parts of the Holy Bible for the Use of the Negro Slaves of the British West-India Islands that was used in the US as well. It left out about 90 percent of the Old Testament and half the New Testament.
This distortion deprived Black people of the whole counsel of God. Slaveholders twisted the life-changing power of the scriptures for their own benefit in disheartening and evil ways. In current times, the Trump presidency and Christians who support white supremacy and white nationalism all lend to the idea that Christianity is oppressive. People also look at male/female dynamics in the Bible and ask whether Christianity can be good news for women.
What insights do you hope Unspoken viewers will glean about African Christianity?
The film features a well-curated group of historians, religious scholars, and cultural influencers who examine the real history of one of the world's most widely practiced religions. They show that Africa accepted Christianity from its multiethnic beginnings, especially in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Nubia. Early African Christians often faced persecution, but many clung to the faith even after Islam emerged.
The global church is still influenced by early African Christian fathers who contended for the faith. Athanasius of Alexandria set the New Testament canon and defended the deity of Christ against Arianism. In Carthage (now in Tunisia), Tertullian was the first to write in Latin about the Trinity. Other early African church fathers who helped shape classic theology include Augustine of Hippo (born in what is now Algeria) and Clement of Alexandria. Martin Luther often referred to the Ethiopian Church as a pure version of Christianity that had not been tainted by the excesses and corruption of Roman Catholicism.
How did Anglo European missionaries shape Christianity in Africa and among people of African descent?
Besides documenting early African Christianity’s golden era, Unspoken also investigates the effects of European colonialism on modern Christian faith practices. Scholars explain why colonization, often thought to be the origin of Christianity in Africa, is responsible for the mutation of Christian traditions that already existed on the African continent. Colonists’ concepts of “white Jesus,” Christian clothing, and Christian names in fact have no historical foundation.
In the modern day, it’s important to recognize the rich impact of Blacks in America creating economic empowerment. There would not be holistic liberation for Black people without Black churches. And African scholars—men and women—are still shaping contemporary African Christianity.
How have people responded to the Jude 3 Project and Unspoken?
On tours to HBCUs, we find that many students use and resonate with our materials. Seeing themselves in the story of Christianity makes a difference. Anecdotally, we’ve heard how our work has helped incoming freshmen and other students get involved in campus ministries. We made Unspoken with African American millennials and Gen Zers in mind, but church screenings have showed that so many older people and multiracial audiences are being blessed by it too.
Read about Lisa Fields’s journey from pastor’s daughter to Christian apologist in the African American community. Watch Unspoken and order its corresponding curriculum. Register for Courageous Conversations and purchase on-demand courses from previous events. Listen to The Bisrat Podcast with Vince Bantu. Bantu explains that bisrat is an ancient East African word in meaning “gospel.” Watch the documentary Juneteenth: Faith and Freedom and explore Juneteenth worship and prayer resources.