Editor’s note (August 1, 2021): This article, originally published July 2, has been updated to reflect new statements from both Lenses and Cru.
The conservative campaign against Critical Race Theory has reached one of the nation’s most well-known college ministries, as long-standing tensions finally boiled over into an investigation that left staff of color feeling “blindsided.”
With over 5,000 ministries worldwide and a presence in almost 200 countries, Cru—formerly known in the U.S. as Campus Crusade for Christ International—began in the early 1950s at the University of California, Los Angeles as a college ministry. Today, Cru does everything from campus Bible studies to global missions.
According to Christianity Today, the ministry remains overwhelmingly White—approximately 22 percent of staff identify as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color.
A group of about 60 staff members, led by Scott Pendelton, chief of staff for Cru’s Jesus Film Project, compiled a 171-page report titled “Seeking Clarity and Unity.” The report sought to reveal what they believe to be “disunity” and “division” caused by “theological concerns and mission drift” within the organization.
“Seeking Clarity and Unity” was addressed to the Orlando-based organization’s president, Steve Sellers, who was elected last September. Cru has influence on over 8,000 university campuses worldwide, and has developed programs like Athletes in Action, a humanitarian branch called Unto, and various inner city ministries.
Also included in the report are testimonies from grieved donors who say they see no option but to move their funding elsewhere.
CT reported that what began as weekly Zoom meetings with hundreds of “mostly [W]hite” Cru staff throughout 2020 morphed into the 60 or so contributors to the report. The report claims that “at least 1,000 staff” share their views.
Citing Cru’s biennial staff conferences from 2015-2019 and various diversity and racial justice efforts, the report alleges that “Cru has embraced a secular system of ideas that divides humanity into victims or oppressors,” which is “embedded throughout” the organization and has led to staff departures and loss of donorship.
According to CT, the report was published and sent to Cru leadership in November 2020 but did not appear online until May 2021. The group’s research and the report’s release caught many staff of color off guard, according to former staff member Rasool Berry, who serves as lead pastor of The Bridge Church in Brooklyn, New York.
“None of the ‘seeking clarity and unity’ [team] asked those they accused anything directly. Instead of asking questions, they wrote notes based on their observations,” Berry, who worked with Cru for 20 years, said in an email to Faithfully Magazine. “Imagine it. Your co-workers with whom you made vows as a Religious Missionary Order (like monks or nuns) secretly noting what they thought was ‘mission drift.’ This felt like spying to many of us BIPOC staff and allies.”
Critical Race Theory and ‘Mission Drift’
This so-called “mission drift,” the report points out, is due to Cru’s focus on social justice efforts “instead” of the Great Commission. Like Israel, the report says, consequences are in order for those who stray from their calling. And once that drift starts, it happens quickly.
“If there was an inaugural event, it would be CRU15,” the report states. “The entire program, main sessions and seminars, were given over to the most radical social justice and CRT communicators.” The report adds that the “victim-oppressor” belief system expressed was indeed Critical Race Theory, although not many knew the formal title at the time.
Critical Race Theory, according to Villanova University sociologist Dr. Glenn E. Bracey, is essentially “a theoretical perspective born out of law schools in the late 1970s through the 1980s that looked at how race shapes the law and how law shapes racial dynamics in society.”
In recent months, at least 25 states have taken action, legal or otherwise, against teaching Critical Race Theory in classrooms, according to Education Week. State laws banning CRT schools mandate how U.S. history should be taught to students. Over a dozen of these bills reportedly include language similar to what former President Donald Trump used in his 2020 executive order that targeted federal diversity trainings and promoted “patriotic education.”
Some Christians, such as Wheaton College’s Dr. Nathan Luis Cartagena, believe aspects of CRT can be useful for Christian communities. Others, such as individuals behind Cru’s “Seeking Clarity and Unity” report, consider the legal framework to be in conflict with the gospel.
In the later pages of their report, Cru’s critics expound their understanding of CRT, drawing primarily from theoretical chemist Dr. Neil Shenvi’s work on the previously obscure legal framework. They hold that CRT asserts three premises: “Society is divided into oppressed and oppressor groups, oppression exists through Hegemonic power,” and “‘Lived Experience’ gives oppressed groups privileged access to truth.”
Starting with Cru15, things within the organization only appeared to spiral for the “Seeking Clarity and Unity” authors. Staff trainings held by The Lenses Group were singled out throughout the report. Lenses, a Cru ministry, seeks to equip “the people of God to fight for oneness by influencing the way Christian leaders see, understand, and act in our ethnically and culturally diverse world,” according to its website.
These trainings, which involved cohorts, readings, presentations, and discussions, were attacked the most frequently throughout the report and labeled as “dangerous and divisive.” The report claims that “most authors and scholars recommended by Lenses are proponents of CRT,” namely Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Jemar Tisby, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Lisa Sharon Harper, Sandra Van Opstal, and others.
Lenses did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this initial report. However, on July 29, the Lenses Institutes revealed in a statement published on Twitter that they are shutting down as a result of the “climate within Cru,” which “has become cautious, unclear, and in some places even toxic.”
The ministry says that “forces inside and outside of the organization” have “fostered a climate of suspicion, mischaracterization, and in some cases direct intimidation.”
The next day (July 30), Cru tweeted its own statement in response:
“The decision to close Lenses and the subsequent announcement was made independently, apart from Cru leadership. We acknowledge and are grieved by the very real hurt and disappointment experienced by those who released the statement. It’s Cru’s hope that the Lenses Institute serves both the Great Commission and our staff well as we take the gospel to all cultures and as we seek to love one another well. We believe in God’s power to bring reconciliation and remain wholly committed to the biblical obedience of supernatural unity. (John 17:22-23)”
Cru’s statement did not go over well with some Twitter users, who found the organization’s response inadequate.
In their “Seeking Clarity and Unity” report, the writers quote Colossians 2:8, while cautioning against diverting “the radical zeal of youth” away from the Great Commission. They argue: “Passion is emotionally ‘undeclared;’ it can be the ardor of love or anger of injustice depending on which way you point the gun.” They believe the Lenses curriculum is turning Cru staff and students’ passions away from “proclaiming Christ” and instead “toward the fight for justice.”
In a statement to Faithfully Magazine, however, Karen Dye, a spokesperson for Cru, asserts that the nonprofit is “single-mindedly focused on the proclamation of the gospel and the fulfillment of the Great Commission.”
Dye stated in an email that “upon receiving the report,” Cru “provided opportunities for extensive interaction—meeting with staff, listening to perspectives, making necessary organizational adjustments and clarifying how our commitment to biblical oneness and diversity fits into our mission.”
BIPOC Staff ‘Blindsided’ and ‘Discouraged’
Melissa Littlepage, an intercultural consultant and the chief of staff of Grace DC’s Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission, said in a statement to Faithfully Magazine that one of the primary challenges that predominantly White Christian organizations face when they make racial justice efforts is the dominant culture’s “lack of cultural self-awareness.”
“[They] do not see themselves accurately in the cultural landscape and wish to posit that their cultures are not deeply informing how they make sense of, apply, and communicate ‘the gospel,’” Littlepage said. “By claiming to be transcendent of culture or able to view Scripture clearly apart from culture … one side of the rift struggles with these conversations as extra-biblical rather than intrinsic to the Christian message and life.”
The parachurch organization is no stranger to racial tension or meeting the cultural moment. According to Berry, Cru has been historically involved in conservative politics like pro-life and anti-Communism efforts, but “remained silent during the Civil Rights Movement and on many issues relating [to] justice.”
Its critics’ lengthy report commends Cru’s lack of activism in the ’60s surrounding the Vietnam War, likening that moment to the racial reckoning that began in 2020, inspired by the police murder of George Floyd.
If Cru’s founder, Bill Bright, had “leaned into the turbulence of that time” by including the “radical voices of the day,” the report states, “billions” of people would have gone without hearing the gospel message.
Despite the heavy appraisal of Cru’s racial justice efforts, Berry, who debated Shenvi on a podcast about the U.S. church’s place within CRT, said the worst part was that the group was allowed to meet and gather information unchecked by leadership.
“Instead, they allowed the [E]vangelical hysteria around CRT to dominate the narrative. They accepted critiques of the staff conference without also expressing their support of the importance of the direction,” he said. “Various actions to affirm the importance of justice as an expression of the gospel were stalled.”
Berry also spoke of hurt and discouragement among BIPOC staff throughout the organization, and admitted that those same conferences that many anonymous attendees complained about are the very places where he felt seen for the first time in Cru.
He said he was “grieved by so many who no longer feel at home in the ministry. And I still pray for a change.”