At McLean Bible, Mike Kelsey Is Reimagining the Multiethnic Church

Weeks before his installation as the first Black lead pastor at one of the most influential churches in the Washington, DC, area, Mike Kelsey came across a dissertation written by a distant relative, theologian and social ethicist George D. Kelsey.
His great-great-great-uncle detailed the clashes around race and integration among Southern Baptists half a century ago. A professor at Morehouse College, he wrote about how racism was especially problematic within Christian communities, disrupting the neighborly love that was supposed to draw together the body of Christ.
As the younger Kelsey steps up to lead McLean Bible Church, he represents an exceptional case in today’s US evangelical landscape—perhaps the most prominent example of a Black minister rising to the top position at a historically white megachurch. But he’s also lived through a contemporary version of the faith and justice fights chronicled by his forebear.
Over Kelsey’s 16 years preaching and pastoring at McLean, he watched the nondenominational congregation and its leadership grow more diverse as DC did. Across five locations, McLean counts members from over a hundred countries now. There were answered prayers, lessons learned, and moments of unity along the way, but it didn’t come easy. His wife remembers that even just a handful of years ago, people were saying Kelsey could never lead the church.
From the start, Kelsey experienced the culture shock of the megachurch setting. He felt the sting of congregants who dismissed Barack Obama’s election to the White House, the pressure of preaching boldly amid a string of high-profile Black deaths and the Black Lives Matter movement, and the tension from internal church conflict spurred on by debates over race and politics during the pandemic.
“I didn’t know any of that coming in. All I saw was the lights and relevance and shorter services, and I didn’t know any of the more substantive benefits and beauties, or challenges and difficulties, and the disconnect” that came with multiethnic ministry, said Kelsey, recalling how he received an email complaint comparing him to Al Sharpton the first time he preached on race at McLean.
“That was my journey of, Oh, there’s something deeper going on here. I’m stepping into a legacy of the Tom Skinners and the Crawford Lorittses and the Tony Evanses and the African American pastors from the Black church who have stepped into predominantly white spaces to be bridge builders.”
At McLean, Kelsey, 41, now shares leadership of the multisite church with pastor David Platt. While both carry the title of lead pastor, Kelsey serves as the primary leader of the team, focusing on reaching the next generation in a secularizing, diversifying context.
Platt—the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board who joined McLean as teaching pastor in 2017—will continue to preach and serve, with a particular emphasis on reaching the nations.
In a statement to CT, Platt praised Kelsey’s leadership, preaching, and passion for “spreading the gospel from the next generation to all nations.” He said, “I am a better person and pastor as a result of serving alongside Mike.” The Radical author said McLean is “affirming a new level of plurality of leadership” as it enters a “new chapter.”
The shift in leadership follows a tumultuous few years at McLean, when a faction of the church mounted a lawsuit over a 2021 elder vote, claiming the church was veering from its mission and attempting to “purge conservative members.”
The disagreements at McLean also played out on social media amid the evangelical debates around critical race theory and liberal drift. Critics circulated a clip of Kelsey referring to the impulse to “torch” white people during a podcast discussion about experiencing anger in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing.
“It was intensely cut out of context, but I wish people could see the whole thing. I use slang in a way that could be easily misunderstood or intensely distorted, but the point I was making is, when it comes to racial issues, a lot of Black people have to fight the urge to be controlled by anger instead of being controlled by the Holy Spirit,” he said. “I know what that feels like, but as a follower of Jesus, Jesus doesn’t give us permission to hold anybody in contempt.”

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