(FYI: I wrote this weeks ago, not in response to what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend.)
Should we be worried about the future of American churches?
I know that some people are. But they’re worried because of other reasons, such as the music (it’s either too old or too anti-intellectual, etc.), the watering down of the message (just preach the Penal Substitution aspect of the Doctrine of Atonement, dang it!), and various (sometimes orthodox, sometimes not) capitulations to popular culture. I’m not worried about any of those issues eliminating the Church.
Many outside the Church (and some within) think that its survival will depend on its whole affirmation with the LGBT community (get with "the times"!). The Church should be against all forms of bullying, but it still mostly struggles to minister to the LGBT community, while afraid of its wealth of political and cultural capital. The outspoken leaders for the LGBT community, however, require nothing short of complete theological affirmation. This brings the two communities to an impasse, sadly stunting the ability to work or even live together in the name of charity and cultural flourishing. However, the Church has survived far worse persecution than any social or political action the States have ever seen on their own turf. So no, unlike others, I’m not worried about that issue eliminating the Church.
However, I’m worried about a hurdle that plagued the global Church for centuries since its inception, and with which many American churches continue to struggle: truly communicating the full message of Jesus Christ to different cultures.
No, seriously, how many different races and cultures attend the same particular church service?
Because of discourse in recent and current politics, the rise of #BlackLivesMatter, and a host of late and tragic incidents, the need for all types of racial reconciliation continues to grow. And it needs to be addressed by an organization (not just one person) with visible (not just theoretical) authority on the issue.
Who can do this? Not a culturally-homogenous group of people. Not a group that will sell out to money and influence. Not a group that regularly vilifies or condemns the disagreeable. There are many political organizations and pop-culture icons who give lipservice to the racial tension in our diverse country, but they can’t speak or act effectively to the issue. The American Church can. The question, I believe, is a matter of if it will.
Two significant changes in the past 75 years:
1) Good news: Christian gatherings are now regularly occuring all over the world. From basements of secrecy to beautifully-decorated sanctuaries, the message of Jesus Christ and the group efforts to exposit the Holy Bible have been very (but not thoroughly) globalized. The Church of Christ, born in the Middle East and raised in Europe, was challenged by the Enlightenment and is no longer the “white man’s religion.”
2) Bad news: Very few Americans (regardless of their religion) can really see that, partially because our diverse country has become very culturally-segregated. My home metropolis of Chicago is, perhaps, the strongest example, as its cultural demographic layout is basically striped.
Now, there’s nothing wrong, inherently, with living and worshipping with what’s familiar, but if Christianity is truly a global religion, what should a church service in a diverse country look like? How tied to local culture should theology be? For example, the most headline-grabbing denominational leaders and influential bloggers of churches in the States are predominantly white, male and suburban/rural. However, some places with more exponential church growth are Africa and China. That’s a bit of a worrisome disconnect (among many).
I’m worried that as the occurence of race-based tragic incidents and need for racial reconciliation grows (and it will), our information age will bring American churches’ congregations to light. The cultural segregation of our country’s congregations will be made apparent to all in a time of crisis, and the Church (even the Gospel message?) could then wrongfully lose its credibility of transcendence.
In the Church’s early days in the Roman Empire (a very racist, misogynist and overly carnal culture), one of the (many) reasons that gatherings grew is that men, women, Jews, Greeks, Romans (and every kind of Gentile), rich, poor, slave, literally anyone felt equally welcome there.
Today, when there are suspected (at the least) racially-motived kidnappings, murders, and hate crimes, people should be able to come to the Church. But most churches today are culturally segregated. And because of the cultural trappings that dominate the homogenous church services, many people are feeling excluded where they should be “one in Christ Jesus.” Building unity despite diversity with grace and (sometimes) reconciliation is messy, but the result is much better than anyone’s default tribalism. But so many people and organizations (including most churches) aren’t making the effort. So, I’m worried.
Should I be worried? If not, why not? If so, what should we (as Christians) do?