For such a time as this: the salvation of the American church

What is it the “plain gospel?” It’s the kind of question that keeps missiologists, pastors, theologians, seminarians and online pontificators busy. While this question has as many answers as it does inquisitors, I ask it primarily in the matrix of Christian faith and culture.

As a historic fact we acknowledge that a large body of what has come down to us in the Christian tradition was formed in the context of the evangelization of Europe. It took significant work to translate a Middle Eastern desert Messiah into the context of a hill and dale European world. The questions that are answered by the systematic theologians studied around the world are the questions largely of European believers in a European context addressing European realities. This is not to suggest that our systematic theologies are somehow untrue, but simply that they may be inadequate to the task of carrying the “plain gospel” to the ends of the earth.

As the locus of the church shifts significantly from North and West to East and South, believers in other parts of the world are unlikely to remain content regurgitating what they’ve received as gospel truth. Despite the fervor with which we defend our systems, Calvinism, Arminianism, and every other –ism is not the gospel, and frankly are not the only authentic ways of understanding or even conceptualizing the gospel. Whatever view we hold, we ought to hold with a healthy dose of humility. God in his grace has made us joint heirs with Christ, and that is something of which none can boast.

In any event, I believe that ethnic minority Christians have a unique opportunity to do theology in a new way. As people who are both thoroughly Americanized but also distinctly “other” there may be some unique theological purposes that God wants to work out through our communities. How this might take place I do not know. In Europe the revitalization of European Christianity is in the hands of those who are not of European extraction. And if we would be honest, despite all the shifting of deck chairs in Evangelicalism, there are not markedly more people following Jesus – especially among White Americans.

Non-White students now comprise fully 40% of students involved in groups like InterVarsity. It may well be that we, like Esther, have been called for such a time as this; that the salvation of the American church lies with us. This revitalization cannot happen however if we simply continue to unthinkingly parrot the systems, ways of being church, and worship structures that have dominated the American landscape.

I am not your enemy

That’s right my dear Korean American brother; yes indeed my Chinese American sister. Even though we come from different places, histories, and experiences we are more often alike than different.

Kim chi and Dim Sum are all right with me, and by the way I appreciate the fact that there really is more to you than food and anime. Yes, I know that there are things I can’t know; things that really aren’t secrets but are simply assumed when you are in your own company; things that are hard to explain to those who haven’t shared what its like to be the one or two kids in the class with squinty eyes and shiny black hair in a terribly unstylish bowl cut that your Mom gave you to save money.

I know that I don’t understand your struggle, and that it really is a struggle even though the myth of the model minority is as costly as it is based in partial truths. I know that because I am the un-model minority, and as much as I hate to admit, that myth is based in partial truth as well.

I know that I don’t know what its like to be unseen, invisible, and assumed to be either just like white people but of a strangely exotic kind of white. I know because I am all too visible, far too easily seen and assumed to be exotic in the same way that chimpanzees are.

I know that your people and my people most often meet across a counter top as you sell human hair and no-lye relaxers to me in order to finance the cost of your children’s expensive education so that they won’t have to slave away in a store for unseen countless hours. I know that my people think your people are little more than animated cash registers who we assume “speaka no Engrish” because we’re as baptized in the ignorant racialization of American society as anyone else.

I know that your parents would promise to fall over and die and disown you and faint dead away in that precise order if you married me, and that my parents would likely make some derogatory racial remark about you before getting excited about the fact that our children would likely have “good hair.”

I know that you like hip hop and rap and R & B because it expresses a part of you that seems unexpressed otherwise but that you would likely never actually venture into the hood other than to sell me some cheap Americanized Chinese food.

I am not your enemy even though there are those who would paint you as the model and inflate your egos in ungodly ways and divide our struggle so that they can keep you enslaved in your suburban middle manager-but-never-CEO lifestyles just as well as they keep us as nothing more than entertainer-athlete-criminal.

I wish White wasn’t the arbiter of all things good and glorious so that your women wouldn’t feel the need to change the eyes that I find quite alluring and enigmatic and mine wouldn’t spend so much time deciding who has good hair or not.

I happen to think samgyupsal would pair quite well with collard greens, and Kim chi jjigae with cornbread.

We are not each other’s enemy, and I wish I knew a way to bridge the gap so that we fought alongside each other against the common depravity that threatens both of our humanity.

I don’t have to go to church with you…

“I don’t need to go to church with you”

These words, quoted second hand by David Park of another mutual friend, aptly summarize the feelings I, and many Black Americans have about the whole multiethnic conversation. We often hear quoted the words that 11AM Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. These words, provocative though they may be, are probably untrue. After all, most of us are not in interracial marriages and our closest friends generally tend to be people who are most like us – ethnically, economically, and educationally. Many people view this as problematic, especially in the ethnic dimensions. I have come to a place – full circle really – where this type of self segregation in the context of the church is not terribly troubling to me.

That I say this is perhaps surprising to some who know me, given my commitment to multiethnicity and racial reconciliation. However, as I said to my friend David – most Black people are not running around in angst about the fact that their churches don’t have white people in attendance. Frankly, interacting with Whites is something as minorities that doesn’t strike us as particularly ground breaking. Our world is filled with people who are ethnically and in some ways culturally different than we are. We know how to interact with Whites and do so without difficulty. In fact, we’ve grown up together in this country – mutually shaping and being shaped by the other.

Why then has multiethnicity become such a watchword in so many places and churches – not least bit among Asian Americans? There are of course, theological considerations. The church as envisioned by scripture is a multiethnic community, a place where the distinction of Jew & Gentile, bond & free are not barriers to participation in the grace of God. Of course the multitude of churches of varying ethnicities throughout the world and across the American landscape is ample testimony that ethnic considerations are no longer barriers to being Christian, as they might possibly have been in Ephesus or Corinth. In addition, the church is multiethnic. The diversity or uniformity of any particular local congregation says nothing about the overall diversity of the body of Christ – which is arguably the most ethnically, culturally, and economically heterogeneous group in the world. Besides, the lack of diversity in other dimensions in local churches (i.e. the disproportionate number of women, economic uniformity, etc.) seems not to draw the same degree of ire.

I submit that at least two important factors are at play – one of which I’ve mentioned already, in this current fascination with multiethnicity.

One is the idea that my local congregation is somehow the body of Christ. This is not an often mentioned issue, but it is implicit in many people’s understanding. If it isn’t reflected before my eyes with the people among whom I worship, then it somehow isn’t happening in the body of Christ.

The second is more troubling, and that is the insidious and quite evil notion that minorities are somehow legitimated in their Christianity by their acceptance by Whites. The presence of Whites in an “ethnic” congregation, as quite often happens in the English Ministry of immigrant churches, or in traditionally Black churches does not serve to render these groups adequately “multiethnic” even if Whites are present in some number. Rather (and I admit to numerous exceptions) it is when minorities join White congregations that multiethnicity is said to be occurring.

When Whites gather together to worship, they are not said to be gathering in ethnic enclaves, even if their worship services are 99% White, led entirely by Whites and conducted in a way that is culturally relevant to Whites. They are said to be simply worshipping. The same does not hold true for others. Is it possible that many minorities are simply uncomfortable being around “themselves” in any intentional way, and the presence of Whites, or the status of being a minority in a substantially White context is a salve to a conscience too easily seared with the heat of a latent self hatred?

Ignorance of the unseen

Christians are believers in the supernatural.  I would say that if one claims to be a follower of Jesus, he cannot fail to acknowledge that there is more in existence than our eyes can see; that there is a supernatural realm which has influence and direct impact on mankind.

This is perhaps a no-brainer, but it seems to me that some of my fellow believers – not the liberals, but those of us who are called conservative or evangelical – increasingly operate or think as if there is no supernatural reality impinging upon events.  As we have, rightly so, embraced the kingdom of God as an important theological paradigm and paid more attention to systemic issues or injustice and poverty, we seem to sometime forget that human effort cannot bring the reign of God, and that some things are not just social justice issues.  Some things are, quite probably, demonically inspired, if not controlled.

I am a socially minded evangelical; I believe in justice, etc.  But the more I think about the issues of the day, the more I am convinced, both by own experience and by my reading, that the devil is busy.  That sounds simple, and it is.  When an issue such as marriage between two men becomes divisive within communities that claim holy scripture as authoritative, it cannot be simply that God is neutral or that the enemy is silent. 

Now I do not claim that any particular person is demonically controlled or inspired.  I don’t know enough to make that claim.  But I believe that we err when we think of things merely as issues of justice or progress or politics and neglect the very real truth that evil exists and that it is personal.

Allow me to take the issue of gay rights.  First homosexuality has graduated rather rapidly over the course of 100 years from a behavior one engages in, to a condition one has, to an identity one is.  And many Christians have embraced this graduation, this evaluation, unthinkingly, without real regard to the consequences of that decision.  Scripture on the other recognizes no such categories for anyone.  According to scripture we are people made in the image of God, infected with a sinful nature, and yet culpable for our behavior.  Everyone of us can sin, and none of us have the option to allow our sin to become our identity.

I bring this up not because it is my major point, but because we as Christians ought to think about the spiritual dynamics around this transition. I was reared within a church tradition that was cognizant of these spiritual realities, but as I’ve been involved with more “mainstream” churches it has become clear to me that most evangelicals functionally operate as materialists.

Of course this notion of being aware of “spiritual” realities can be taken to an extreme – where charismatic becomes charismania and a demon is seen lurking behind every tree or misprint of a church bulletin. Such extremism is well documented and rightly criticized. The alternative however, is less often critiqued from within evangelical circles. If we are people who believe the scripture and whose lives are to be infused with the Holy Spirit, then should it be any surprise to us that there is demonic activity at a personal and systemic level?

Operating, as we often do, in ignorance of the unseen leaves us only the tools of essentially unenlightened reason to discern what Jesus himself said were spiritual truths that require the Spirit to illumine. At the same time, by operating in such a way, we unintentionally reduce Christianity to “‘good works” that are not really that different in practice from just being a nice person who goes to church. Is it any wonder then that our witness to the world is so weak?

Why is it so easy for us to operate in ignorance of the unseen? I believe that it is simply our fear of being out of control. By denying spiritual realities, we retain, or at least seem to retain, a degree of control over our world, and even our relationship with God. We can manage things then from an entirely man centered stance while purporting to be relying on God, when in fact we are functionally atheistic. The stakes are too high for us to continue in this way. As Jesus admonished his disciples when they fail to cast out a demon… some things come out only by prayer and fasting.