Category: multi-ethnic

Why We Still Need (Some) Monocultural Churches

Immigrant children at Ellis Island. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Multicultural churches are all the rage these days. Conferences are packed with pastors learning how to start multicultural churches, or how to turn the churches they pastor into one. That long-overdue trend is welcomed because God is the God of diversity. In light of God’s call to reconciliation, churches ought to reflect the diversity of their neighborhoods.

But, we still need monocultural churches, particularly among newly-arrived immigrant populations. Here are six reasons why.

1. Monocultural churches can provide a safe haven for minorities within a dominant majority culture. After the Civil War ended in 1865, emancipated African Americans left their former white masters’ churches to form black congregations. The rich history of the American black church is one not only of worship, but as the hub of the African American community. For minority populations, especially newly-arrived immigrant populations, monocultural churches can provide this same safe haven today.

2. Monocultural churches allow for minority perspectives to develop and be heard. On a national scale, American Christianity was shocked into reality with the publication of Dr. Soong-Chan Rah’s book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. The subtitle should have been Freeing the Church from White Cultural Captivity, because Professor Rah writes compellingly of the “white captivity of the church.” Dr. Rah’s advocacy for other voices — voices of minorities — to be heard and respected could be realized if white churches and leaders recognize and listen to the voices from Korean, Laotian, West African, African American, and other churches whose members are in the minority in American cultural life.

3. Monocultural churches can provide a connection to home, customs, language, ritual and power structures that generations of immigrants wish to retain. The myth of the American melting pot has been debunked as Americans of all ethnicities have attempted to connect with their ancestral roots. For those in the minority, the identity fostered by language, dress, ritual, and customs is difficult to retain, but important to remember.

4. Monocultural churches can become points of transition, assisting newcomers to America as they navigate their new culture. When I traveled in China, I was always interested in talking to Americans who had lived and worked in China to find out what restaurants they frequented, where they shopped, and how they learned the Chinese language. The same need exists in new immigrants to this country. Those from their own countries can help new immigrants negotiate the meaning and pace of American life.

5. Monocultural churches help resist the marginalization of minority groups. The danger any minority faces is not only being assimilated into their new culture, but being absorbed and marginalized by it. Monocultural churches, like the black church, have given rise to a unique expression of the Christian faith, and established a unique place for its people in American church life. White churches and denominations must reject outreach to minority populations because they are the answer to white church or denominational decline.

6. Finally, monocultural churches do not confirm the notorious church growth teaching called the “homogeneous unit principle.” Church growth studies advocated that because people (usually white) found it easier to be with people like them, it followed that homogeneous churches would grow more quickly and easily. However, monocultural churches are not excluders, but incubators that allow potentially fragile populations to establish themselves, grow, develop a unique witness, and thrive in the rich diversity of American church life.

Of course, none of these reasons is intended to sanction prejudice, discrimination, or exclusion in any church. In the Book of Acts, the church in Jerusalem cared for its Jewish widows and its Greek widows as well.

However, before you jump on the bandwagon of exclusive multiculturalism, remember that historically monocultural churches like German Lutherans, English Baptists, Scottish Presbyterian, British Anglican, and others established themselves in colonial America. These monocultural churches became incubators for those who came to these shores seeking freedom, which included the freedom to add their past to a new American future.

What Paula Deen Should Have Learned

booksBy now the story that Paula Deen casually admitted she had used racial epithets is old news. Further revelations that she also considered a “plantation-themed” wedding complete with white-jacketed African American men waiters contributed to the narrative of Deen as racially-insensitive at best, and racist at worst.

The admission by Deen that she has used the n-word sparked a social media debate about whether or not she is being treated fairly by the mainstream media. The New York Times reported over the weekend fans still waited in line at Deen’s restaurant in Savannah, while Deen’s defenders rallied online to her cause.

On the other side of the argument, Food Network revealed it will not renew her contract, which means her Emmy-winning cooking show will disappear taking with it her TV audience. Cable TV shopping channel QVC said it is monitoring the situation but it has no plans for Deen to appear to hawk her cookware anytime soon. USA Today quoted public relations pundits who said “Deen is done.”

Why do fans defend Deen while cable TV shows drop her faster than you can say buttered biscuits? Because Food Network and QVC understand what Deen and her fans don’t — in the US market, commercial brands cannot appear to be racist.

Of course, that wasn’t always the case. Brands like the Aunt Jemima brand and logo have been revised over the years, transforming Aunt Jemima from the bandana-wearing “mammy” of an idealized Southern plantation life, to a contemporary portrait of an attractive African American woman.

For their own economic survival, US corporations have made conscious efforts to change logos and narratives that were tied to a racist past. Paula Deen built a cooking empire on the idea of Southern charm and eccentricity embodied in over-the-top recipes and her Southern drawl. What Deen never learned was that her brand had to steer clear of the darkside of Southern history and life.

Deen’s casual “of course” admission revealed her obliviousness to the changing world around her. Gone with more than the wind is the fantasy of the South that Deen parlayed into a personal fortune. While US consumers may not mind the extra calories in her dishes, she can’t serve them with a side helping of racism.

6 Dramatic Trends Churches Are Ignoring

Despite the adoption of coffee bars, powerpoint presentations, and full-stage lighting, churches are seldom on the cutting edge when it comes to addressing demographic trends.  Here are six dramatic trends that are not being addressed adequately by local churches, church networks, or denominations.

If we continue to ignore these trends for another decade, churches will continue to see an erosion of members, attendance, and relevance in a rapidly changing American culture.

Gleaned from “Six Disruptive Demographic Trends: What Census 2010 Will Reveal” published by The Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina, these trends will impact churches as well as the U.S. economy.

1. The South has several new faces.

“…between 2000 and 2008, the South was the preferred destination for movers in nearly all of the major demographic groups, including blacks, Hispanics, the elderly, and the foreign born.”

While the Northeast and Midwest grew by 6.5 and 9.4 percent respectively, the South attracted over half (51.4%) of the 24.8 million increase in the United States population. The West garnered about one-third of the total U.S. growth, but was an net exporter of 2 out of the 4 groups mentioned.

Of course, the South isn’t called the Bible belt for nothing, but established churches in the South tend to be single race churches, white and black, with few examples of churches designed to address the issue of the South’s growing multiculturalism. Mark de Ymaz in Arkansas is doing it, and Soong-Chan Rah writes about it, but at the local church ministry level few are addressing this multicultural growth trend.

2.  The minority majority is coming.

In the 1980s when I first visited Fuller Seminary’s campus in Pasadena, I was told that there was no majority group in Pasadena – everyone was a minority. That trend is now a growing reality across America. The UNC report calls it the “browning of America,” which is a phrase I don’t like because it pits white against “browns,” and if not carefully stated becomes a pejorative description of those not-white.

But the fact remains that non-white population growth is outstripping white growth dramatically. Between 2000 and 2009, Asians increased by 31 percent; blacks by 10 percent; and, Hispanics by 36 percent, while non-Hispanic whites increased by only 2 percent. Immigration patterns and birth rates are the primary drivers of this coming minority majority. By 2050, the non-Hispanic white population will fall below 50 percent for the first time in our nation’s history. No group will be the majority population, and that holds both great challenge and great promise for churches in the next 40 years.

3.  Out-marriage is in.

Same gender marriage has grabbed the headlines, but cross-ethnic marriages are the quiet growing reality.

“Among newly married couples, the out-marriage rate was 14.6 percent in 2008, up from 6.7 percent in 1980,” according to the UNC report. In addition, those marrying outside their ethnic group tend to be more, not less, educated.

Churches in our community (rural, Southern Virginia) tend not to have interracial couples, although there are many in our community. As this out-marriage trend grows, churches will need to become more conscious and sensitive to these ethnically-blended families. Church literature and advertising will need to run images of cross-ethnic couples and families in order to indicate a church’s welcome to these blended marriages.

4. The baby boomers aren’t babies anymore.

“On January 1, 2011, the first baby boomer born in America turned 65 and set into motion what we refer to as the “silver tsunami.” Almost 80-million baby boomers will leave the U. S. workforce in the next 20 years.

Churches already skew older than the national population average, and this will only become more pronounced in the next two decades. Seeker-sensitive churches that sprang up to attract baby boomers in the 1980s will be impacted by the aging of this group.

While churches almost always want to attract young families, by default and intention there will be churches that focus primarily on senior adults. Senior adult ministry for and with older adults will not just be a sub-group of larger congregations. Entire churches will be senior-led, benefitting from the years of experience, education, skills, and resources this group possesses.

5. It’s no longer a man’s world.

According to the report, men “bore 80 percent of total U. S. job loss between 2007 and 2009” leading some to proclaim the “end of men” in the economic market. Out of ten college graduates over the past decade, 6 were women and 4 were men. Women own 40 percent of all U.S. businesses, and women hold 43 percent of all executive, administrative, and managerial positions in the U.S. economy.

“Women are close to surpassing men as the numerical majority in the paid U.S. workforce.” In addition, in “married couple households, women now account for 47 percent of household income”, and 63.3 percent of mothers were the primary or co-breadwinner, up from 27.7 percent in 1967.

The implication for churches is obvious in several areas. Ministries to men and women need to recognize these new workplace realities. Ozzie and Harriett are dead, and churches need to deal with gender issues like it was 2012, not 1952.

6. Grandparents are the new parents.

“In 2010, 4.9 million American children lived in grandparent-headed households.” This is an increase of 26 percent versus a 4 percent increase for children living in all other type households.

Increasingly, these grandparent-led households also include one or more adult children who are parents of the grandchildren. And, 40 percent of children were living in home headed by a grandmother only.

This increasing family-type challenges the traditional church idea of what it means to be a family, and provides opportunity for churches to meet the unique needs of grandparent-led households. That these households tend to be non-white and economically-stressed provides additional challenges for church ministry.

Each one of these trends challenges the traditional church’s idea of its community, its membership, its inclusivity, and its understanding of gender and race issues. Small churches will face unique challenges, but also unique opportunities in addressing these trends.

However, if denominations, churches, and church networks continue to ignore these society-shaping developments, we will miss the great opportunities for growth, outreach, and church revitalization in the 21st century.

Changing Demographics to Impact Small Churches


MSNBC reports this morning that “For the first time, minorities make up a majority of babies in the U.S., part of a sweeping race change and a growing age divide between mostly white, older Americans and predominantly minority youths that could reshape government policies.”  

But not only will this demographic change to a “majority of minorities” impact government policies, it will also impact small churches.  The article points out what we already knew:  minority populations are growing at a faster pace than the aging white population.  The previously reported American Community Survey had pegged white children under 2 as 51% of that demographic, but larger than estimated rates of minority births have moved the needle.  White children under 2 are now just below 50% of that group.

What does this mean for small churches?  First, small churches, especially rural or small town churches, tend to be segregated by race.  Obviously with a declining white population the handwriting is on the wall.  Small, predominantly white churches will either broaden their outreach or eventually die as their members age and die.

But, white churches cannot just say “We need minorities to survive” because that demonstrates a self-serving attitude that is not biblical.  Attitudes change slowly among older church members, but even older members can be led to broaden their vision, and begin to take intentional steps to reach out.

Most small churches will need to develop what Wendell Griffen calls “cultural competency.”   This involves an understanding and appreciation for the ethnic diversity of God’s creation.  And, it involves understanding that to meaningfully reach out to others means more that “signing them up.”  It also involves sharing decision-making, leadership, and authority.

Professor Soong-Chan Rah, who wrote The Next Evangelicalism:  Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity, has excellent insights to offer in his book, and on his blog.  If you haven’t read his book, it is one of the must-reads for this decade, and will give you (if you are white) an entirely different perspective on how other ethnic groups view evangelicalism as a whole.

Add to this new perspective, the additional insight that now married couples comprise less than 50% of US households for the first time; that same-sex couples are now 1-in-10 of unmarried couples living together; and, that several states, my own Virginia included, will flip to “minority-majority” status in the next 10 years, and we have the ingredients for major sociological shifts.

What we do not need are shrill voices of doom using these figures and trends to forecast the end of society as we know it.  Social patterns, including family patterns, in the US and world are changing.  These changes present challenges to churches in communicating the gospel, and in reaching out to include a diverse representation of our communities within our congregations.

Small Detroit Church Overcomes Big Obstacles

The graffiti message scrawled on the building next door to the church screamed, Satan Is Alive! But that did not deter Randy Brown from becoming the pastor of Military Avenue Evangelical Presbyterian Church in 1989.

Located in inner city Detroit, Military Ave. EPC had enjoyed a distinguished history for a small congregation.  Records show the church in its heyday, gave almost 50% of its income to missions.  The congregation was so well-respected that the renowned Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse spoke there once.

But by 1989, a declining Detroit had swallowed up the former proud working-class neighborhood.  Instead of houses filled with working families, the community around the church teemed with the homeless, drug addicts, and prostitutes.  Military Avenue EPC was destined to disappear unless something drastic happened.

Nineteen years later, Military Avenue EPC is alive and doing good in its community.  In the past ten years the congregation has built two new buildings including a full-size basketball gym.  Drug addicts have found Christ and become active church members, neighborhood kids swarm into the church for one-on-one tutoring, and struggling families find support each week.  This small church ministers to the urban poor each week by:

  • Meeting real needs.  Each week dozens of families line up at the church to receive a bag of groceries after attending a brief worship service.  Randy said, “Our goal is to show compassion, but we also want to share the gospel, the real bread of life.”  With hard economic times, the food program has grown from 20 families to over 150 each week.
  • Connecting with kids. Each evening dozens of school children come to the church’s gym for tutoring.  Church and community volunteers sit with each child, helping them grasp math and science, but also teaching them valuable life lessons. Several students in the program have become the first in their families to go on to college.
  • Welcoming volunteers. The church welcomes over 300 volunteers a year to  help with its ministry to Detroit’s poor.  Staffed by volunteers, Vacation Bible School reaches dozens of kids each summer.  Volunteer groups have come from all over the country to Detroit’s inner city to work.
  • Seeking broad support. Military Avenue EPC functions like a mission, according to Dr. Brown.  Church members alone could not bear the financial cost of building a gym, or maintaining the church’s food and tutoring programs.  Their presbytery provides some financial support, and interested individuals have given generously for building programs.
  • Focusing on their community. “Our target group is the urban poor,” Brown commented.  The church is committed to staying and serving in its community for as long as it can.  “This is a small church with a big ministry,” he added.

About 100 gather for Sunday worship, but the church touches over 1,000 different people each year.  About 300 kids participate in their after-school programs, including a basketball program that reaches out to street-wise young men in the inner city.  The Satan Is Alive graffiti is gone, too.  A couple of years ago the church bought that building, and turned it into The Solid Rock Cafe for teens.  “In the inner city,” Randy noted, “success means we’re still here.  Ask people to pray for us.  We’re in a battle.”

*This article appeared first in Outreach magazine’s Nov/Dec 2008 issue in my column, ‘Small Church, Big Idea’,  under the title, ‘Making Some Moves in Motown.’

Reveiw: Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures by David Augsburger

With the rise of multi-ethnic congregations, global mission trips, and world-wide communication, church leaders should read Dr. David Augsburger’s book, Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures.

Augsburger guides the pastoral counselor, or church staff member, on a tour through alternative worlds by exploring the care of souls across the rich variety of social contexts found around the globe.  Augsburger carefully and in compelling detail expands the Western pastoral counselor’s worldview to include a rich panoply of cultures which approach differently the experiences of conflict, individuality, the social group, mental health, family, and other issues of concern to our common humanity.  The reader learns, in other words, that her or his own culture is not normative for all cultures, thereby opening the reader to new insights in the pastoral counseling task.

Helpful chapter themes include subtitles which both describe and guide the reader on the intercultural journey.  Subtitles include: A Theology of Presence, A Theology of Culture, A Theology of Humanness, A Theology of Grace, A Theology of Value, A Theology of the Family, A Theology of Liberation, A Theology of Moral Character, A Theology of the Demonic, A Theology of Human Frailty, and, Models of Pastoral Counseling and Theology.

Two particular insights emerge as the reader moves from chapter to chapter.  First, human beings, despite wide cultural variance, hold basic human traits in common.   In other words, we as a species are similar in our common humanity, while at the same time we are diverse in our cultural expressions.  Secondly, the existence of dominant cultures does not mean that one culture is inherently superior to another.  The intercultural pastoral counselor learns to move from his or her culture into another culture, and back again, providing help at the “borders” of cultural intersection and insight.

Taking these two insights as the guiding light for the “interpathy” of the pastoral counselor, she or he is then able to resist the temptation to make others in their own image, or the image on their own culture.  Rather the aware intercultural pastoral counselor is able to help those in need within the context of the counselee’s cultural values, groups, constructs, assumptions, and traditions.  This allows the person helped to find their way to wholeness as defined by the society in which they live.

Intercultural awareness also enables the counselor to move beyond the idea that his or her culture is superior, and by extension, that his or her culture is the norm preferred by God.  This insight expands the theological framework of the intercultural pastoral counselor, providing the opportunity to relate to the God of all creation and cultures in a new, positive, and helpful manner.

By the same token, the book opens the idea of community to the whole world of cultures encountered by the counselor.  By developing cultural awareness, bridges can be built from the counselor’s culture into the cultural milieu of others, thereby expanding the communal relationships available to the counselor, and reciprocally to the counseled.

Augsburger even tackles the world of the mystical and apparently supernatural, providing access through both reason and faith to that which seems to be beyond scientific analysis.  Augsburger’s even-handed approach to the mysteries of demon possession, shamanism, and supernatural healing grounds the counselor in a real world, while allowing for the inexplicable and transcendent.

I commented to Debbie as I read through this book, that Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures contains enough material for several books.  This is not a fluffy, insubstantial volume.  But the persistent reader will find tools for personal reflection, and cross-cultural engagement.  If you need a good book about pastoral counseling, that also expands your cultural horizons, then this is the book to read.

Augsburger, David W., Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures. The Westminster Press (Philadelphia:  1986), 373.

Disclaimer: I purchased my own copy of this book from Amazon, and received no inducement to write this review.

Zondervan Models Repentance, Humility By Pulling Controversial Book

Zondervan Publishing announced yesterday that it is pulling all the copies and support material for its controversial Deadly Viper Character Assassins book.   Dr. Soong-Chan Rah and others in the Asian-American Christian community pointed out the culturally offensive title and content of the book to the authors and to Zondervan Publishing. The company listened, and then did the right thing by withdrawing the book from distribution permanently.

You can follow this story as it has developed on Soong-Chan Rah’s blog by starting here and working your way back through his updates on this incident.  Professor Rah is author of The Next Evangelicalism:  Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity.  Rah has challenged other Christian publishing house gaffes — one in 2004 from LifeWay’s VBS curriculum, Rickshaw Rally, in which Asian culture is co-opted for a cutesy but stereotypical depiction.  Zondervan had another faux pas regarding Asian-Americans in a skit book published in 2006 in Skits That Teach.

While LifeWay did not recall the offensive VBS Rickshaw Rally, and actually was rather hostile to the objections of Dr. Rah and others, Zondervan did recall the skit book and deleted the skit that stereotyped Asian speech patterns in offensive ways.  Seems Zondervan is batting 2-for-2 in doing the right thing.

To avoid future mistakes of this nature, Zondervan’s president, Moe Girkins issued this comment, which I have excerpted from the full Zondervan statement:

We have taken the criticism and advice we have received to heart.  In order to avoid similar episodes in the future, last week I named Stan Gundry as our Editor-in-Chief of all Zondervan products.  He will be responsible for making the necessary changes at Zondervan to prevent editorial mistakes like this going forward.  We already have begun a dialogue with Christian colleagues in the Asian-American community to deepen our cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Zondervan is to be commended for the courage, humility, and sacrifice they have made in righting an inadvertent wrong so quickly and completely.  Their stock just went up in my estimation.

Soong-Chan Rah has acted as prophet to the white-dominant Christian culture.  Like many prophets, not everyone has appreciated Rah’s position and some have responded with insensitivity themselves, further compounding and confirming racial and ethnic insensitivity by our largely Eurocentric culture.

Futurists predict that by 2050 there will be no majority ethnicities in the United States.  That’s only 40-years from now, and the cultural landscape will look much different.  The United States has elected its first biracial, African-American president.  The national Republican party chairman is also African-American, and the Republican governor of Louisiana is of Asian Indian descent.  The lone Republican vote cast for healthcare reform in the U. S. House of Representatives was cast by a Anh “Joseph” Cao, Vietnamese born congressman from Louisiana.  My point is that the seeds of ethnic diversity and change are already apparent in our culture.

Churches and Christian organizations, such as Zondervan, are awakening to the new reality that their congregations and audiences are no longer just white, but consist of a rainbow coalition of ethnicities.  This is the future of the United States, the world, and of our Christian communities.  I am reminded of John’s description of the multitude which occupied the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation — “from every kindred, tongue, and nation.”  We might add to the “one anothers” in the New Testament “be sensitive to one another” as we follow Zondervan’s lead of repentance and humility.

The Church of the Future: Urban, Minority and Progressive

millenial_generation_onpageThe church of the future resides in an urban setting, consists of multiple minorities, and espouses progressive social values, according to two recently-released reports.

While most church futurists have focused on church models (i.e., house churches vs. megachurches) in their predictions of the shape of church in the next 50-years, the demographic forces shaping future churches are at work now on a global scale. The report of the Population Reference Bureau, which published its comprehensive “World Population Data Sheet” findings in October, 2009; and the Center for American Progress’s “New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation” report contain valuable insights for church thinkers.

Here are some of the findings of the World Population Data Sheet:

1. The world’s population will reach 7-billion by 2011 or 2012. By 2050 10-billion people will occupy an increasingly crowded planet. We are adding approximately 1-billion people every 12-years.

2. By 2050, 90% of Americans will live in urban areas.

3. Most of the population growth in the US will come from immigrants already in the US, or those who will migrate to the US. The US population in 2050 will stand at 439-million, up 135-million from the 304-million today — an increase of almost 50%.

4. By 2050, India will lead the world population with almost 2-billion; China will have 1.4-billion people; and, the US will be the third most populous country in the world with 439-million.

5. No majority ethnicities will exist by 2050 in the United States.

6. In the 20th century, 90% of population growth came from less-developed countries. In the 21st century, virtually all global population growth will come from less-developed countries, with some more-developed country populations actually declining, or being bolstered by increased immigration.

Soong-Chan Rah’s new book, The Next Evangelicalism, points out that while church proponents decry the decline of the American church, it’s the white American church that is decline, while ethnic congregations are flourishing. Subtitled “Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity” Rah advocates a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church whose seeds are already beginning to bear fruit. In other words, the shift that will be realized 40-years from today has already begun in our society. But, because the dominant culture in American society is the white European culture, church scholars are culturally blind to the rise of minority, urban, and ethnic churches.

The report by the Center for American Progress gives additional credibility to the changing nature of the church. The Millennials, born 1978-2004, are an increasing force in American life and politics. The Millennial cohort will dwarf the size of the Baby Boomer generation, while actually bringing about changes in society that the Boomers abandoned after they matured. Sixty-four percent of Millennials agreed that “religious faith should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace in society, and less on opposing abortion or gay rights.” Just 19 percent disagreed.

The culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s are quickly fading, and a new generation that is more progressive in social views is assuming center stage. Millennials were a major force in the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and by 2020 will comprise 40% of the entire American electorate.

Of course, world events such as the economy, war, natural disasters, and a host of other events could intervene and reshape the future that is evident now.  However, the trend toward multi-culturalism, urbanism, and changing social ideas upon us.  It remains to be seen exactly how these trends will influence and shape the church of the future.

Sermon: Pluralism – Why Doesn’t Everybody Believe Like We Do?

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow.  This is the 2nd in an 8-part series titled, “Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.”  This week we’re dealing with the challenge of pluralism — a culture of many faiths. I hope your Sunday is wonderful!

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces:
#2. Pluralism — Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe What We Do?

Acts 17:16-34

The old joke was told like this:  “A Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Baptist preacher were together in a boat fishing…”

The joke was pretty funny, but that’s not my point today.  Today if you were to tell that joke, you’d have to add to the priest, rabbi, and preacher, a Buddhist monk, a Muslim imam, an Indian guru, a New Age spiritualist, a Wiccan witch, a Native American elder, a Mongolian shaman, an African witch doctor, a Haitian voodoo practitioner, and an aggressive atheist.  And maybe a partridge in a pear tree.

Then, not only would the joke be too long, the boat wouldn’t be big enough either.  My point, of course, is that we live in an age when we are aware of and exposed to many faith traditions, but it hasn’t always been that way in America.  When I was growing up, my buddy Charles Norris lived in the house behind ours.  We went to the same school, climbed over our backyard fence so often that we broke it down, and got into trouble several times together.  Once we set the backyard on fire, which was quite a show.  Another time we shot out the neighbor’s storm door with our BB guns.  But mostly we did 11-year old boy things together.  We built model cars, camped out in the backyard (which is how we set it on fire), rode our bikes all over Columbus, Georgia, and generally hung out 6-days a week.

We hung out 6-days a week, but not on Sunday, because Charles and his family were Catholics; we, of course, were Baptists.  Charles ate fish on Friday, I didn’t — mostly because I didn’t like the fish sticks the school cafeteria tried to pass off as fish.  Charles had to do some weird stuff like go to confession occasionally.  He’d tell me what he told the priest, and what the priest said to him.  Mostly, Charles had to say a lot of “Hail, Marys” — and I had no idea what that meant.

I asked my parents what the difference was in Baptists and Catholics, and got more information than I needed. Among other things they told me that Catholics prayed to saints and to Mary.  The Pope was the head of the Catholic church.  While we were living in Columbus, John F. Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon for the presidency.  Of course, we were voting for Nixon because Kennedy was a Catholic.  One day when I got home from school, my mother said, “Want to hear a joke?”  My mother seldom told jokes, mostly because she was too busy keeping up with my brother and me, so I said, “Sure.”

She said, “Do you know what phone number Kennedy will call for instructions everyday if he’s elected president?”  I had no idea, and really didn’t think this joke was going to be very funny at this point, so I said, “No, who?”

“Whom,” my mother corrected me, which she did a lot.  Then she said, “3909.”  She wrote the numbers on a piece of paper, and then turned the paper over and held it up to the light shining through the kitchen window.  The reversed numbers now looked like letters which spelled, “P-O-P-E.”

“Pretty funny, Mom,” I said.  It actually wasn’t that funny, but I was trying to be nice to mom.

Catholics were my introduction to folks who don’t believe like we do.  Of course, as I got older, I learned even more things about Catholics, mostly from Baptists, and most of it not complimentary to the Roman Catholic Church.  I grew up in the era when Southern Baptists believed, if we didn’t out-right say so, that we were the ones with the real truth about being Christians.  And, of course, when we talked about who was going to heaven, Catholics weren’t because they worshipped Mary, and hadn’t been baptized properly.  I am thankful to say that both my parents and I became much more tolerant and open-minded about Catholics and other faiths as the years moved on.

The Challenge of a Pluralistic Culture

Of course, now we have to deal with not just one, but many different faith traditions.  The events of 9/11 shocked us into a new awareness that the ugly face of religious fundamentalism is not just a Western face, but is also a Middle Eastern face.  Before 9/11 most of us, myself included, knew little of the Muslim faith, and thought it had little to do with our daily lives.  On that morning of September 11, 2001, we realized how much the strongly held religious views of one group can impact another group.  We as Americans became very much aware of the pluralistic culture in which we lived that tragic September day.

Twenty-five years ago, unless you lived in one of America’s largest cities — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a few others — you had to travel internationally to encounter a significant number of people of another faith tradition.

I think I have told you about our first trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong together in 1989.  When we landed in Taiwan, I made the mistake of telling our host that I would like to see some temples.  For the next three days we looked at temple after temple.  I did discover that there were Buddhist temples, Confucian temples, and temples devoted to local ancestors and local gods.  We saw lots of temples, and it was a fascinating experience.

Temple worship was not like worship in a Baptist church back home.  The temples were mostly open-air, with people coming and going.  The monks sold josh sticks, and the josh sticks were burned as prayers for their departed loved ones, and also as prayers for prosperity, health, and other requests.  The temples were noisy, they smelled of burning incense, the monks were more like gift shop attendants than religious figures, and I was intrigued by the whole thing.

One of last year’s best-selling books, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, chronicled her travels to Italy where she ate; India where she stayed at an ashram and prayed; and Bali where she fell in love.  Her book has sold millions of copies because it is the story of one woman’s search for meaning.  But she found meaning in a multi-cultural, international, exotic cultural experience where the Christian faith played no part.

The challenge for those of us who are Christian, is how do we live in a pluralistic world as followers of Christ?  Paul’s encounter with the men of Athens holds some lessons for us.

Three Typical Approaches to Pluralism

Over the centuries, Christianity has struggled with how to address the world that did not embrace its beliefs.  Christianity, after all, was born in a multi-cultural, pluralistic society.  Even though the Roman Empire held the civilized world together with is Pax Romana, the world was filled with Jews who worshipped the One True God; with worshippers of the Greek and Roman pantheon of gods; with oracles and those who spoke ecstatically; with the demon-possessed; philosophers; and, those who simply wanted to debate intellectually the idea of gods and their role in the world of men.  These are the men whom Paul addressed in Athens, men who were religious, and interested in debating about religious ideas.

So, Christianity is not new to a pluralistic world, but we are.  How do we as 21st century Christians relate to other religious traditions, and how does that shape our own faith.

Typically, there have been three approaches by Christians to other faiths.

The first approach is the “we’re right, you’re wrong” approach. That was the approach I grew up with.  Baptists were right, Catholics were wrong.  As a matter of fact, everybody else was wrong.  Which presented a problem when we went to see my mother’s side of the family, most of whom were Methodists.  My mother explained to me that Methodists and Baptists were really pretty much alike, except Methodists sprinkled when they baptized people, but you could be immersed as a Methodist if you wanted to.  Having that option made Methodists not quite so suspect in my opinion.  At least some of them could get it right, I thought.

The “we’re right, you’re wrong” approach is known in theological circles as exclusivism.  In other words, everybody but us is excluded from salvation.  That doesn’t sound too kind or appealing today, but in the 1950s Baptists were pretty much exclusivists.  Some still are.  I remember reading a newspaper published by John R. Rice, Tennessee’s fundamentalist twin to Bob Jones down in South Carolina.  John R. Rice wrote in his paper, The Sword of the Lord, that Billy Graham wasn’t a Christian because when Billy Graham held a crusade, and people got saved, the Graham organization told them to find a local church, any church.   And, if they were Catholics, the Billy Graham team did not tell them to leave the Catholic Church.  John R. Rice thought that was blasphemy, and apostacy, if I remember his words correctly.  Personally, I thought John R. Rice was a bit intolerant, and I threw my free copy of The Sword of the Lord in the trash.

But there is an aspect of Christianity that is exclusive.  In John 14:6 — “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  So, there is the sense in which we as followers of Jesus are followers because we believe Jesus is what he said he is — the way to God.  There is a exclusivism to that statement and to our belief, because by saying Jesus is the only way, we are also saying Buddha is not the way, Mohamed is not the way, and without Jesus there is no way.

Paul, however, preaches the gospel message without saying, “I’m right, you’re wrong.”  Rather, he lays out the “good news about Jesus and the resurrection.”  Paul doesn’t have to dismantle their faith to speak of his.

The second approach is the “as long as you’re sincere” approach. That approach was the polar opposite of exclusivism, and is called universalism.  In other words, everybody is going to be saved.  And, it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.  That line of thought emerged as America became a more educated and sophisticated society. Religious intolerance seemed so out of fashion, so why shouldn’t everyone who believed anything go to heaven, too.  Of course, the old Baptist line for this was, ‘if you sincerely drink poison thinking it’s medicine, you’re not going to get well, you’re going to die.’  I heard that illustration more than once, and it has some truth to it.

The other problem with the “as long as you’re sincere” approach is that no other religion believes that to be true.  Each religious tradition presents its own truth claims as definitive.  So, this approach, while it sounds like a very tolerant embrace of all faiths, really leads us nowhere. And, while Paul compliments the Athenians on their religious practice by saying, “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious,” he does not let them off the hook because of their sincerity.

A third approach is the “we think we’re right, but there may be other possibilities.” This is the inclusivist approach.  We’re all included regardless of our religion, as long as we’re seeking God.  The inclusivist approach humbly admits that we may not have it right, and there may be other possibilities for salvation, but we leave all that to God.  It’s a kind of uncertain certainty, if you will.

Granted, I am painting each one of these positions with a broad brush and not doing justice to the nuances of difference between them.  But, the problem with each of these approaches is that WE are the center of conversation.  Each one of these approaches is about what we think, about what we believe to be true or rational or tolerant or palatable.  And that is the problem.  It’s not about us.  It’s about God.

A More Faithful and Humble Approach To Life In a Pluralistic Society

At the center of the Christian faith we find Jesus Christ, not ourselves.  Christ is the expression of God in human form, and his followers were called “Christians” — “the little Christs” — because they lived like Jesus.  So, how do we deal with the challenge of a pluralistic society, a society in which many religions present their claims to absolute truth, in which many cultures have found new pride for their traditions in the world community, and in which Christianity itself is often seen as a less tolerant, less open, less gracious Western religion.

First, we as followers of Christ should not give up our faith practices just because we live in a pluralistic culture.

Christians follow Christ, there is no way around that.  Without Christ, there is no Christianity.  And, without Christ as the centerpiece of our faith, we are not Christians.  So, we can’t roll over when the culture asks us to pray in God’s name, but leave off the name of Jesus as we have seen in recent controversies.  We can’t dumb-down our faith so that Jesus is not offensive to others.  Of course, we don’t have to act obnoxiously either, which is what we Christians have often done.

Here’s a personal story — For many years, I was ambivalent about offering prayer for a meal in a public restaurant.  Does it look too pious to others?  Is it necessary?  Will others think I’m “holier than thou?”  But, then I saw Muslim men on TV one day, kneeling on prayer mats outside their place of business, not once but three times a day.  I thought, “If they have that much conviction and are faithful to the practice of their faith, then I should be also.” So, Debbie and I pray before each meal whether at home, which we always did, or in public.  It is a way I express my faith publicly.  Of course, I will ask others dining with us if I might offer thanks for our meal before we eat.  I am courteous to others, but not apologetic about my practice.

Paul is completely unapologetic as he talks about Jesus, and his place in God’s plan.  Luke says in Acts 17:18 — “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.  They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.”  Paul did not change his message because some disagreed with him.

Secondly, we should be humble about our faith.

The exclusivistic approach — “we’re right, you’re wrong” — has led to family fights, hurt feelings, the Crusades of the 11th century, and the Spanish Inquisition, among others.  Explorers to the New World often decided that if the local natives would not become Christians, then they would have to be killed in order to save them — a religious version of the 1950s “better dead than Red” motto.  Exclusivism is arrogant, unloving, and presumes we know as much as God does about the soul of the person or persons who are the object of our wrath.

Humility in living our faith does not mean apologizing for our faith.  Rather, humility acknowledges that God knows things we don’t, like who’s going to be saved and who isn’t.  Humility about our faith acknowledges that the Holy Spirit is, as Leonardo Boff says, the first evangelist.  In other words, God is at work in the hearts and lives of people that we don’t know anything about.  The Bible contains stories like that of Lydia who was a God-fearer, and to whom Paul brought the gospel message.  Lydia responded to Paul’s message, because God had already prepared her heart.  The Ethiopian eunuch is another example — an African official who was reading a sacred scroll, possibly the scroll of Isaiah, and already had the desire in his heart to know God.

We must be humble, because arrogance and triumphalism is unbecoming to the gospel message and the love of God.

Paul compliments the Athenians on their religious practice, and does not seek to discredit the gods they serve, or even the monument to the Unknown God the Athenians have erected.  Rather, Paul reinterprets the history of the universe with God as creator, sustainer, and eventually judge.  Paul is both humble, and candid, courageously presenting a new way of looking at the history of the world.

Finally, we just have to tell the story.

We do not have to make the story debate-proof.  We do not have to have an answer for every objection.  We do not have to discover Noah’s ark, an original copy of the Gospel of John, or any other archaeological artifacts to prove our faith.  We do not have to apologize for the story of God sending his son Jesus, to live, die, and rise from the grave.  We do not have to be embarrassed at this 2,000 year old story because it is the same story the apostles told on the day of Pentecost.  It is the same story Stephen told before he was stoned.  It is the same story that Paul told as he carried the message of Christ from Jerusalem, to Judea, and to the uttermost part of the world.  The writer of Acts tells us that some believed Paul, and some didn’t.  Others said they would like to hear some more about Paul’s story.  And then Paul moved on to another place to tell his story, again.

Like the stories of our childhood, the story of Jesus is our story.  It is our story because we have found ourselves in it when God saved us.  It does not matter if it contradicts the story of Islam, or the story of Buddhism, or the story of Judaism.  We do not have to apologize, or change our story, we simply have to tell it.

Our reluctance to tell our faith story is more in our own heads than in the responses of others.  I have visited hundreds, if not thousands of people in hospitals in my 30-years in ministry.  Only once was I turned down when I offered to pray with a concerned family member.  I have travelled to China, governed by a system that is opposed to both American capitalism and Christianity.  But I have also had Chinese men ask me about being a “priest” (they don’t know the difference in priest and pastor), and about church, and about Christianity.  I did not have to apologize, or change my story, I just had to tell it.

Since moving here, I have heard from the Chinese man who works for the company in Nantong, China with which I did business for several years.  About three years ago, after we moved here, I got an email from Mr. Wang, stating that Mr. Chen and Mr. Zhu were coming to the U. S. and would like to see us, again.  They wanted to come to our church where I was a “priest,” so that (these are his words) “they could hear me pray.”  Mr. Wang closed his email by saying, “We are all lost sheep.”

Their plans changed and they did not come to Virginia, but I thought that was an interesting admission from a Chinese man who knows little of the Christian faith.  God is at work in his heart, too.  And he is right, we are all lost sheep.  The difference in our lives is that we know the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Evangelical leaders overlook minorities in expected US church decline

In a National Association of Evangelicals survey from May, NAE board members polled were pessimistic about the growth of churches in the U.S.. However, according to the NAE website, there was overall optimism that Christianity would grow worldwide, but that growth would primarily occur Africa, South America, Asia, and even China.  The NAE site stated:

“Evangelical leaders are very bullish on the future growth of Christianity, except in America,” according to Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals.

The group surveyed, all NAE board members, is made up of CEOs of 60 denominations, plus other evangelical organizations from publishing to education.

But, are these NAE leaders overlooking minority ethnic groups and churches in their pessimism?  According to Soong-Chan Rah’s new book, The Next Evangelicalism, they might be.  The book is subtitled, Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, and Rah pulls back the curtain to reveal a burgeoning ethnic church that is alive, well, and growing in the United States.  These ethnic minorities, many of them immigrants from majority world countries, are often overlooked in the count of congregations and in leadership conferences.

Soong-Chan Rah, a Korean-American who teaches church growth and evangelism at North Park Seminary, contends that these ethnic churches and their leaders are often invisible to the white evangelical community.

“Contrary to popular opinion, the church is not dying in America; it is alive and well, but it is alive and well among the immigrant and ethnic minority communities and not among the majority white churches in the United States.”  p. 14

Rah cites three areas which he contends form the “western, white cultural captivity of the church” in the US:  individualism, consumerism and materialism, and racism.  These he calls the heartbeat (individualism); soul (consumerism); and residue (racism) of the white church culture.

My online friend Shaun King, a young African-America pastor in Atlanta, recently decried in no uncertain terms the closed circle of white church experts who are featured in conference after conference.  Rah echoes King’s frustration:

“While the demographics of Christianity are changing both globally and locally, the leadership of American evangelicalism continues to be dominated by white Americans.”

The message a sea of white faces sends, according to Rah, is that “the real experts in ministry are whites.  Nonwhites may offer some expertise in specialized areas of ministry (such as urban ministry or racial reconciliation), but the theologians, the general experts, the real shapers and movers of ministry, are whites.”

When you couple Rah’s book with Mark Noll’s new book, The New Shape of World Christianity, you begin to sense that the ground has shifted under an aging, and perhaps ethnically insensitive evangelical church.

Noll recognizes the growing church in the majority world with these words:

But today — when active Christian adherence has become stronger in Africa than in Europe, when the number of practicing Christians in China may be approaching the number in the United States, when live bodies in church are far more numerous in Kenya than in Canada, when more believers worship together in church Sunday by Sunday in Nagaland than in Norway, when India is now home to the world’s largest chapter of the Roman Catholic Jesuit order, and when Catholic mass is being said in more languages each Sunday in the United States than ever before in church history — with such realities defining the present situation, there is a pressing need for  new historical perspectives that explore the new world situation.” p. 10

The question I have about the NAE board is how many are white?  If the answer is what I think it is — probably 95% — then no wonder they are pessimistic about the future of Christianity in the US.  The next question is this — When will we open our eyes to see the diversity of the followers of Christ who may not look like the old face of evangelicalism, but are certainly its new face.

Frankly, I am encouraged by both books by Rah and Noll, which are different perspectives on the same subject — the rise of multi-ethnic Christians around the world.  Maybe if the current crop of evangelical leadership looked up from their reams of reports indicating the decline of their churches, they might see the next wave of new believers ready and eager to step on the stage of Christian history worldwide.  What do you think?

(As is my policy, I purchased both books referenced in this post and received no incentive from anyone to mention these books.)