A Future for Evangelical Christianity

This article is by Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, a former urban pastor and current professor at my alma mater, North Park Theologial Seminary. This article was first posted on the God’s Politics blog, and points out how the future of the evangelical church IS growing, but that it may be post-white, post-American in its fruitfulness. Read his prophetic reflection: 

Last month, in an issue of Newsweek, Jon Meacham describes what he perceives to be “The End of Christian America.”  Meacham asserts that “Christians are now making up a declining percentage of the American population,” leading to the “end of a Christian America.”  In the opening paragraph of the Newsweek article, Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, laments what he perceives to be a disturbing trend. “As Mohler saw it, the historic foundation of America’s religious culture was cracking.”  Mohler is particularly disturbed by the decline of Christianity in New England, as he states: “to lose New England struck me as momentous.”

As many lament the decline of Christianity in the United States in the early stages of the 21st century, very few have recognized that American Christianity may actually be growing, but in unexpected and surprising ways.  Let’s take for example the Northeastern city of Boston in a region of the country that Mohler believes we have “lost.”  In 1970, the city of Boston was home to about 200 churches.  Thirty years later, there were 412 churches.  The net gain in the number of churches was in the growth of the number of churches in the ethnic and immigrant communities.  While only a handful of churches in 1970 held services in a language other than English, thirty years later, more than half of those churches held services in a language other than English.

Between 2001 and 2006, 98 new churches were planted in the city of Boston.[1] In a city the size of Boston, 98 new church plants in a six year time periods is not spiritual death, it is spiritual life and vitality. Of the 98 churches planted during that six year time period, “76 of them reported the language of worship.  Of those 76 churches, almost half of them … [have] non-English or bi-lingual [services], 19 worship in Spanish, 8 in Haitian Creole, and 9 in Portuguese.”[2] The perception nationally was that Boston was spiritually dead because there was noticeable decline among the white Christian community.  In contrast, there has been significant growth among non-white Christians and churches.

When I was a pastor in Boston, I consistently heard the lament over the decline of Christianity in the city of Boston.  However, the Boston I knew was filled with vibrant and exciting churches.  New churches were being planted throughout the city.  Christian programs and ministries were booming in the city.  Boston is alive with spiritual revival, particularly among the ethnic minority communities.  But very few seem to recognize this reality, even as this trend begins to appear nationally.

As sociologist R. Stephen Warner points out, “What many people have not heard … and need to hear is that the great majority of the newcomers are Christians. … This means that the new immigrants represent not the de-Christianization of American society but the de-Europeanization of American Christianity.”[3] 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.  As we enter into a new era for American Christianity, we may indeed identify this era as a post-Western, post-white American Christianity.  But we may also assert that this development may actually be the salvation of American Christianity rather than the decline and demise of American Christianity.

Instead of the collapse of evangelicalism, we are actually seeing the revival of American Christianity in a vastly different form.  Evangelicalism has been consistently portrayed in the media as a group of white, upper-middle class, suburban, Republicans.  Is it any wonder that the black church will oftentimes refuse this designation?  Or that other ethnic minority Christians feel marginalized from the very community that shares their basic values and beliefs?

But now there is a new era for Christianity in America.  A Next Evangelicalism — an evangelicalism that crosses across racial and ethnic lines with a shared value system rather than a political agenda.  Evangelicalism is not dead, it is being redefined by a new constituency – hopefully for the better.

Soong-Chan Rah is the author of The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity and the Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary.  www.ProfRah.com

Bell on Jesus as the Justice of God

I met Daniel Bell at a NPTS Symposium on Justice a few years ago, where he presented a more lengthy paper on this topic of Jesus as the Justice of God. It was great work, was biblically grounded, reframed the atonement theory, and located justice in the historic acts of mercy/charity of the church. Bell represents a voice I appreciate and am considering as I try to work out my own theology of justice (with legitimate discussion partners suitable for the academic world) – although I have to say that I still desire more evangelical voices on justice, and on how it relates to race and class, especially. (Bell is arguing from a more ‘liberal mainline’ assumption,  btw, that ‘justice’ can be  a buzz word or a PC term worthy or skepticism.)

Anyway, this is an interesting and worthwhile argument – an excerpt from his position published in “The Other Journal” is below; his full article is here:

“What, then, is the problem? What is the source of the scepticism regarding the appropriateness of The Other Journal’s bold and uncompromising commitment to justice? The problem is one of priorities. The problem lies in the way that the church has believed and taught that works of justice are distinct from works of piety (summarized in terms of the “Great Commission,” belief, conversion, fostering a personal relation with Jesus, etc.). The problem lies in the division that runs through much of the contemporary church between two parties with different priorities. On the one hand, there are those who give priority to confession over social action. These are the folks who think that while the work of justice is important, it nevertheless takes a back seat to the most important thing, which is piety, belief, “personal holiness.” On the other hand, there are those who give priority to social action over confession. These are the folks who think that the work of justice is more important than fostering piety and belief.

At this point it is important to be very clear. Having briefly sketched this division in the church, I am not going to suggest that the problem lies on one side or the other of this divide. I will not be arguing that one side is right and the other wrong, that justice should take priority over piety or that piety has priority but should include justice.

No, the problem is not one side or the other. The problem is the division itself. We could put it this way: Both parties are wrong insofar as they put justice or piety second and both parties are right insofar as they put justice or piety first.”

Missional Renaissance

This article provides a little introduction, by way of examples, to a term called “Missional Renaissance.” Its the commitment of many churches across the country to bring the mission of church – holistic discipleship, relationship with God and others, and a focus on the kingdom – to communities in non-traditional ways. Mission spills out from inside church walls into communities in the form of new mindsets for ministry (we go out to find people instead of waiting for them to come to us), new financial priorities (we don’t build a new large building but spend a surplus on direct minsitry and alleviating poverty), and various commitments to embracing creative and new ways to “be church” that invite and welcome new and ‘unchurched’ people.

I love that this is being called a ‘renaissance’ – acknowleding that throughout history, God has always moved in churches in ways that brought renewal, reform, and fresh life. Indeed, the history of evangelicalism itself is based on this “always renewing, always reforming” concept, the “protestant principle” that, at its best, points the church to staying open and listening for how God would have us embody and obey in our own time and space. This kind of renewal is not calling us to always be novel or different, as the marketplace encourages or how variety that veils consumerism can demand. This kind of renewal is calling us back to our roots, to our story of God working through the community of the church and to listen to where God might be growing the church and we need to respond and steward where the Spirit is already active.

It is good for me to remember that God always grows and moves the church – not our strivings – although we get to be a part of it!