An Incomplete Theology

An Incomplete Theology

One of the realities of being a white Protestant in America is the historic freedom from needing a theological framework to confront structural and institutional forms of injustice due to race. Race continues to be a heavy burden for people of color in America. As such, a theological framework primarily oriented toward issues of personal salvation and morality is sufficient to address the questions of the dominant white culture. However, for blacks and Latinos, who not only have to wrestle with personal questions regarding sin and salvation but also evil from the outside because of their race, they need the Cross to provide hope that God intends to relieve the burdens and liabilities of being a subdominant minority. These burdens range from stereotypes and racial discrimination to issues of identity in light of Anglo-normativity and sociopolitical wellbeing. Blacks and Latinos need a comprehensive theology that deals with the cosmic scope of God redeeming every aspect of the creation affected by the Fall through the work and person of Christ.

Dr. Vincent Bacote, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and an UrbanFaith contributor, presents a comprehensive theological framework in his chapter in a new book I edited titled Keep Your Head Up: America’s New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation. Bacote introduces the themes of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Renewal (CFRR). CFRR reminds us of the following: God created the world good, it was corrupted by the Fall introducing sin and brokenness into the world, but God has a unique plan to renew the entire creation through the work and person of Jesus Christ. That is, the entire creation formed and shaped by Christ will also be renewed by Christ and reconciled unto Him (Col. 1:15-23).

CFRR not only tells us who we are, it also gives Christians a vision of the implications of the kingdom of God. Christians are not passive bystanders but are called to be leaders in the business reconciliation until Christ returns to bring finality to the renewal process inaugurated at his death and resurrection in ways never before realized in human history (Rom. 8:12-25).

For those seeking to preach the Good News of what was accomplished in the work and Person of Jesus Christ to blacks and Latinos, the application of biblical texts cannot be limited to personal issues of salvation and sanctification. Subdominant minorities who are immersed in a world of white privilege need to hear hope that God also intends to relieve them of the complex burdens of being a minority — burdens that whites do not encounter in their day-to-day lives in America. This is one reason why minority teachers are vitally important in ethnic church contexts. Otherwise, applying the gospel to the realities of white privilege will likely not be addressed regularly. Now, by white privilege I simply mean the privilege, special freedom, or immunity white persons have from some liability or burden to which non-white persons are subject in America.

A team of authors led by Fordham University psychology professor Celia B. Fisher provides an excellent list of issues that blacks and Latinos need to reconcile with the Truth. In an article titled “Applied Developmental Science, Social Justice, and Socio-Political Wellbeing,” Fisher and her team remind us that when evil entered the world it created a context for the following burdens experienced by Native Americans, blacks, and Latinos in America: (1) societal structures, policies, and so on that limit access to minorities, (2) the persistence of high-effort coping with the reality of marginalization that produces high levels of stress, (3) psycho-political wellbeing and validity concerns which address the ways in which minorities apply human dignity to themselves within a context of Anglo-hegemony, (4) communities that accept dysfunctional behaviors as behavioral norms in the shaping of one’s personhood, (5) institutional racism which examines the “institutional structures and processes passed on from generation to generations that organize and promote racial inequity throughout the culture,” (6) proactive measures intended to dismantle racism, and (7) contexts to provide healing for those who have experience major and minor encounters with racist attitudes, beliefs, or actions.

The revivalist impulse by many evangelicals rightly understands that ultimate social change comes when members of society become followers of Christ. However, American history has clearly proven that personal salvation does not stop people from being racists nor from setting up social institutions and policies that deny others access to the means of liberty and human dignity. If evangelism alone were effective for social change, Christians would never have participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, been slave owners, created apartheid in South Africa, or allowed Jim Crow laws to come into existence.

Theologians like Abraham Kuyper remind us that, because of God’s common grace, evangelism is not necessary to persuade people to treat others with dignity and respect — after all, the law of God is written on the heart (Rom. 2:15) even though it merits them no favor with God. Therefore, work at both. We must morally form individuals and dismantle cultural norms of racism that become structural.

I suspect this is one of the major reasons why many whites are unsuccessful at reaching blacks and Latinos. If the gospel is not being applied to issues of the heart and issues that require outside, structural justice, we will miss areas in need of biblical application. Blacks and Latinos in America do not have the privilege of not talking about the issues addressed in the Fisher article, because all minorities experience aspects of those issues in various ways.

If we believe the Bible speaks to the questions of the day, then we have to do a better job of developing the cultural intelligence that applies the Truth to issues of the heart and to the cultural spaces minorities inhabit as subdominant races.

It’s ‘Back to Church Sunday’

It’s ‘Back to Church Sunday’

This Sunday, Sept. 18, is National Back to Church Sunday. The concept was launched two years ago in response to a 2008 LifeWay Research study that found 63 percent of Americans would be open to a friend or neighbor inviting them to church, and 67 percent to a family member.

But despite people’s openness to being invited, only 2 percent of Christians invite a non-churchgoer in a given year, according to LifeWay Research. Back to Church Sunday wants to change that.

African Americans are the most open to being invited to church, compared to other ethnic groups—another LifeWay Research finding.

Back to Church Sunday was started to encourage Christians to invite people to church and to make newcomers feel welcome. This year, the event falls on this Sunday, Sept. 18, although some churches choose to hold it on other Sundays.

Of course, evangelism is much more than a church invitation; it’s taking the time to patiently listen and caring enough to stick by someone even when they don’t want to go to church. In my own experiences, I’ve watched friends leave church or Christianity altogether because of the judgmental way some Christians had treated them.

And so, as we extend these invitations, we must keep in mind that our friends, family and neighbors may be wary of going back to church and we must respect their experiences. There are times when it is better to listen than to preach. We must invite graciously, without judging or pressuring, while remaining open to talking about their doubts, concerns and struggles.

What about you? What advice and lessons have you learned? How do you invite people to church and share your faith with them?

‘Back to Church Sunday’ Is Coming

‘Back to Church Sunday’ Is Coming

An Internet survey by LifeWay Research found 67 percent of Americans would be open to an invitation to church from a family member, and 63 percent to a friend or neighbor.

The 2008 study was the inspiration for National Back to Church Sunday, a cross-denominational movement encouraging churches and individuals to invite people to church. The third annual Back to Church Sunday will be Sept. 18.

Interestingly enough, the same study found African Americans to be the most receptive ethnic group to church invitations. About 82 percent of African Americans said a relative’s personal invitation would be “somewhat to very effective,” and 79 percent said the same of an invitation from a friend or neighbor.

In comparison, 65 percent of white Americans responded likewise to a relative’s invitation, and 61 percent to a friend or neighbor’s invitation. Hispanic, Asian and mixed-race or other Americans had equal or slightly higher responses, with Hispanic Americans the second most receptive group. The study surveyed 15,000 Americans online.

Responses to other questions also found African Americans to consistently be the most receptive ethnic group to receiving church information and invitations, no matter the medium—friends, family members, door-to-door visits, commercials, social media, signs, etc. Details can be viewed in a PowerPoint at the bottom of LifeWay Research’s article.

So far, nearly half of a hoped-for 10,000 churches have registered for National Back to Church Sunday. As Sept. 18 approaches, the event is seeking citywide coordinators to assist and recruit local churches.

See one of the campaign’s promotional videos below.

“We want our citywide coordinators to really be creative about how to help churches work together in their community,” said Philip Nation, LifeWay’s research ministry development director. “We want them to have a vision that Back to Church Sunday is the beginning of relationships to further minister to the community to help spread the gospel. This is an opportunity for them to begin to work together to meet the needs that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise meet as an individual congregation.”

Last year, participating churches saw an average 26 percent attendance increase, according to a press release.

Church leaders can become citywide coordinators by filling out an online form on the National Back to Church Sunday website. There can also be more than one coordinator per city; if multiple people volunteer for the position, they can work together, Nation said. “We’re hoping we’ll see some coordinators really step up to hold regular meetings for pastors to brainstorm how churches can reach out to the community.”

For more information, see the National Back to Church Sunday website and the roster of participating churches. Churches can sign up by filling out an online form. Campaign resources and a church outreach assessment with extra downloadable resources are also available.

They’re Watching Us

They're Watching Us for urban faithAfter my 13-year-old’s jarring confession, I talked to other youth about their impressions of God, the church, and “Christ vs. Christianity.” I quickly discovered that my son was not alone in his doubts about the integrity of adult Christians.

In my last column, I related part of a conversation I had with my 13-year-old son during the Christmas holiday break, wherein he admitted some resistance to how Christians package Christianity by emphasizing the rules and not so much the Ruler. “I want to walk with Christ,” he said. “It’s Christianity that doesn’t interest me.” His comments jarred me, to say the least.

As a result, I wanted to know what other teenagers think about his remarks, so I had a conversation with a youth group from a local church. These questions were running through my mind: Do they feel the same way? Are they drawing the same distinction he is between following Jesus and adhering to the system of Christianity? What has their Christian experience been like? You never know ahead of time how a discussion with young people might turn out, but I hoped for the best. They didn’t disappoint.

The group consisted of seven kids, ranging in age from 10 to 17, two males and five females. I could tell they weren’t sure what to expect either, so I did my best to put them at ease by telling them what I would use the information for, that no one’s name would be mentioned, and that I was not there to gather intel for the church administration or their parents. With those preliminaries covered, we plunged right in.

Our discussion started with their feedback on my son’s statement about being OK with Christ, but not so much OK with Christianity. Several in the group expressed right away that they totally understand where my son’s coming from. They see what they call hypocrisy among adult Christians who say one thing but do another. They admitted that the level of hypocrisy depends on the individual and even the church to which one belongs. They are turned off by this apparent double-speak, and their body language and tone suggested that they are indeed a little insulted that adults don’t seem to realize how transparent they really are. The “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” cliché clearly doesn’t work, and these teens seem to find this especially notable given how much adults emphasize the “what” of Christianity, while downplaying the “Who” or “why.”

Moreover, their comments demonstrate the very point they’re making. Although I asked them directly about any distinction they saw between Christ the person and Christianity the faith, they said very little about Jesus Himself; the overwhelming majority of their discussion focused on Christians, Christianity, and other faith concepts. I see this as a reflection of our own tendency to relegate Jesus to background status as we attempt to translate the faith for unbelievers and youth into a modern, hip (and sometimes hip-hop) version we feel will be more palatable to them.

The group participants see this emphasis on “what” manifested in how much they hear “the Bible says …” As someone who is very committed to the authority of the Scriptures, this idea immediately caught my attention. I wanted to know how they feel about the Bible. Do they believe it is authoritative or just a book full of suggestions for how to behave? One young lady was very clear that she doesn’t have a problem with the Bible, per se, but she gets tired of hearing the answers to all her questions begin with that phrase; not so much because she doesn’t want to know what the Bible says, but because she knows there’s not going to be any explanation of what the Bible means by what it says. The group agreed. According to them, it detracts from the power of the Bible when Christians stress the commands and instructions therein without showing them how to practically live according to those commands and instructions. They want to hear and see what the Bible says. There is a genuine interest in knowing how to apply the Word to their everyday lives — what Solomon referred to as wisdom — but we are coming up short by not encouraging them to get understanding as well as knowledge.

This particular segment of our discussion really brought home to me an observation I’ve made about churches and Christians. In many cases, we’ve not effectively made the transition from Old Testament Christians (which is itself a bit of an oxymoron) to disciples under a new covenant brokered by the Lord Jesus Christ. Do we ourselves really believe that it is no longer our works that save us, but His redemptive work on the cross? Are we grasping the explanation James gives to us about the relationship between faith and works, without also remembering what Paul says about grace and works? Our young people’s resentment of the Bible might be rooted in our own inability to demonstrate what it means to obey the Lord’s commands as an act of love and commitment rather than as a performance-based ritual.

Our discussion of Christianity led to a fascinating talk about the church. The roundtable participants showed a fair amount of confusion about the role and purpose of the church. Their overall sense is that people are going to do what they want to do, no matter what anyone says.

I couldn’t help but think how saturated even churched and Christian youth are with the concept of individual choice and everyone’s “right” to make their own decisions. I pressed them pretty hard on these points by asking them, if the power of individual choice is so strong, what purpose does the church really serve? Can we ever hope to impact people’s lives if they’re going to go their own way regardless of what’s proclaimed by the church? Their view was further tested when I asked how they think the church should try to address social problems like unbiblical sexuality, teenage pregnancy, and other issues. And what does our apparent cultural impotence mean for our command to bring people to Christ? You could’ve heard a rat walk on cotton at this point.

Even though it was obvious they didn’t know how to answer these questions, I was gratified to see them really struggling with it. Our spiritual ancestors knew that we have a faith able to withstand even the most robust questioning and debate. I’m not sure we have that same appreciation anymore for the value of a strong apologetic. And more than anything, I sensed that these young people are dying for us to boldly show them that our faith can stand up to peer pressure, sexual temptation, premature childbearing, broken families, broken hearts, corrupt politics, prejudice, poverty, and anything else they might encounter.

So how did our stalemate of silence end? As it often does when we find ourselves in a faith quandary, one voice offers a tentative suggestion. In this case, the 17-year-old male said this in answer to my challenges: “Hope. It all comes down to hope.”

I could almost visibly see the dam breaking. “Yeah, hope and faith,” someone else said. Everyone nodded their agreement. They concluded that even though people might not listen and it may not seem as if any change is taking place, we as the church can offer hope to those who would listen. And we take it on faith that somehow, with God’s help, a change can be made.

In the end, they realized they didn’t have a lot of answers, and I don’t think they necessarily changed their minds about how they see adult Christians and our issues. But I’m certain they left that room reminded that when it’s all said and done, Christianity and Christ are tied together by two indomitable forces of our belief system: faith and hope. I can’t argue with that.