Three recent articles have got me thinking about the current state of the American church. Each article explores issues related to the mission and future of specific subgroups and movements within the church. The various groups, one racial and the others formed around doctrinal and ecclesiological emphases, seem to reflect where we are today as a body—desperately searching for an identity and purpose that aligns us with God’s call, but sadly fragmented and self-centered in our attempts to get there.
The first article, “The Black Church Is Dead,” by Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, caused quite a stir when it was first published in The Huffington Post a couple months back. In fact, the article inspired the Religion Dispatches website to convene an entire forum around the subject. Glaude’s clearly provocative and attention-grabbing title overshadows an important point that he makes in the article: that many Christian leaders in African American congregations must move beyond the pomp and circumstance of the black church’s illustrious and prophetic past and concentrate on what it means to be faithful and relevant in this current era. I think this is a good message, not just for African American believers but for the American church as a whole.
The second article, this one from Sojourners, finds my good friend Professor Soong-Chan Rah asking the inevitable question: “Is the Emerging Church for Whites Only?” This is not a new issue, but it’s interesting to see it wrestled with by Soong-Chan (a friendly but honest critic) and others who are slightly more sympathetic to the movement. The money line from Soong-Chan’s portion of the article:
In truth, the term “emerging church” should encompass the broader movement and development of a new face of Christianity, one that is diverse and multi-ethnic in both its global and local expressions. It should not be presented as a movement or conversation that is keyed on white middle- to upper-class suburbanites.
I couldn’t agree more. Yet, another part of me wonders if there’s a need for something like the “emerging church” in the first place. While I resonate with certain aspects of the movement (particulary its challenge to us to reexamine our traditions and cultural practices and ask whether they truly line up with what God’s calling us to be), I’m also put off by the whole branding and commercialization of the thing.
The third article, from ChristianityToday.com, is Brett McCracken’s excellent report from two recent conferences, the Wheaton College Theology Conference and the Together for the Gospel (T4G) gathering of Reformed leaders and scholars. As McCracken observes:
The juxtaposition of these two sold-out conferences, which represent two of the most important strands of evangelical Christianity today (the neo-Reformed movement and the “N.T. Wright is the new C.S. Lewis” movement), made the question (problem?) of unity within the church impressively pronounced.
In describing the differences between the two groups, McCracken writes:
For the T4G folks, protecting disputed doctrines against heresy is where good theology is born. Clear thinking comes from friction and protestation, from Hegelian dialectics (R.C. Sproul spoke on this), but not from compromise….
The exact opposite point was made at the Wheaton Conference by Kevin Vanhoozer, professor of systematic theology at Wheaton, who suggested that theologians like Wright (and, presumably Christians in general) are more often correct in matters they collectively affirm than in matters they dispute. This statement reflects the contrasting spirit of the Wheaton Conference as regards unity: It’s what we affirm that matters.
He goes on to note that “the elephant in the room” at both events was an ongoing debate on the doctrine of justification between the Anglican bishop N.T. Wright and the Reformed preacher John Piper. Reportedly, both men took rhetorical swipes at the other during their talks, and drew cheers from their respective audiences.
I’ve been privileged to attend past theology conferences at Wheaton College, as well as events sponsored by those who would fall under that “neo-Reformed” heading. My sense is that God is doing good things in both camps. Conferences inherently are designed to bring together groups of people who share some likeminded affinity. Unfortunately, in the church those affinities are often framed in contrast to what some other group that we disagree with is or isn’t doing.
Even events that don’t have a readily apparent ideological agenda often feature undercurrents of elitism or snobbery. I love the Christian Community Development Association’s annual conference. It’s one of the best events at which to network, learn, and worship with other Christians who share my commitment to racial reconciliation, social justice, and incarnational ministry. However, even at CCDA we can sometimes give off a condescending vibe that suggests we’re the only ones who truly “get it.”
It occurred to me while reading those three articles that we spend a lot of time reflecting on who we think we ought to be as the church. Then, once we’ve gotten a critical mass, we brand it and stake out our special turf. Before long, we’ve got our own special line from Zondervan, IVP, or some university press and we’re packing them in at our annual conference. Unfortunately, over time, we wind up sounding like our way is the most effective way, if not the only way.
Emerging, missional, seeker-sensitive, Black, Calvinist, multicultural, Dispensational. And the list goes on.
It’s important to know who we are and what we believe in, but perhaps we waste too much time attempting to respond to or live up to historic monuments and cultural trends that we’ve proudly embraced as a way of defining ourselves or distinguishing our group from others. Usually what we’re saying when we do this is that the other parts of the church have gotten something wrong and we are preserving or reasserting what’s most important. That’s not always the case, and we may not always be that self-aware about it, but think about it a minute. Think about the labels you wear as a Christian—as a church. Then ask yourself why. Would you feel comfortable or secure giving up those particular labels and simply going about your business as a generic follower of Christ?
In the conclusion to his report from those two very different theology conferences, Brett McCracken wonders:
What if both conferences had merged and two seemingly antagonistic groups of Christians put aside their differences for a few minutes to just sing (in both conferences the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” was sung), side-by-side, in worship of the triune God who gives the same grace through which all who follow Christ have been saved?