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Illustration: “Change” by artist Charles Criner at the Museum of Printing History in Houston, Texas. (http://www.printingmuseum.org/crinerprint.php)

At the 2008 Democratic National Convention it was Joel Hunter. At the 2009 presidential inauguration it was Rick Warren. This year it was Louie Giglio. Evangelical pastors who drew criticism for their associations with Barack Obama. The rancor is bipartisan — stones are thrown from both the right and the left. And it’s not just pastors who are targeted: anyone remember the controversies involving magazine publisher Cameron Strang or gospel singer Donnie McClurkin? Regardless of your politics, if you’re a Christian leader who has ever taken your job seriously, becoming yoked with Barack Obama can be public-relations kryptonite.

Giglio, a popular Atlanta-based pastor, was set to offer the benediction at next week’s inauguration ceremony. But he withdrew after coming under fire from gay-rights activists for a 15-year-old sermon in which he was critical of the homosexual lifestyle. For many evangelical Christians, it was just further proof of the rampant political correctness that now pervades society, making it nearly impossible for people of faith to, you know, say and do the stuff that defines them as people of faith. For many gay-rights activists, it was viewed as another victory and a message to the nation that anything smacking of homophobic intolerance will not be tolerated.

This points to the first rule any pastor aspiring to rub shoulders with the president or others in high places should heed in this age of Google and YouTube: your sermons are not just for the ears of churchgoers anymore, and they may be held against you at some future date by those who have no interest in the contextual nuances of your biblical preaching.

But is that it, then? Is the culture war settled? Have all Christians with beliefs that conflict with the agendas of certain political-interest groups been served notice that they are now persona non grata at public ceremonies like the presidential inauguration because their values are considered hateful or out of step with mainstream ideas?

Or is it possible for both Christians and their cultural opponents to extend an olive branch, seek common ground, and in the words of the Lord via the prophet Isaiah, “come and reason together”?

 

Obama the Reconciler

What gets lost in these sad but predictable controversies is the fact that we have a president who perhaps more than any other modern occupant of the White House has befriended a wide range of evangelical leaders. Though evangelical voters generally do not support President Obama, this hasn’t stopped him from seeking commonality with them. The president selected Giglio in part because of the work he’s done to battle child slavery and sex trafficking. In fact, someday when the first real histories are written on such matters, it might be argued that Barack Obama was not just our nation’s “first gay president” but its most evangelical one as well.

The irony of this latest debacle is that it undermines Obama’s intentional efforts to be a president of inclusivity. When you’re the nation’s first African American president, the expectation (or, unfortunately for some, suspicion) is that you’re going to be a president who promotes diversity. For the same reason, President Obama has been obliged to demonstrate that he’s the president of conservative white people too, and not just people of color or those who agree with his policies.

That’s why the lineup for the inauguration was so inspired: it offered a little bit for everyone. President Obama’s civil rights side was represented in the choice of Medgar Evers’s widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, giving the opening prayer; his support of both Hispanics and the homosexual community was reflected in the choice of having gay Latino poet Richard Blanco recite a poem; and his identification and shared aims with evangelical Christians was reflected in the choice of Louie Giglio closing out the proceedings.

Some might say he’s a calculating politician playing identity politics, and they probably aren’t wrong. But it’s also important to recognize that Barack Obama’s background uniquely prepared him to be a president of many groups and constituencies.

One reason why many Christians have supported this president, even though they’ve disagreed with some of his policies, is because they sense that he gets it, that he’s willing to try to see the world from perspectives other than his own. He wants to understand the other point of view. Even though he might support an opposing position, he demonstrates empathy and a willingness to listen to others. This is an invaluable trait that we’ve rarely seen in other presidents. It seemed to emerge in Lincoln as both his presidency and the Civil War unfolded. FDR appeared able to step outside his privilege and display it. LBJ, for all his defects, had it enough to pass landmark civil rights statutes. Jimmy Carter has shown it more since leaving office. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush demonstrated flashes of it at various times, especially in the early parts of their presidencies. But Obama gets it honest because as a mixed-race kid who grew up in rural, urban, and international settings, he’s lived it. As biographer David Maraniss observed:

Obama … spent ten crucial years of his life, from the time he left Hawaii at age 17 to start college at Occidental in L.A. to the time at age 27 that he drove up to Cambridge to start at Harvard Law, trying to sort out the problems that life presented him, to work out his identity and resolve the contradictions of growing up … a mixed and cross-cultural kid. He worked his way through his problems so thoroughly and effectively that it helped him reach the White House, and once there this fact both helped and hurt him. In some sense, he thought that if he could resolve the contradictions of his own life, people and factions should be able to figure out how to resolve their differences just as he did.

There was no greater evidence of Barack Obama’s intrinsic empathy than his brilliant “race speech” in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign. Though presented in part to do damage control after YouTube videos of his former pastor’s blistering critique of America surfaced, it became Obama’s signature statement on race relations and reconciliation in America — his most eloquent and comprehensive comment on the subject to date. “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas,” he said. “I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression…. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners…. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

In that speech, Obama revealed the depth of his understanding of race and class in America — his empathy for the “the doctor and the welfare mom … and the former gang-banger” who all occupy pews at black churches like Trinity Christian in Chicago, as well as for “working- and middle-class white Americans” who have “worked hard all their lives … only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor.” No other presidential candidate has spoken with more realness and credibility about the modern American condition because he was a product of it all.

Unfortunately, both that speech and President Obama’s gestures to show inclusivity at the inauguration were politicized by warring factions. The cynicism runs so deep that it has become impossible for our nation’s political parties to view their ideological rivals as anything but the enemy.

 

Lincoln, King, and Our House Divided

It was announced last week that for his swearing-in ceremony President Obama will use Bibles that belonged to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. — two leaders who thoroughly understood the importance of dialogue and conciliation with those from “the other side.” President Obama has been symbolically and directly tied to both of these leaders’ legacies from Day One for a variety of reasons. Like Lincoln, the tall and lanky law expert Obama earned his political wings in Illinois and went on to become an unlikely occupant of the White House, where he now presides over a divided nation. And journalists and scholars have written breathlessly about Obama as the human fulfillment of King’s “dream” of racial integration.

But the comparisons are not unwarranted. Lincoln presided over a nation that was ripped in half by a literal culture war whose manifold consequences continue to stymie and divide our nation today. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he presciently said as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, echoing the words of Jesus. He worked boldly, first to keep the Union together but later to eradicate the sin of slavery that enslaved it. Many have compared the state of contemporary American politics to that of a new civil war, with Obama charged with somehow bringing the Union back together.

And King, the southern Baptist preacher trained at northern theological schools, brought a social-gospel vision and evangelistic impulse to the challenge of leading African Americans and eventually the entire nation toward a new understanding of community and citizenship. On segregated battlegrounds such as Montgomery and Birmingham, King was able to work out the ideas of nonviolent resistance that he had studied and witnessed in the activism of Gandhi, the writings of Thoreau, and the New Testament teachings of Christ. Obama likewise has tried to work out his ideas about a multicultural citizenry in the Red State/Blue State context of our current segregated culture.

When President Obama decided upon the symbolism of using Bibles from these two great men, he surely was cognizant of their legacies, as well as the legacy he would like to leave.

 

Our Shrinking Humanity

The historic symbolism of the inauguration — and the tragedy of Louie Giglios’s withdrawal from it — is underscored even more by the fact that the public event falls on January 21, which this year marks the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. It has become popular to suppose which positions Dr. King would take on contemporary issues such as affirmative action, immigration, and same-sex marriage. The truth is, conjecture can be fun but no one knows for sure how King would have evolved on specific matters. I am willing, however, to go out on a limb and say King would be supportive of Barack Obama’s efforts to represent and reach out to America in all its complicated and contradictory diversity.

In Stride Toward Freedom, King said that one can only “close the gap in broken community” by meeting conflict with love. “[I]f I meet hate with hate,” he added, “I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.” For King, the systematic depersonalization of other human beings was at the root of our nation’s sins of racism and social inequality. It doesn’t take much effort to realize how we continue to depersonalize other human beings today through sexism and classicism, xenophobia and homophobia, and — yes — through political smear campaigns as were done on Shirley Sherrod and now Pastor Giglio.

Though his organizing committee may be backpedaling now, President Obama knew there would be stark differences in the worldviews of those he invited to participate in his inauguration. At some intrinsic level, I’m betting he saw value in putting those differing ideas on the same platform together.  It’s a shame that our nation’s collective imagination and humanity are no longer big enough to tolerate an America where we can practice loving our neighbors, even as we disagree with their politics.

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I had the honor of interviewing Michael Emerson at the 'Divided by Faith' 10th-anniversary conference.

Finally, by popular demand, here is video footage from the opening night of the Divided by Faith tenth anniversary conference that took place back in October at Indiana Wesleyan University. You may recall my earlier blog post about the event. Thanks much to conference coordinator Rusty Hawkins for organizing the event and making this video availabe. The first night of the conference begins with yours truly interviewing Rice University socilogist and Divided by Faith co-author Michael Emerson. (Feel free to fast-forward through my rambling and go directly to the “meat” of Dr. Emerson’s responses.)

The interview segment is followed by a panel discussion on pursuing diversity in the church that features Dr. Wayne Schmidt (Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University), Rev. Alvin Bibbs (executive director of Multicultural Church Relations, Willow Creek Association), Dr. Curtiss DeYoung (Bethel University), and Rev. Kyle Ray (Lead Pastor, Kentwood Community Church in Michigan). Dr. Emerson and I were called back up during the concluding Q & A session.

All in all, it was a very engaging conference, with provocative and insightful presentations from a variety of Christian scholars who all share a passion for reconciliation and unity in the church. I’m so grateful to have been a part of it.

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I learned yesterday that my dear friend Dr. Howard O. Jones passed away on Sunday at age 89. Dr. Jones was the first African American evangelist to join Billy Graham’s ministry team back in the 1950s. In my book, Reconciliation Blues, I talk about some of the hostility and discrimination that he encountered from other Christians because of his race. I helped him write his autobiography, which was published by Moody in 2003.

As I worked with Dr. Jones, I was struck primarily by his passion for God and for preaching the Good News. The gospel seemed to naturally exude from him, no matter what he was doing or discussing. He was a preacher to the core, and he sincerely believed that a relationship with Christ would provide the answer to any problem or trial that we face in this life.

I also was struck by Dr. Jones’ devotion to his beloved wife, Wanda, who had been his partner in ministry for more than 50 years. Together they raised five kids and traveled the world to preach the Word of God. When I first met Dr. Jones back in 1997, Wanda had been battling the effects of Alzheimer’s disease for a few years. I recall accompanying Dr. Jones to the Oberlin, Ohio, nursing home where Wanda was a resident for the last few years of her life. I remember the tender way that he fed her and read to her from his Bible. Though she could no longer speak, her eyes seemed to light up as he spoke to her. When Wanda died in 2001, Dr. Jones was devastated. But he held on to his faith in God, and he would tell Wanda’s story (and pass out copies of her book) wherever he went.

Dr. Jones was a great man of God who loved Christ with all is heart. I’m grateful that  I had the chance to know him personally and to help him record his story for posterity. He leaves behind a legacy of faith, courage, and reconciliation that should inspire the church for generations to come.

If you’re interested, you can read my 1998 Christianity Today profile of Dr. Jones. I interviewed him for Decision magazine back in 2002. Also, his autobiography, Gospel Trailblazer, is available through Amazon.

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It was ten years ago that my Christianity Today colleague, Mark Galli, and I moderated a forum based on issues raised by the then-new book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. That CT forum featured an illustrious panel of pastors and theologians, including Elward Ellis, Robert Franklin, Charles Lyons, John Ortberg, and J. I. Packer. We discussed the book’s central theme (that evangelical theology actually contributes to the race problem in America) and grappled with its implications for the church. It was an important moment and hopefully a helpful article for CT’s readers.

Well, in a stunning reminder of how quickly time flies (and how old I’m getting), we are now looking at the ten-year anniversary of that seminal book’s release. In commemoration of this event, Indiana Wesleyan University is hosting “Divided by Faith: A Decade Retrospective” next weekend (Oct. 15-16). This unique conference will use that 10th anniversary as an occasion to reflect on the progress and missteps made in the arena of racial reconciliation and diversity among evangelicals over the past decade, and will feature a variety of scholars and panel discussions. You can find out more here. I’ll have the honor of interviewing Michael Emerson during the Friday-evening session.

If you’re in the area (or can swing a quick flight to Indiana), please think about attending. I’d love to see you there.

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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?

What if?

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Time magazine’s January 11 issue hit newsstands last week with a compelling teaser on its cover: “How Megachurches Are Helping Bridge America’s Racial Divide.” Soon, emails and Facebook updates from friends alerted me to the article and urged me to check it out. A Time report on Christians and the racial divide? This was a big deal.

Racial reconciliation among evangelicals is one of those topics that come and go based on who’s currently talking it up. Back in the mid-1990s, when groups like the Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and the Promise Keepers men’s ministry were on the reconciliation bandwagon, it was all the rage. But Christians who are engaged in race and justice issues on a daily basis know that these periods of heightened interest typically fade after people lose that initial “we are one” buzz.

Almost a decade ago (yikes!), when I worked at Christianity Today, we convened a forum of Christian leaders to discuss the then-controversial findings of the just-released book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. The book’s thesis, as we summarized it then: Most white evangelicals deny the existence of any ongoing racial problem in the U.S., and many blame the media and African Americans who refuse to forget the past for any lingering racial conflict. And then the whopper: Evangelical theology, with its individualized worldview, actually hinders our progress toward racial reconciliation and social justice in America. Emerson and Smith’s work arguably did more to elevate the conversation about race among white evangelicals than any other book over the last 40 years.

In my own book on Christians and race, I wrote about the significance of Divided by Faith and how it challenged and inspired countless Christian leaders, including, most famously, Willow Creek Community Church’s founding pastor Bill Hybels. That a book on race could actually transform the thinking of one of the nation’s most influential evangelical pastors says a lot, so it wasn’t surprising to see Time magazine pick up on the story too.

David Van Biema

I was a bit taken aback when Time‘s religion writer David Van Biema called me out of the blue last year to pick my brain on the “desegregation of evangelical megachurch” theme around which his article was taking shape. I initially pushed him to consider the many smaller churches and ministries that had been intentionally pursuing racial reconciliation and diversity long before the ideas showed up on Willow Creek’s radar screen. I suggested that any increase in racial diversity at megachurches like Willow is probably due more to the changing demographics of the suburbs, with their growing numbers of middle-class African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. My theory was that it’s not so much that the megachurches are becoming more intentional about race but that they just naturally offer large, neutral settings for middle-class minorities who don’t feel entirely comfortable in ethnic-specific churches, but who would feel out of place in smaller, all-white congregations as well. The size and seeker-friendly nature of megachurches make them ideal places for minority Christians to just become a part of the scenery (i.e. community) without any pressure to be that church’s representative “black family” or “Latino family.” While I think this is still a large part of what’s happening with the increasing racial diversity in big evangelical churches, I realize that there are many other factors at play as well. And I applaud David for taking on the huge task of exploring this phenomenon.   

With the Time article reviving the race conversation among evangelicals (at least for another week or so), I thought it would be interesting to chat with David about his article and what he learned, as an impartial observer, about the evangelical community and race. Check out my interview with him at UrbanFaith.com, then come on back and let me know what you think about some of the issues David’s article raises.

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time-willow175x145.jpgAs you probably know, one of the big articles making the rounds this week is Time magazine’s major report on Willow Creek Community Church and the noteworthy progress being made in evangelical megachurches to bridge the racial divide. Time religion reporter David Van Biema uses Willow Creek’s journey, and senior pastor Bill Hybel’s personal spiritual awakening on the issue of race in America, as a window to how the larger evangelical church is doing in this arena. Assessing the American church’s long struggle to overcome its complicated racial history, Van Biema writes:

Since Reconstruction, when African Americans fled or were ejected from white churches, black and white Christianity have developed striking differences of style and substance. The argument can be made that people attend the church they are used to; many minorities have scant desire to attend a white church, seeing their faith as an important vessel of cultural identity. But those many who desire a transracial faith life have found themselves discouraged — subtly, often unintentionally, but remarkably consistently. In an age of mixed-race malls, mixed-race pop-music charts and, yes, a mixed-race President, the church divide seems increasingly peculiar. It is troubling, even scandalous, that our most intimate public gatherings — and those most safely beyond the law’s reach — remain color-coded.

Among the article’s most revealing claims is that Willow Creek’s congregation is now 20% minority (20% is cited as the quantitative threshold of a truly integrated congregation). Van Biema points out, however, that even though Willow has increased its numbers of non-white attendees, the primary pastoral leadership of the 23,400-person church remains entirely white. Van Biema writes:

Willow’s predicament is hardly surprising. To some white congregants, naming a person of another color to tell you what Scripture means, week in and week out, crosses an internal boundary between “diversity” (positive) and “affirmative action” (potentially unnerving).

This sobering observation serves to remind readers that the journey toward true diversity and racial reconciliation in the church is not an easy road. Megachurches like Willow are often looked to for their dynamic ministry models of “how to do it right.” But addressing racial and cultural issues in the local church context does not lend itself to simplistic formulas or 40-day adventures.

Overall, though, it’s interesting to see the mainstream press paying so much attention to racial reconciliation issues in the evangelical church. It’s a good reminder that what we do both individually and corporately as Christians is being watched and surveyed by many in the wider culture.

Read the entire article here, and stay tuned to UrbanFaith.com for an interview with Time‘s David Van Biema on what he discovered during the process of putting the article together. I’ll let you know when it goes up.

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