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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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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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I’ve kind of avoided the topic of Black History Month this year until now, almost the end of the month. The reason is, I’ve been kicking around in my mind this notion of “Black History Month Syndrome.” Now, stay with me a minute.

What is Black History Month Syndrome? I’ll define it roughly as “the national, institutional, or personal tendency to reduce the value of racial, ethnic, or cultural awareness and celebration to a designated day, week, or month of the year.” That is, we do our annual observance of the thing for that set period of time, and then we don’t think about it seriously again until that same time next year. This could pertain to our current national Black History Month in general, or any similar type of annual heritage observance. Think of the annual Diversity Sunday at your church, or the great PBS documentaries on race that you have be on the lookout for during that elusive 28-day window in February, or that special issue of Time, Newsweek, or Christianity Today that trots out the usual ethnic or female voices for the annual “special issue” on African Americans or Asians or Hispanics or women.

When I was with Christianity Today, I often felt conflicted about this phenomenon. On the one hand, I rejoiced at the idea of being able to profile a significant nonwhite figure or highlight dynamic things happening in other parts of the church besides the white evangelical majority. However, on the other hand, I disliked the idea that we could only do it in a significant way usually one issue per year. I always felt our ethnic, nonwhite, and female readers could see right through our shtick. They knew we were just paying our annual homage to diversity and that it wasn’t a real living and breathing part of who we were. My argument always was that we should strive to incorporate those diverse voices into the magazine on a more regular basis, not just in annual splashes. We needed to let nonwhite and female readers know that they were a valued part of the evangelical community and not just some exotic oddity that we turned the spotlight on once or twice a year. (To its credit, I think CT does a better job nowadays of being more diverse and multicultural year-round, though I know some critics would still beg to differ.)

Over the years, I’ve struggled mightily with this phenomenon. While I appreciate Black History Month (as well as Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, and Women’s History Month) and value the opportunity to highlight special achievements and honor an important part of our national history, I also long for a time when we’ll no longer have to consign the recognition of that history to a particular week, month, or magazine issue.

That brings me to my main reason for doing this post. I’ve been kicking around this theme of “the myth of post-racial America” for a possible book project, and as part of that I’ve entertained the admittedly outrageous (and possibly heretical) idea that perhaps we should set an actual date in the distant future for the official dissolution of Black History Month, sort of like President Obama setting a withdrawal timetable for our troops in Iraq. For instance, let’s say we resolve that in 2020 we’ll officially discontinue all celebrations of specific heritage months (African American, Hispanic, Polish, etc.) and begin to incorporate a recognition and appreciation of those various heritages into the regular and daily flow of our national calendar and lives. This will mean that we study black history and American Indian history and Hispanic history regularly in our school curricula, that on July 4th we include Native American, black, Hispanic, and Asian historical figures in the mix along with the other great American patriots that we commemorate on Independence Day. (This may also necessitate an immediate abolishment of Kwanzaa and a renewed national effort to remind Americans that Christ did not enter the world as a blonde, blue-eyed European infant.) 

Alright, I know I’m sounding loony now. But my point is, when does it end? Will we always need Black History Month-type observances? Does authentic racial and cultural reconciliation in our country require that we observe our various annual heritage events in perpetuity? Or would true progress in reconciliation suggest that as a church or community or nation we should decide that, at some point down the road, we’ll need to grow out of the necessity of our Black History Months and move on toward a more natural and genuine embrace of the diversity of our nation?

I understand that part of the reasoning behind these various heritage months is that the United States has not always been kind to those on the margins of society. The full benefits of citizenship were not always available to those of a certain race or gender. And to this day, the majority culture still tends to divide the nation based on what it has historically deemed to be the “real Americans.” Therefore, we’ve needed to designate a special time to acknowledge, teach, honor, and celebrate the value and contributions of those groups that have been forgotten, oppressed, or systematically excluded from the national canon of history. But does our nation’s sinful and dysfunctional record on matters of race and diversity mean that we will always need to manufacture these annual days and weeks and months as a reminder of what we’re really supposed to be—as a nation and as human beings?

The apostle Paul said, “For we now know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor. 9-12). Might this principle of “growing up” also apply to our annual heritage celebrations and observances?

A few years ago, a friend of mine told me a story that has stuck with me ever since. My friend, who is white, is a strong believer in racial reconciliation and justice ministries. A talented musician, he leads a multiracial community gospel choir. He shared an experience that he had as a seminary student interning at an African American church. Leading special music during a Black History Month program at the church, he introduced a song by saying, “This month we celebrate Black History, but our prayer is that, one day, we will no longer have a need for a special month like this.” His point, of course, was that ideally someday our nation would progress to the place where a special heritage month was no longer the only time that we would acknowledge and value the importance of black history. However, in an awkward moment, the pastor pulled him aside after the service and politely advised him, “Don’t ever say something like that again.” My friend was very apologetic, and after a brief moment he was able to recognize why what he said was problematic. For that black church leader, the suggestion that we should strive toward no longer needing a Black History Month was tantamount to saying we should work to get rid of Christmas or Easter.

That pastor’s reaction leads me back to my original concern. The question again: If Black History Month and our other annual cultural heritage observances are really accomplishing what they’re intended to, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that the day will come when we will no longer need them?

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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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It’s Thanksgiving week, and I’m grateful for so many things—a wonderful wife and kids, in-laws who actually like me, a place to live, a job to commute to every day, and a community of friends (through church, work, school, and the blogosphere) that is a tremendous source of encouragement and support.

I’m also thankful, most days, to attend a church whose members are a lot different from me in various ways. This occurred to me a few weeks back when I first read Philip Yancey’s latest column in Christianity Today about the signs of a healthy church. I was particularly moved by this extended passage:

As I read accounts of the New Testament church, no characteristic stands out more sharply than this one. Beginning with Pentecost, the Christian church dismantled the barriers of gender, race, and social class that had marked Jewish congregations. Paul, who as a rabbi had given thanks daily that he was not born a woman, slave, or Gentile, marveled over the radical change: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

One modern Indian pastor told me, “Most of what happens in Christian churches, including even the miracles, can be duplicated in Hindu and Muslim congregations. But in my area only Christians strive, however ineptly, to mix men and women of different castes, races, and social groups. That’s the real miracle.”

Diversity complicates rather than simplifies life. Perhaps for this reason we tend to surround ourselves with people of similar age, economic class, and opinion. Church offers a place where infants and grandparents, unemployed and executives, immigrants and blue bloods can come together. Just yesterday I sat sandwiched between an elderly man hooked up to a puffing oxygen tank and a breastfeeding baby who grunted loudly and contentedly throughout the sermon. Where else can we go to find that mixture?

When I walk into a new church, the more its members resemble each other—and resemble me—the more uncomfortable I feel.

Reading that made me wonder, do I feel comfort or discomfort in my current church setting, and why? Have I settled in so much that I’ve grown deaf to the call for “unity amid diversity” that should challenge every Christian congregation in one way or the other? These are, I believe, important questions to ponder from time to time. In fact, I ponder them most Sunday mornings.

Unlike Yancey, I find that my discomfort grows not out of being in a congregation that resembles me, because mine most certainly doesn’t. Rather, my discomfort stems from the nagging feeling that I’ve simply settled for the status quo. When you are the diversity of a place (at least in a racial sense), it’s sometimes easy to grow complacent and feel that you’ve already done your part. But that isn’t necessarily so. I probably could be doing a lot more to make my church a more diverse place—whether it be reaching out to other people of color more often and inviting them to church, or speaking up about the continued lack of racial diversity in our congregation, even though we’re located in a very diverse community. I need to be prayerfully figuring out how to take my discomfort and turn it into something positive and redemptive. I need to get better at opening my mouth and sharing my perspective (which, I guess, I do here a lot) and not just accepting that “things will never change.” Yet, I need wisdom to know when to speak and when to “go with the flow.” Lord, grant me that wisdom.

I’ve also been moved this Thanksgiving week by a series of broadcasts on (suprise! surprise!) NPR that explore what it means to be an American from the immigrant perspective. So far, the series has featured insightful interviews with authors Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri. Both writers speak poignantly of the struggle of finding acceptance in a country that both embraces and resists diversity, and of having loyalties to two very different cultures. You can hear in their stories both the pain and pride of “becoming American.” [Update: An interview with half-Irish, half-Turkish author Joseph O’Neill ran on Wednesday morning.]

As I listened, I was reminded again of Yancey’s words: “Diversity complicates rather than simplifies life.” Yet it’s what makes us stronger. It’s what makes us better. Without it, we cannot fully display the power of Christ’s gospel. 

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Hi there. I’m just back from Orlando, where I led a couple of workshops at the annual Peacemaker Ministries conference. I was one of the keynote speakers at last year’s conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they actually invited me back. Go figure. If you’re not familiar with Peacemaker Ministries, I encourage you to check them out. It’s a wonderful organization that assists churches in biblical conflict resolution. Thousands of churches and individual believers around the world have benefited from the Peacemakers’ work.

At the conference, I had the honor of meeting Thabiti Anyabwile, author of the bold and much-discussed book The Decline of African American Theology. Pastor Anyabwile delivered a powerful keynote address on “The Danger and Delight of Forgiveness.” In his opening address, Peacemaker Ministries founder Ken Sande said, “One of the supreme ways for us to reflect God’s glory is to make peace with those who have offended us or whom we have offended.” Imagine an entire ministry exclusively devoted to helping folks resolve conflict and experience grace and forgiveness. 

On the way to Florida, I was able to catch up on some of my magazine reading. Have I ever mentioned here that Philip Yancey is one of my vocational heroes? I had the privilege of working with him awhile back when I was an editor with Christianity Today. Philip’s example as a journalist and as a promoter of grace have had an immense influence on my career and life. Against the backdrop of another hotly contested presidential election that exposes our nation’s deep divisions, I’m challenged and encouraged by his latest column in CT.

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