Heaven?” (See Here) Initially I assumed that the picture and project was some sort of joke, but upon further investigation my assumptions were proven wrong. All the “google evidence” pointed to the fact that this was indeed an actual project, done by an actual 21st century student, in an actual Christian school, graded by actual teachers. (I’m curious what grade he received.) Although I couldn’t access the full details of the project my hunch is that this young man defines “minorities” as people of color. Perhaps, he like most American Christians, is oblivious to the fact that demographically speaking, the average Christian on the global
landscape is an African or Latino woman.
This knowledge would actually necessitate that he see himself as the current “minority.” Many American Christians are oblivious to the fact that demographically speaking, the average Christian on the global landscape is an African or Latino woman. Just 100 years ago, the two headquarter addresses of Christianity were Europe and North America.
In 1950 the average Christian was a white, middle-aged, upper middle class male, but since that time we have experienced an ethnic, gender, and cultural exodus in world Christianity. An address change has occurred and the mail must now be forwarded to Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
Yet, so many leaders are stacking up piles of returned mail marked “invalid address” because they refuse to update their address books and acknowledge the shift. The transcendent Gospel of Jesus is being truncated and unconsciously tinted by a white, western, Eurocentric, male lens in many evangelical churches, denominations, conferences, and universities.
It’s Not Your Grandma’s America OR Church Anymore
Nationally, it’s not uncommon to hear the cry of lament coming from evangelical pulpits about the death of “American Christianity.” While some leaders are prophesying impending doom and counseling God’s people to retreat to the safety of their Christian ghettos, others are calling for a bold and “triumphal return” to our country’s GREAT “Christian” past. When I hear this I think to myself, “What exact year do they want to return to?” 1950? I hope not…that wasn’t the greatest of times for folks with my pigmentation.
1850 maybe? Again, this doesn’t sound very attractive to the descendants of enslaved Africans and displaced indigenous people. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to take a jab at my precious brothers and sisters in Christ who have this sentiment. I simply want Christians to come to grips with the fact that this country has ALWAYS been plagued by “selective moralism.”
America has always cherry picked from the Bible and it seems that those who are convinced that the church is numerically dying are doing a bit of statistical cherry picking. There are scholars like Dr. Soong Chan Rah and sociologist Steven Warner who argue that “we are NOT seeing the de-Christianization of America, but the de-Europeanization of American Christianity.”
In other words, WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) churches are rapidly declining and dying while Asian and Latino churches are growing as a result of immigration. African-American churches are maintaining steady numbers, neither declining or growing. All of this is happening to the backdrop of a nation that is on pace to be majority “people of color” by 2040. Currently, more than half of all births in America are of a person of color, while last year for the first time in our nation’s history more whites died than were born.
Churches are still extremely segregated. Only 5% of protestant denominations are ethnically diverse while 27% of non-Christian religious congregations are ethnically diverse. To be qualified as a “diverse” church you only need to obtain an 80/20 ratio. Sadly, the research shows that the average congregation is only 1/10 as “racially” diverse as the neighborhood in which it is situated. So much for churches being a redeemed representation of the community they live in.
Though these statistics are a grim picture of separation, I am also encouraged that more and more people seem to be getting a heart for reconciliation, solidarity, and diversity in churches. In a recent poll, 70 percent of church leaders voiced a strong desire for their congregation to be more ethnically and culturally diverse. However, I’m convinced that “voicing” this desire is not enough. We must vigorously pray, preach, and prime our churches to actually achieve this Godly aim. If churches want to become a “3rd Space” of ethnic diversity and solidarity much work must be done. Spirit-empowered, historically informed, culturally intelligent, love-fueled intentionality is required if we are to see this horrible history of division end amongst those who claim to worship the same Jesus.
A Snapshot of the Eternal “3rd Space”
As a result of being a leader at a diverse church, I’m often asked by other leaders for the ingredients to the “magic formula.” For some, the idea of worshiping and doing life with people of different colors, cultures, and classes is like going to mars. They’ve never been there and have no “earthly idea” what that’s supposed to look, sound, and feel like.
That’s actually a good thing. We don’t need an “earth grown” idea or church growth scheme for diversity. We need a Jesus-centered, heavenly revelation. In Revelation, Chapter 7 we find an “eternal snapshot” of God’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural church. There we find “The Eternal 3rd Space!” It is a place where individuals from every tribe and tongue are free to breathe in divine love and exhale out authentic worship to the One who knows them by name. The earthly implications of this “heavenly picture” are so vast!
It’s by looking ahead to the restoration of all things that we get our fuel and blueprint for restoration and reconciliation in the now. C.S. Lewis once said: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”
It seems counter-intuitive, but the scripture communicates this reality over and over. If your spiritual eyes are given the gift to look into the glories of the next life where the fullness of the kingdom will be a reality, it creates a longing for those blessings in the here and now. This is why Jesus commands us to pray that the “Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
A glimpse at heaven should inspire a holy imagination for what the church could look like on earth. IF in heaven there is unity among every nation, tribe, people group, and language should not the church strive for that unity in the now. If there is no segregation at the throne of the Lamb, shouldn’t we strive to end the most segregated hour in America-Sunday morning. If there is no marginalization at the throne of heaven shouldn’t we seek to be used of God to de-marginalize the marginalized within our congregations.
If while looking ahead to eternity, Paul could say, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known”, couldn’t we strive towards knowing, loving, and honoring individuals and people groups outside of the caricatures or stereotype that we’ve learned in a society plagued by racial exploitation. If there is no culture idolatry, snobbery, elitism, and ignorance in heaven shouldn’t we be praying hard, loving hard, and fighting against these things in our own hearts now.
If truth reigns in heaven, shouldn’t we expose the lie and myth of race as we have known it historically in America. Biologically and biblically there is only ONE race -- the human race. In spite of differences in physical appearances, humans are very similar genetically. In fact, there is more genetic diversity within so called “racial groups” than outside of those groups. Penguins, who to the naked eye look identical, are on average twice as genetically different than the average humans are from each other.
Fruit flies are actually 10 times genetically different from each other than fellow humans are from each other. When comparing humans to humans, its not like comparing BMWs to Pintos. It is comparing priceless image of God-bearers to fellow priceless image of God-bearers. There is no superior race and neither are their inferior races. There is only ONE race made in God’s image! If racism will be non-existent in eternity and “GRACISM” will rule to the glory of Jesus, shouldn’t this grace be experienced in ever increasing measures now?
Diversity in churches can be a potent witness to a watching world if leveraged properly. But this is an uphill climb with many challenges. Many sacrifices must be made by ALL involved to see true harmony and unity. It’s not enough to have people of European, Latin American, African, and Asian descent in the same room. Diversity by itself is disastrous. The same issues of misunderstanding and marginalization we see at work in larger society can actually be magnified and more painful within “the four walls.” This has been well documented in books like Divided By Faith, Aliens in the Promised Land, and Reconcilation Blues. Minorities on staff and in the pews in mostly white churches have a much shorter “shelf life” and often leave disillusioned about the whole idea of integration.
Diversity MINUS inclusion and solidarity equals implosion. Diversity PLUS inclusion and solidarity equals an explosion of God’s glory and influence.
Diversity is coming to a neighborhood near you whether you like it or not. As Latino/Hispanics move into historically African American neighborhoods what will be the black church’s response? As African American’s make there way into previously all white churches, how will leadership and laity respond? Are we praying and planning to engage and welcome them or selfishly scheming on how to keep “those people” out? Are we asking ourselves the hard questions that will help us become 3rd Spaces of cross-cultural hospitality?
I’m very concerned that we are spreading the disease of cultural hegemony and cultural captivity to our next generation of leaders and setting them up for failure in the most diverse U.S. ever. “Culture captivity” is the false assumption that diversity, inclusivity, and cross-cultural learning is futile because our personal preferences, cultural values, and ways of life are spiritually and morally superior to others. This captivity impedes our ability to recognize, honor, and empower diverse groups of people. It leads to the suppression of God’s voice being heard through those who don’t fit our preferred “mold.”
The cure for cultural captivity is to be captivated by Christ’s passion to see cultures redeemed and renewed to uniquely reflect His glory. Once His passion becomes our passion we are in a position to steward the Divine wisdom necessary to make it a reality. We must see diversity as a “GIFT” to be nurtured and leveraged for the glory of God and the good of all people.
Jesus didn’t allow our differences (His holiness and our unholiness) to stop Him from the painfully uncomfortable work of reconciliation on the cross. If we’ve experienced this vertical reconciliation it should push us towards the hard work of horizontal reconciliation AND solidarity across color, culture, class, generational, and gender lines. Individually and corporately, may we strive towards becoming “3rd Spaces” of inclusivity, hope, and healing in a sick world marred by racial exclusivity.