From Pastor Dan's Blog

(Which Decline? Which Church? Whose America?)

            So much is written in the church circles I inhabit about the decline of the Church in North America.  In particular, the church blog-o-verse, catalog of conferences, and advertised books seem regularly to be offering advice about how to get The Youth back in church.

            But I am convinced that much of the weeping and gnashing of teeth in Churchland is driven not by actual data, which does not necessarily show that 20-somethings just up and leave church never to return at a rate much higher than in past generations,[1] nor even by genuine concern about personal spiritual depth and discipleship, but by the free-floating anxiety about the Church losing influence in the broader society.

            That loss is not being felt equally across every part of the American Church.  Or, at least, certain segments of the church are more likely to have the tools to respond to the loss of a privileged position in society.  Logically, that would be those parts of the church that are already used to not having privilege and which have developed the skills to obey Jesus under those conditions.

            I was reminded of this while talking to a new acquaintance after a couple racquetball games at the local health club.  Somehow, he ferreted out that I was a pastor, which was something I had hoped to conceal from that group, on the theory that my manner of play (Aggressive?  Yes, but no.  Honest and clean?  Yes.) and interaction would speak a better witness than the perceived dubiousness of some religious mantle.  I had my evasion all planned out.  The dialogue would go like this:

Racquetball guy: “So, what do you do?”

            Me: “Something that has, historically, been frequently associated with unfettered greed, underhanded political dealings, and war.”

            Guy: “Uhhh.”

            Me: “Uh-huh.”

            [awkward pause inexorably expanding with irresistible curiosity]

            Guy: “So you’re an arms dealer, then?”

            Me: “If I tell you the truth, I won’t even have to kill you because my organization will take care of its business.  With you.  And with your brother-in-law’s tractor dealership.”

            Guy: “Uhhh.”

            Me: “Hey, want a rematch?”

            All this because my being a pastor has not been an asset in relationship with most of the people in my local neighborhood.  Religious figures are viewed with suspicion and pastors as the moral-code enforcement squad (“Hey, do you have a permit for that dirty word?  That’s twenty bucks, but by Friday appointment only.”).

            But the actual racquetball guy was positively interested.  He spoke openly about teaching Sunday school, his pastor, and his children, one of whom studies under the senior pastor, and another of whom is the praise leader.  Nearby stood racquetball guy #2, who was wary and wonders if I’m a priest.  No, a pastor, which is like a priest, but not Catholic.  Guy #1 then continues talking church, regardless of Guy #2’s unease.

            We’ll see what next week brings, but I get the idea that Guy #1 is rather unapologetic about his faith.  And all the guys I’ve seen at racquetball hours except maybe four are Hispanic.  All that brings me back to question of the supposed decline of The Church in America.

            The real decline in The American Church is taking place mostly in white churches and denominations.  By the numbers, non-white churches seem to be doing better, and even thriving.  The Hispanic Church in the United States is not in decline.   Part of this situation is demographics and birth rates, part is that “mainstream” churches dilute themselves into the cultural stream of modern America, but part isn’t.  So what is it that some cultural segments of the Church know that others don’t?  They know how to be Christian when you must do so without the benefit of societal privilege and position.

            Allow me to paint in broad strokes.

            The Hispanic Church was and is being forged in a context of nominal Catholicism.  To present Christ as supreme over and sometimes against the institution of the church has taken particular boldness, and endowed Hispanic Christianity with strength of evangelism and a kind of directness of addressing the issues.  In personal evangelistic conversation, slow steps or hesitation leave one with an insipid garble of deist spirituality: “God exists, oh yes I pray, and yes I expect heaven.”  Even the demons do better than this!  But United States Hispanic church-goers have internalized the boldness required to crack through the numbness of mediocre spirituality.

            For its part, the Black Church has an incredibly potent gift of prophecy, in the sense not of fore-telling, but forth-telling.  It was birthed in the context of oppression, first as a refuge, then as an alternative community, then as a force to demand justice.  This also leads to a culture of leadership development, to pass on the tools for what is a struggle longer than many lifetimes.  Engagement with political entities is understood as part of molding an unwilling world to the form of the Kingdom, rather than as attempted maintenance of the status quo.  Thus the Black Church’s prophetic witness, formed as resistance to the kingdom of this world, has better direction and vision than the White Church’s efforts to recapture its supposed place in the very-worldly empire of America.

            And others?  Without the Native American Church and their ability to know past as present, the Christians of privilege in this country will never be made whole from a legacy of theft and genocide.  The Asian-American church I know less about, but my denomination has been greatly blessed by the gift of its Asian churches’ passion for prayer.

            These skills are more difficult to learn when one’s context tempts witness to Christ to rely on the currency of position and power rather than the bold salt mined from the margins. And I admire these skills, seeing in myself the need to learn them better.

            To be sure, every part of the church, however-defined, has its own vulnerabilities, blind-spots, and outright sins, and every part of the church has its own gifts to contribute.  But for the White Church to exercise its gifts wisely and effectively, it must submit to learn at the feet of brothers and sisters who understand how to be potent Christians without needing worldly privilege.

            The church in America is losing societal influence, but I don’t think the White Church can redeem itself.  Instead, it will be Jesus, and Him working, as He usually does, from the fringes.

[1] Emerging Adulthood and Faith, Jonathan P. Hill, Calvin Then-College Press, 2015.