July 21, 2010
Are consumer Christians engaging justice and racial reconciliation because they're trendy?
You can learn a lot about Evangelical Christianity by going into a typical Christian bookstore in a shopping mall. You’ll find scores of how-to, self-help, and church growth books. I doubt you will find many books on reconciliation.
While the church definitely needs good, practical literature on helping individuals and churches grow, we must guard against replacing the gospel of reconciliation with a gospel primarily or exclusively focused on quantitative church growth. In fact, Dr. John M. Perkins prophetically confronted the Evangelical church as far back as 1982, saying that “We have substituted a gospel of church growth for a gospel of reconciliation” (See Perkins, With Justice for All, pp. 107-108). Perkins was speaking primarily of the need for churches to break down racial barriers between people of different ethnicities. With this in mind, it is a welcome sight to find churches like Willow Creek being intentional about welcoming diverse ethnicities (See “Can Megachurches Bridge the Racial Divide?” Time, January 11, 2010). There are vital signs of hope.
The gospel of reconciliation calls us out from affinity groupings based on cliques that intentionally or unintentionally exclude those who are different from us according to race, class, gender, generation, etc. Unfortunately, people don’t just shop in bookstores. Many people inside and outside the church in North America view the church as “a vendor of religious services and goods” (Hunsberger, in Missional Church, p. 84); they look for churches that will “sell” them the religious goods and services that they as individuals and as individual nuclear families want, not what they ultimately need relationally as citizens of God’s communal (and not commodity-) kingdom. We need to be expanded relationally, moved beyond hanging out simply with our “own kind of people,” moving toward being enriched by Jesus’ people from diverse backgrounds, and moving into the realization of God’s kingdom.
Multi-ethnic is increasingly in, but I am afraid that it may be because many religious consumers are infatuated with multi-____ (like multi-grain, multi-vitamin); infatuation is only skin deep. It’s faddish in some circles to take on board various concerns for justice, but I have witnessed how people want to talk about race matters at a forum but not embody racial justice in concrete practices in diverse community as Christ’s body. I also find it hard to move beyond my comforts and preferences to engage people who look and think differently from me culturally, especially when it entails being marginalized by the dominant culture if I continue down that path.
I don’t want to be an outsider, and so it is difficult for me to identify with outsiders until I take to heart that when I do I am experiencing Jesus’ outsider kingdom vision. We see Jesus envisioning this kingdom in the parable of the wedding party where, rather than being shut out from the party, the poor and the lame are made participants of the celebration (Lk. 14:15-24). I want for us to promote and experience the fullness of Jesus’ outsider-as-insider-kingdom.
While I admire this young generation of Christians for their passion for caring for the body, society and creation as a whole, they must make sure that they are running a marathon race; for example, overcoming racial divisions inside and outside the church will take a lot longer than it takes to run a fifty yard dash. And so I ask, what happens if the consumer passion for multi-ethnic novelty goods dies? Will church leaders continue calling for reconciliation, or is the current call simply a cover for attracting justice-minded consumers? We must guard against commodifying justice and become a just community.
What you won’t find in most Christian bookstores is talk of how to make a ‘prophet,’ but quite a bit on how to make a ‘profit’ in one way or another. Mention was made of Dr. Perkins above, a contemporary prophet. I have had the privilege of getting to know Dr. Perkins and partnering with him in ministry. When we speak together, I am always struck by God’s power, passion and compassion that oozes from this 80 year old son of a Mississippi sharecropper and modern day apostle. People love Dr. Perkins’ passion, his sense of humor, and charm. They also love his story of how God called him to move beyond the victimizing hatred of racial oppression that he experienced as an African American over the years, and to partner with people of all colors to rebuild impoverished communities in Jesus’ love and truth and justice. We love his novel ministry, but if we are not careful we will turn it into a novelty as part of our novelty shop experience.
I spoke with Dr. Perkins about this matter. He resonated with my concern and said in response: “Don’t receive the grace of God in vain. Don’t simply enjoy hearing the Word and then compartmentalize it in a world of profit.”
We—including I—must come to realize that the gospel of the kingdom is ultimately about reconciling, relational growth that includes people outside my affinity group. Affinity is not the same as community, and we are to envision and embody in our concrete practices the eschatological kingdom, living now in light of what will be. We must become, rather than buy, a kingdom community where people of different ethnicities and economic backgrounds among others feast together at Jesus’ banqueting table.