The American church is in decline! Data from all of the church growth experts, including the George Barna Group, shows that this is true.
In addition, shrinking budgets, consolidated departments, and closed doors also tell us the truth that we, perhaps, have been struggling to hear: something that we are doing simply is not working.
Over the years, I have seen the American church analyze theory after theory to figure out why this is the case.
Is the culprit postmodernity? What about the lack of community? What about the millennials who seem to show no commitment to what the church is doing? But we’ve also taken to following certain trends (hello emerging church movement).
We’ve adopted strategies from the business world, trying to market what we do better. We’ve updated our churches with the latest technology, we’ve built bigger buildings, we’ve shortened our services, we’ve create in-house coffee shops, we’ve hired professional musicians, and we’ve opted for less awkward forms of greeting visitors – all in attempt to appeal to those who are not coming in. But for the most part, we are the only ones amused.
The latest of all of the trends appears to be diversity.
Many churches have expressed a desire to be more open to people of color so that we feel welcome in the congregation. The thought is that as the number of people of color increase in this nation and the number of white people decrease, our bodies are needed to grow the church numerically. And the sentiments here are true-ish. At last, I believe, we have hit on something of importance that truly sheds light on why the American Church is declining. Still, something just doesn’t feel right.
You see the conclusion is right (we do NEED to embrace diversity) but the analysis and approach at reaching this conclusion is off if not even insulting. In the quest for diversity, what many ‘experts’ miss in their analysis is that there is a reason why we are not currently diverse.
For years, hundreds of years in fact, whites have gone through great lengths to tell people of color that we are not wanted in their places of worship. They didn’t want to eat communion with us, they didn’t want to fellowship with us, and they certainly didn’t want to be led by us! In fact, they literally killed cross cultural movements of the Holy Spirit where people of color were in charge.
And so, begrudgingly, we started our own. We started our own congregations and denominations, places where we were able to grow, encourage one another, and meet each other’s needs. We did it separately from white folks and separate we have largely remained.
Over the years, a small choir of folks developed who understood the importance of doing church differently. Long before census data showed that our country’s demographics were changing, and perhaps even before there was any measurable decline in the church, these folks started to call for diversity and reconciliation in the body. Their message of justice only stirred the imagination of a few; for the most part, white Christians were not interested in their prophetic words.
That is, until recently. As church attendance declines and congregations across the nations close the doors, AT LAST, many are willing to try this diversity thing. And it is here were the problem lies: diversity appears to be a last ditch effort to save the American Church rather than an effort to truly promote racial justice and reconciliation. Many people in leadership seem to be unconcerned about the racial division and exclusion of the past, and in fact, are not really that concerned about the injustices of the present.
Instead, they wish that we can just forge ahead, without regard of the past. But it is impossible to move forward unless we address these ancient sins. Failure to recognize these sins not only inhibits the necessary healing process that needs to occur in all of our hearts and minds, but it gives permission for those sins to be repeated in the present.
If we truly want diversity, we have to be willing to do the hard, grueling work of remembrance and repentance. We have to call to remembrance the instances were whites have excluded people of color from fellowship. We have to remember, and name, the sins of betrayal, of marginalization, of dehumanization and then repent of those sins. Here it is important to also include the sins that have spilled over into society and consider how our theology has determined the way in which we order it. And then we have to commit to walk go a different route.
If in the past, people of color like me were excluded, the church must make great efforts to include us – not just as parishioners, but at every level of leadership and participation. If in the past, the church failed to recognize our humanity, the church in the present must go through great lengths to affirm and declare our humanness – which are especially needed in a culture that brands black men as thugs, Latin@s as illegal, and Muslims as terrorists.
Racial justice and reconciliation is the greatest challenge facing the American Church! It is more than just a trend but a necessary process to bring about healing, forgiveness and repentance to a fragmented body of believers, all of which go beyond simply having a diverse church.
And I honestly do believe that as the church gets to the place we need to be, those who have not embraced the gospel message really will beat down our doors to get inside. This tells me that our greatest challenge could also be our greatest opportunity – an opportunity to be an example of justice before the rest of the American society around us.