It was at least 25 years ago when my grandmother said to me, “someday, other countries will be sending missionaries to the United States.” I grew up in a church with a heavy emphasis on foreign mission. Jesus had commanded his followers to go, and we honored those who heeded that call to travel to the ends of the earth. At the same time, my grandma was observing an apparent shift in culture. She lamented stores that stayed open on Sunday. In her eyes, there was a dechristianization going on, so one day, she asserted, missionaries would come to us.
Years later I read Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom and learned about the rapidly growing church throughout the world. While Christianity appeared to shrink in Europe and the US, Christianity was growing in the Global South. In subsequent books, Jenkins talked about the missionary aims of some of these churches, echoing the prediction my grandmother made.
Then I became a campus minister. I was tasked with having to fundraise my salary, so I traveled to churches and shared my vision for campus. A large part of my presentation was to emphasize the post-Christian nature of the college campus. I would talk about how I had learned the value of sending missionaries overseas and I encouraged the churches to continue supporting such mission. At the same time, I wanted them to partner in my ministry, so I shared that more and more it appeared that the USA itself was becoming a mission field. I had found statistics and quotes saying thing such as “if the unchurched community in the USA was a country, it would be one of the largest unreached countries in the world!” Compared to the vibrant churches Jenkins described across the globe, it was easy to paint a picture, especially in churches filled with people of my grandmother’s generation, that Christianity was shrinking.
I was not being dishonest either. The atmosphere on most university campuses is distinctly post-Christian. Campus ministry exists to disciple Christian students in college and to share the gospel of Jesus with students on the secular campus. So the story I was telling in these churches was mostly accurate.
Yet, as I reflect on this, it is worth noting where I placed myself and those like me in this story. Other countries might be sendinterested missionaries to the US, but these missionaries would target other people. I was on the same team as these missionaries and our target for evangelism would be post-Christian secular people. We – myself and my colleagues and the churches I visited – were “in” because we believed in God and the resurrection and all the correct theological and doctrinal points. Secular persons, or even more “liberal” Christians were “out” because they did not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus, or they questioned the Trinity, or they rejected God altogether.
In other words, I was part of the faithful remnant. Throughout the Bible story, when God’s people turn away and things look bleak, there is always a small group who remain faithful. For example, when the prophet Elijah is disillusioned, God reminds him that some are faithful (1 Kings 18). In reading these stories, I placed myself and those like me within the faithful remnant.
I’ve been haunted by this question – is that truly where we are in the story? Are we truly the “faithful remnant”?
This question has been on my mind the last few days. I began reading a book titled, Can White People Be Saved? Triangulating Race, Theology and Mission. The second chapter, titled Decolonizing Salvation, was written by Andrea Smith and includes this statement:
“As many evangelicals of Color have pointed out, White evangelicals are often very invested in the White savior industrial complex. But Native Christians have noted that maybe it is White evangelicals who actually need to be saved. Craig Smith contends that US churches should stop seeing themselves as sending churches and recognize that they are themselves a mission field.”
I’ve been thinking about this quote for days. On one hand, it echoes what I was told as a kid and have said myself over the years about America being a mission field. On the other hand, it turns the whole idea on its head because the mission field is not secular or liberal America, but white evangelical churches.
We – the white evangelical church in America – are not the faithful remnant but instead are those who have compromised our faith with culture and need to be evangelized into discipleship with Jesus?
I have been quite skeptical of “white evangelical Christianity” for a long time. Recognizing that white evangelical Christians energetically support America’s foreign wars while tying themselves into knots to explain how Jesus’ words and example on nonviolence are not meant to be taken seriously is one example. Another is recognizing how white evangelicals appear to desire political power and are willing to do anything or support anyone (seriously, anyone…how do so many still support that narcissistic, lying, cheating blowhard is mind-boggling) to get it is another example.
As I’ve wrestled with the failures of my church tradition, I’ve benefited for year from reading and learning from Christians outside my own white evangelical background. This began with the testimony of the church through the ages: from George MacDonald to Julian of Norwich and Gregory of Nysa to a whole other host of church fathers and mothers. It has continued as I’ve learned from wonderful writers across the global church today such as Soong-Chan Rah, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, James Cone, Jemar Tisby, Austin Channing Brown and others.
I think this quote struck me and has stuck with me, because even though my perception of the Church has widened and I’ve put myself in a place to learn from diverse voices, I still have been putting myself in the “faithful remnant” group. Like most humans, when I draw imaginary lines between “good” and “bad” or “pure” and “impure”, I place myself on the good and pure side of the line.
Other people have to learn what I know.
Other people should believe the way I believe.
This quote hit me because I realize that I need to be evangelized.
As a caveat, growing up the idea of evangelism was to get people in the door. The assumption was that most of the people in the world are destined for eternal torment in hell. Our job as Christians was to get them to believe in Jesus. As Dallas Willard noted in The Divine Conspiracy, evangelical Christianity was obsessed with making converts but hoped discipleship would happen by accident. He encouraged his readers to flip it, seeking to focus on discipleship and let evangelism happen by accident.
I find that reversal to be helpful, yet I also wonder if its worth even separating the two. Faith in Jesus is not merely about what happens in some ethereal afterlife, it is about how we live now. As we enter into life with Jesus, we all constantly need to learn and grow. We all need to constantly rehear the good news and relearn what Jesus calls us to do. We all need to examine the ways our understanding of faith has been corrupted by culture. We all need to be constantly evangelized.
Its not about other people doing these things. We must do them.
The fact is, the white evangelical church in America needs to be saved. As more and more data comes in, the evidence reveals that the white church in America has been rooted in racism from the beginning. Books such as White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supermacy in American Christianity and Taking America Back for God:Christian Nationalism in the United States, as well as many others, reveal this. Even if it is true that we live in an increasingly post-Christian culture, this does not mean “we” are good to go and “they” need Jesus. Instead, we must be honest with the failings of the Christian culture that we imagine we are not “post”.
We must confess that the “Christian” culture, for any good that was in it, failed in many ways and did not reflect the fullness of Jesus’ teaching or God’s dream for the world.
We must confess our sins.
We must listen to our Christian brothers and sisters outside our own tradition.
When we think we’ve come far enough, we must be honest and realize we stil have a long way to go.
We must be willing to let other Christians evangelize us.