Monday, May 18, 2015

Getting out of the Ghetto: Why Pew's Research on the Church in America Means Very Little

"If you live in a ghetto the size of New York City, you may not know it."  I heard those words 15 years ago from a pastor talking about my denomination.  His simple point was that there are indeed Christians outside the Southern Baptist Convention.  But when you are the largest Protestant denomination in America, sometimes its hard to see past your own sense of largeness.

But that principle isn't true only for my denominational tribe.  Its also true for the wider body of Christ in the west, and events of the past few days have proven this fact.  Last week, Pew Research released its latest project focusing on the state of American Evangelicalism.   Called America's Changing Religious Landscape, the study claims that the number of self-proclaimed Christians has dropped sharply over the past 7 years, while adherents to other faiths and the unaffiliated (sometimes called the "nones") continue to grow.

Reaction to this report has varied, and a few have lamented the beginning of the end of American Christianity.  But those who think such things don't understand this research--or the nature of Christian faith wherever it may exist on the globe.  As Ed Stetzer has well-said, "Christianity is not dying and no serious researcher thinks that."  So why do so many-including those within the body of Christ in the west--seem to believe it is so?  I would suggest its because our "ghetto" is crumbling.  For too long, we've been unable to see the work of God beyond our own western constructs.  And that's a large part of why Pew's latest research isn't very helpful.

1. It measures institutional Christendom, not Christianity.  No doubt about it, the predominant and most visible brand of "Christianity" that has existed on this continent for centuries is dying.  But that doesn't mean that genuine followers of Jesus in the west are declining in numbers.  As our culture continues to shift in a direction that makes being Christian something that is no longer culturally convenient, we are witnessing Jesus separating His American sheep from the goats with whom they have long been herded inside an institutional form of western Christendom.

Decades ago Billy Graham postulated that as many as 75% of church-goers had no genuine relationship with Jesus Christ.  Pew's observations of the decline in numbers in the western church doesn't reflect that there are less Christians in America.  It is only revealing who the genuine Christ-followers are among us.

2. It is focused on the west.  For the past 500 years, Protestant Christianity in all its forms has been primarily defined in western terms--first throughout Europe and eventually by its growth in America. For the most part, this is because "Reformation theology" was developed in a distinctly western context, and it was that theology that for the past half millennium has informed everything from our modern church structures to our missions-delivery systems.  Though I have great appreciation for this tradition (I am, after all, a product of church life, seminary education, and missions deployment that has been almost exclusively informed by this approach), it is not a tradition that has ever truly considered the whole of the global body of Christ.  The most we can say of western Protestantism in this regard is that it saw itself as the "starting point" for spreading the Gospel throughout the world.  But even today, most in Protestant churches don't think very much about the contribution of the wider and global body of Christ.  And this myopic understanding continues in spite of the fact that other nations have been sending missionaries to our own shores for decades.

When we look exclusively, or for that matter, even primarily, through this western Reformed lens, we miss most of what God is doing in the world today.  While we lament the decline of Christendom in the west, our brothers and sisters in the "2/3 world" are witnessing an explosion of growth.  Alan Hirsch has rightly stated that "the new face of 21st century global Christianity is no longer the European man, but the African woman."  Throughout South America, sub-sahara Africa, the middle east, and the Asian subcontinent, Jesus is using His church in these areas to introduce millions of new believers to Himself.  Perhaps if we focused a little less on our decline, and more on what is causing their success, we might learn something that would empower the Gospel witness of the western church.  It is past time for us to step down from the teacher's lectern and begin learning from our brothers and sisters abroad

3. It feeds the misconception that we are different from the rest of the world.  Why do we seem so unwilling to learn from other Christians around the world?  Is it pride?  Is it a sense of the heresy of "American exceptionalism" applied to our churches?  Probably not.  In fact, its more likely that we don't listen to the global church because we still labor under the delusion that their context doesn't apply in ours.  And this is the case because we continue to believe--in spite of historically unprecedented global migration patterns that affect every continent including ours--that there are two ways of doing church; one way for us, and another way for the rest of the world.  Even phrases like "domestic missions" and "international missions" betray our ignorance.  In a world where my next-door neighbor is as likely to be a Buddhist from India as a Presbyterian from Philadelphia, we need to stop examining the western church through exclusively western eyes.  Pew's observations of the growth in ethnic and cultural diversity in its study is a helpful start, but we must go further.

The reaction by Christians to Pew's research reminds me of the story of the Emmaus-bound disciples.  In the midst of their pain, confusion, and fear after Jesus' crucifixion, their Lord joins them in His resurrected body and walks among them--but they don't see Him!  That's the picture I think of when I think of the western church.  In the midst of massive cultural and worldview shifts on our own continent, we are too fearful to see beyond to the miraculous work God is doing globally--work He is doing among our brothers and sisters in places that are no longer "far away" and from which we can learn much.

But to learn those lessons, we have to lift our eyes beyond old constructs.  We must stop judging ourselves by standards that are more influenced by a dying western church culture than by Scripture, and see Jesus walking among us and beckoning us toward what He is doing globally.  After all, He isn't interested in redeeming one small cultural piece of His body.  He wants the whole world.  And one day, He is going to get it all!

So we can lament what is happening to cultural Christianity, or we can join the global body of Christ as Jesus extends His true Kingdom.  But to do the latter, we have to be cured of our myopia.

Time to get out of the ghetto!

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