I love to garden. It’s my happy place. There’s something grounding about putting my hands in the soil—it can change my whole day for the better. There’s also something that emboldens my faith when I think about the trust it takes for me to put a seed down in April and expect a harvest in August. But the one thing I’ve also learned from gardening is that weeds need to be picked by the root. If you pull a weed up by the parts you can see, you’ll never get rid of it. However if you dig down to where the seed took hold, you’re likely to never see that weed again.
This is exactly how I view the challenges facing the Christian church in America right now.
One of the most pressing issues the church in the West faces—specifically predominately white, protestant denominations and American evangelicals— isn’t political as much as it is spiritual. It’s the internal crisis created by its own resistance and deep seated biases against anything and anyone that doesn’t align with Eurocentric cultural norms. Yep…churches can change the style of worship music on their programs all they want; put a Black or Brown face in the pulpit a hundred times over; they can bring gospel hip hop artist LeCrae in every year for the annual youth conference; they can build a million schools in South America and dig a million wells in Africa; but unless the Western church is willing to dig deep into what it believes about the “other”; unless it examines how it has interpreted scripture through a cultural lens that is privileged at best, the problems, like the weeds in my garden, will keep coming up. The Western church has allowed the sin of colonization, slavery, and overall white supremacy to so deeply define its function and outreach that the ONLY way to truly dismantle its faulty lens will be to collectively and publicly repent and actively repair the damage. Part of those reparations will require being willing to let the “new face” of Christianity take the lead on moving the Gospel.
From the conquistadors that invaded Latin America to the colonization of Africa spearheaded by Europe (and fueled by the transatlantic slave trade), so much of this breach is half as old as the faith itself. In fact, the development of Black Liberation theology (RIP Dr. James Cone), the presence of pluralism in Asia, and the return to Catholicism by some Latin American Christians are, in part, responses to the oppression and marginalization that lives within Western Christianity and tries to replicate itself like an unwanted, unneeded cancer. The Western church needs to confront its roots, repent, and remove the systems that continue to perpetuate oppression, in order to truly embrace the global demographic shifts we see happening in Christendom in the modern era.
Specifically, I think the biggest challenge the Western church faces in dealing with their resistance is rethinking how Christianity “should” show up. Dr. Raimundo Barreto, one of my instructors in a theology and ministry program I was in at Princeton Theological Seminary, made a powerful point in one of our modules about how indigenous people and enslaved Africans dealt with this “new” religion when Latin America was colonized in the 16th century. He said: “They had cultures, values, and religious traditions; an agency of their own, which led them to interpret and make sense of the new faith in light of their previous religious and cultural experiences. Those cultures, values, and religious traditions played a vital role in the way they embraced Christianity, even when they were coerced to do so.” I think this is key to how the church in the West needs to think about what God might be wanting from it going forward—particularly in light of having aligned itself with the current political regime in Washington whose actions-most recently the separation of immigrant children from their parents–are horrific and complete the opposite of anything Jesus wants.
See…Christianity should not, and dare I say, will not look like what we see in the West. The ways in which American evangelicalism in particular operates must die in order for the Faith to proceed on mission. To demand anything else is the anti-thesis to the way I believe Christ intends the church body to function and reach people.
Even the suggestion of this kind of shift, I imagine, is hard for some in the Western church to accept because it challenges the whole “we found Jesus first and know Him best” lie they’ve been telling the world. Too often there has been either a spirit of domination or spirit of patronization that seeps into the presentation of the Gospel by the West to the rest of the world—mostly via missionary organizations—and destroys the church’s witness.
And sure, I suppose there are some who’d argue that the increase in Christianity around the world (Africa and Asia specifically) is exactly BECAUSE of the “good missionary work” of the western church. Maybe. But cannot conveniently forget that Christianity and Colonization, for the longest time, were two sides of the same coin. So I would argue that the shifting demographics are NOT necessarily a function of the western Church doing such great missions work as much as it is God’s grace allowing these cultures to see Jesus in spite of the West—or unearth the Jesus they knew before the colonizers and missionaries got there.
There’s hope though. Or, if I’m honest, I hope there’s hope. One of the ways the church in the West can overcome this challenge, this internal resistance, is by authentically embracing, even prioritizing, non-western expressions of the faith. it can engage with the non-Western church in a way that doesn’t preclude domination but is actually inclusive.
Some of this inclusiveness will require applying an expanded lens to scripture. This is especially true when thinking about the “voice” of the Christian church going forward. Who should speak on behalf of the Body of Christ to the world? I would argue it should be those who have been considered last. I’m reminded of Jesus’ command to the disciples: “So Jesus got them together to settle things down. He said, “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage” (Matt. 20:24-28). The Roman Catholic Church, the American Evangelical Church and other mostly white-led Western denominations are going to have to step aside and allow those who have been “last” take their rightful places as “first” and represent Jesus to the world.