In a National Association of Evangelicals survey from May, NAE board members polled were pessimistic about the growth of churches in the U.S. However, according to the NAE Web site, there was overall optimism that Christianity would grow worldwide, but that growth would primarily occur Africa, South America, Asia, and even China. The NAE site stated:
"Evangelical leaders are very bullish on the future growth of Christianity, except in America," according to Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals.
The group surveyed, all NAE board members, is made up of CEOs of 60 denominations, plus other evangelical organizations from publishing to education.
But are these NAE leaders overlooking minority ethnic groups and churches in their pessimism? According to Soong-Chan Rah's new book, The Next Evangelicalism, they might be. The book is subtitled, Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, and Rah pulls back the curtain to reveal a burgeoning ethnic church that is alive, well, and growing in the United States. These ethnic minorities, many of them immigrants from majority world countries, are often overlooked in the count of congregations and in leadership conferences.
Rah, a Korean-American who teaches church growth and evangelism at North Park Seminary, contends that these ethnic churches and their leaders are often invisible to the white evangelical community.
Contrary to popular opinion, the church is not dying in America; it is alive and well, but it is alive and well among the immigrant and ethnic minority communities and not among the majority white churches in the United States. (p. 14)
Rah cites three areas that he contends form the "western, white cultural captivity of the church" in the U.S.: individualism, consumerism, and materialism, and racism. These he calls the heartbeat (individualism); soul (consumerism); and residue (racism) of the white church culture.
My online friend Shaun King, a young African-America pastor in Atlanta, recently decried in no uncertain terms the closed circle of white church experts who are featured in conference after conference. Rah echoes King's frustration:
While the demographics of Christianity are changing both globally and locally, the leadership of American evangelicalism continues to be dominated by white Americans.
The message a sea of white faces sends, according to Rah, is that "the real experts in ministry are whites. Nonwhites may offer some expertise in specialized areas of ministry (such as urban ministry or racial reconciliation), but the theologians, the general experts, the real shapers and movers of ministry, are whites."
When you couple Rah's book with Mark Noll's new book, The New Shape of World Christianity, you begin to sense that the ground has shifted under an aging, and perhaps ethnically insensitive evangelical church.
Noll recognizes the growing church in the majority world with these words:
But today - when active Christian adherence has become stronger in Africa than in Europe, when the number of practicing Christians in China may be approaching the number in the United States, when live bodies in church are far more numerous in Kenya than in Canada, when more believers worship together in church Sunday by Sunday in Nagaland than in Norway, when India is now home to the world's largest chapter of the Roman Catholic Jesuit order, and when Catholic mass is being said in more languages each Sunday in the United States than ever before in church history - with such realities defining the present situation, there is a pressing need for new historical perspectives that explore the new world situation." (p. 10)
The question I have about the NAE board is how many are white? If the answer is what I think it is - probably 95% - then no wonder they are pessimistic about the future of Christianity in the U.S. The next question is this - when will we open our eyes to see the diversity of the followers of Christ who may not look like the old face of evangelicalism, but are certainly its new face.
Frankly, I am encouraged by both books by Rah and Noll, which are different perspectives on the same subject -- the rise of multiethnic Christians around the world. Maybe if the current crop of evangelical leadership looked up from their reams of reports indicating the decline of their churches, they might see the next wave of new believers ready and eager to step on the stage of Christian history worldwide.
Chuck Warnock pastors Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia. A graduate of Mercer University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and completing a D.Min. at Fuller Seminary, Chuck blogs at AmicusDei.com and Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor, and writes for other publications. To read an excerpt from Soong-Chan Rah's book, published in the April issue of Sojourners, click here. To hear an audio interview with Rah, click here.