By Rev. Dr. William D. Gibson
The church has been making headlines as of late but not for the best of reasons. On the unsettling political front we hear conservative political pundits (along with some conservative evangelicals) using Scripture to justify some of the administration’s most divisive policies. And now with the formation of a Justice Department task force announced this past week by United Methodist and US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, devotion to defend religious liberty has reached new heights.
The Trump Administration is doubling down on building walls between people and protecting white privilege. Amid a war on immigrants and people of color, families have been torn apart, causing irrevocable psychological damage to many young children in the process. And while many progressive churches are fighting back and organizing strategically, much of Evangelical Christianity continues its slippery slide into alignment with an administration, trading the Church’s responsibility to act as a force for the common good for political access and gain.
So, in a season when like-mindedness, political affiliation, and fake news represent skewed affinity, what is the Church’s responsibility when it comes to its own culpability? After all, we have built an Empire on affinity. And, as I have argued before, we need to check ourselves and reconcile the church’s role in building a culture of exclusion.
Much of the existing strategies for congregational development across our denomination elevates the consideration of affinity between pastors/leaders and the mission field/communities to which they are appointed. However, I want to de-emphasize this notion. And, yes, I am aware that there will be folks who disagree. Regardless, here is my argument.
First, strategies around leveraging affinity groups are based on the Church Growth Movement (CGM), which came into view in the 1960s. The 1950s and 1960s represented years of significant upswing in church attendance and engagement. The CGM was actually birthed by Donald McGavran at Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon. I find it ironic that the CGM was given life in our context; what is today (as you now know) called the “None Zone,” where there are more people outside of the church/Christian community than anywhere in the United States.
Essentially, in the 1960s, alarm bells were going off around the exiting of young adults from the church, much like today. In the midst of a twentieth-century crisis there was a struggle for Christian identity, which found devision among races. During these years, and in the midst of a fight for civil rights, white supremacist hate groups, most of which undauntedly claimed a legacy of Nazism, radically promoted their belief that white Christians were God’s chosen people.1 Though the ideologies of these groups varied, history shows that these groups primarily directed their vindictiveness toward Jews, homosexuals, and other minority persons of color, especially African Americans.
Upon this backdrop there grew strategic considerations for church growth within Evangelical Christianity. Resulting from scientific principles and set on 30 years of missionary experience in India, McGavran founded the Institute of Church Growth around the vision that congregations must be formed from homogeneous groups of people, and that it was important for folks to feel comfortable and “at home” with others. People with similar skin color, beliefs, priorities, fears, hopes, etc. would successfully grow in community together. McGavran expressed his theory on the sociological implication of Christian community development, by stating:
“[People] like to become Christians without even crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers… It has been found that where cultural obstacles are recognized and new converts nurtured in churches of their own culture, the evangelistic efforts are far more effective…”2
The base premise was that because people indeed have prejudices, that these biases should be used and made as an aid to Christianity, drawing individuals together in comfortable and like-minded groups.3 This was based on the idea that church growth professionals believed that in the struggle for Christian identity, and the overall Christian movement, most opposition in society was not theological, but instead sociological. A broad example is that Sundays contained the most segregated hour of the week.
There are several “church growth” models, many of which are present still today in strategies for congregational development. These bear witness to the CGM and include the following examples: mega-church, cell church, Alpha course, Natural Church Development, seeker sensitive, soul-winning, and other similar programs and methods. It is absolutely true to state that our natural human tendency is to be drawn to others who are just like us in every way. We have what Parker Palmer calls an ancient fear of “the other.” This is embedded in our humanness, so it would make sense to leverage this for some sort of gain, right? That is what the CGM proposed to capture; a formulaic approach for the Christian movement. And, as the CGM began to cross from the twentieth to the twenty-first century, methods leveraged our dominant American consumer culture, drawing upon marketing and sales strategies.
As good as this sounds, when we consider embracing the “Good news that will bring great joy to all people” (Luke 2:10, NLT), sacrificing the theological position over sociological truths is contrary to the gospel. The gospel subverts such a posture. The gospel reaches cross-culturally and reflects the “kin-dom” of God, representing all races and ethnic groups equally. The gospel breaks down the barriers that divide us, for “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For we are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NLT).
In short, Jesus desires to subvert these natural human tendencies in us, nudging us toward “the other” with whom we, more often than not, do not share a common affinity.
Is there a time when this makes sense? Yes. I believe that affinity is most important when it relates to persons of color who find themselves in a dominant white culture. Cultivating a safe space around affinity in this instance is absolutely appropriate and very much needed in this current season. And, white leaders in the church need to not only become advocates and allies, but we need to use our privilege to equal the playing field. As leaders, if we do not allow Jesus to subvert the tendency we have in our own lives to default to what’s most comfortable, and then model what it looks like to step into unfamiliar relationships with others, how do we expect our communities of faith — new and old — to do the same?
While affinity appears natural in developing safe and courageous spaces, I do not believe it should, today, be a primary consideration for how we foster Christian community. Instead, I believe that we should more readily embrace intercultural competence as the primary lens through which we understand ourselves and then see and engage the world around us. This is an inside-out move that would begin to provide visible evidence of an invisible grace working within each of us.
How will you allow Jesus to subvert what might be hidden deep within, so that you can be more effective at breaking down walls? The lives of your neighbors depend on it.
1. John Butler, Grant Wacker, and Randall Balmer, Religion in American Life: A Short History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 443.
2. Martyn Percy, “How to Win Congregations and Influence Them: An Anatomy of the Church Growth Movement,” Modern Churchman, 34 (1992): 25.
3. Ralph H. Elliott, “Dangers of the Church Growth Movement: Is it possible to maintain our identity as the church and to be a ‘successful’ institution as the same time?” The Christian Century, 98 (August 1981).