When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15)
There is a cottage industry that exists online and in print that offers both a critique and prescription for renewal of “the church.” Part of this is understandable given that many studies have pointed out the increase in the “nones,” people who have no religious affiliation. By far, it seems, that Evangelicals or post-evangelicals write about this phenomenon most often. Every few days, I am treated with yet another book or blog about the impending apocalypse of Christianity in the West. These writings, especially by post-evangelicals, usually begin by castigating the church for its silence on issues of race and social justice. Another common criticism is that the church is inauthentic. For them church is less real than the fellowship they experience at dinners with their secular friends who seem more compassionate and honest than their small group.
For many of these people, this was a lived experience. They grew up in very strict Evangelical circles that preached a small version of Christianity that had little time for what the bible had to say about the poor and the marginalized. I get it. NPR (it seems) cares more about the refugees than the church.
But here is the problem, when folks speak about what “The Church” needs to do better, they often have in mind what the “white non-denominational evangelical church” needs to do better. I’m sorry, but that is not the whole church. Therefore, it is inappropriate to castigate all of Christianity and offer prescriptions for its renewal based upon one’s experience of a tiny sliver of it. If you have no idea what is happening in Black, Latino, Asian, or multi-ethnic churches, then you have no right to offer a criticism on the universal church and how to fix it. If you have no idea what is going on among the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Catholics, or Orthodox, you have no right to criticize “The Church” and offer prescriptions for its renewal. If you have no idea about what is going on in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, then sit down. Be humble.
We need to be humble because the very thing we want to criticize may be happening in other segments of the body of Christ. I have always found it odd that Christians who lament the lack of diversity or concern for justice in their evangelical churches often decide to stop attending church instead of taking themselves to black churches that are often right down the street. It is almost as if Black, Latino, or Asian Christianity doesn’t count. People somehow see the failures of their individual evangelical churches as the failure of Christianity full stop.
Now it may seem that calling white evangelicalism the church is a small matter of language, but it is not. Centering the experiences of Christians from one strand of the church is imperialistic. It is a denial of the universal saving power of the gospel that has already gathered to itself people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. The church, even in America, is a multicolored thing. “The Church” is concerned with social justice even if your church is not. “The Church” is multi-ethnic even if your church is not. Therefore, our discussion of “The Church” must consider the varied experiences that go on within it. The reasons that African Americans leave the church are not the same reasons that White Americans leave it. In fact, they are not even leaving at the same rate.
The church is always in need of renewal because we have yet to fully conform ourselves to the image of the God who saved us in the person of his Son. So yes, the church can and should be criticized. It must be. However, that criticism must be made with perspective and rooted in the same love for the church that Christ showed when he died for her. The church is not our play thing to be conformed to the portions of the bible we like best or that match up to our culture’s values. It must be faithful to the whole testimony. It must be made like Christ, which it will be in the fullness of time.