2042 is the year many project the United States not to be an all-white majority. While I am unsure of the demographic makeup of the PCA, I have been to enough Presbytery meetings, General Assembly and numerous PCA churches across the country to know that we are out of sync with America’s 2010 demography. I understand there are numerous historical and cultural reasons for this, but when I think of 2042 I wonder what we can do from this point forward.
The PCA’s strongest point is our commitment to Scripture. In a conversation I recently had with a campus minister, he related to me his joy that so many college students are gravitating toward Presbyterianism because “you guys teach the Bible and are solid.” That is the highest compliment anyone could pay to a pastor. Seriously. But then there is the 2042 question, the millennial generation question, and the numerous accompanying issues.
In fact, a recent Pew report shows that the racial makeup of the United States is shifting rapidly. For those who are 29 years old and younger, 61% are white, 14% black, 19% Hispanic and 5% Asian. For those 30 years and older, we are 70% white, 11% black, 13% Hispanic and 5% Asian. Pew also notes that those who are 29 years and younger do not understand mutliculturalism in the way that we who are older than 30 do. In fact, they are more like chameleons in terms of cross-cultural life. Yet, if we are honest, we Reformed types loathe change. We’re comfortable, even though, to quote Bob Dylan, “times they are a-changin’.” […]
One thing I heard Alan Hirsch say at a church planting conference was that American Christianity is losing America because it is extractional. We don’t speak the language of the people around us. We don’t give non-Christians and “deChurched” folks a reason to listen to us because we speak at them, rather than speak to them.
I realize Hirsch was not addressing the issue of ethnic demography and how it applies to the PCA, but in a sense, the general principals do apply. Growing up, the Baptist church I attended in Oklahoma City saw its neighborhood change from 90% white to majority Hispanic in a few short years (late 1980s-mid 1990s), yet the congregation did not (and still does not) reflect the community which surrounds it. Years ago, when African-Americans migrated North, the urban landscape changed in much of America from white to black. Yet in both Oklahoma City and cities like Detroit, we are hard-pressed to find a PCA church, let alone a broadly Reformed one, which is made up of non-white people groups.
If God’s mission is for the nations (Psalm 96), how do we take the timeless truth of Scripture to them? What do we do as a denomination to make inroads in Hispanic communities? How do we reach African-American communities? What can the PCA learn from Pentecostal and Charismatic groups, which are thriving in the Global South? What can the PCA learn from the book of Acts, which demonstrates time and time again (Acts 2, 5, 8, 10, 15, 17, 28) that the Gospel cuts across racial, demographic and cultural lines?
I think Francis Schaeffer said it best when he said, “Each generation of the church in each setting has the responsibility of communicating the gospel in understandable terms, considering the language and thought-forms of that setting.” But what does that mean for the PCA? Does it mean compromising doctrinal fidelity for the purpose of reaching the culture? I have heard that argument made and believe it to be a false distinction. I have a few ideas which could help.
1. Many of us need to get over ourselves. What I mean by that is that we reformed types love theology and doctrine, which is good. We need to be willing to fight to maintain fidelity to our basic standards. But the issue is when we, as a group, make the presentation of our doctrine incommunicable to others.
Right now, I serve in one of the most Baptist states in the nation, Oklahoma, and when “typical” Oklahoma Christian hears the words “Calvinism,” “infant baptism,” or “predestination” hosts of images appear in their minds which do not match reality. So the issue for me is how I communicate the Reformed faith to them. I have to speak to folks in terms they understand without Reformed jargon. It sometimes seems like a big deal when we ordain an African-American or Hispanic man into the PCA ministry. That is sad and it communicates to me that we are so full of ourselves that we do not believe that minorities can grasp our teachings.
2. We have to realize that all actions are contextual. By contextual, I do not mean compromising truth for the sake of accommodating culture, that is a lesser form of syncretism. By contextual, I mean that we operate in a context in which actions speak to certain realities, beliefs or opinions within a cultural framework. When I choose a hymn for worship, I am making a contextual decision. When I choose an illustration for my sermon, it is a contextual decision. When I choose the clothes I wear, it is a contextual decision. For the changing American dynamic, we have to ask ourselves this: in what context are we communicating truth? One from the past, or one from the present? Are we reflecting a denomination that is in a majority Western-Anglo context or one which actually fits our nation?
3. We need to attract people who “aren’t like us.” Our African-American, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic brothers and sisters should not be exceptions in our churches. Part of what we need to think about is how our worship reflects those cultures, if at all. The other part, which is the elephant in the room, is we need to consider how our non-essential commitments affects cross-racial relations. In some instances, affinity for men like Dabney or Thornwell can be a stumbling block and perhaps that needs to be tempered, though they made solid contributions to American Presbyterianism. In others, it can be the rigidity of our worship standards as they reflect a Western-Anglo context and appear inflexible to other cultures within the US. For others, it can be the fact that our conferences, seminaries and colleges just simply do not reflect America. They reflect a white America that does not seem interested in expanding its borders beyond a few token speakers and scholars. (“Blacks Still Not Wanted at Many Christian Colleges,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 17, (Autumn, 1997), 79-82.)
4. We need to reconsider how we minister in non-white contexts. By saying that I set myself up for much critique. But consider this, when most evangelical ministries “do” urban mission trips, or cross-racial ministry, it comes across as paternalism. Whitey comes to the ghetto to help out those who can’t help themselves. I understand that this more caricature than the actual thought process, but actions communicate. Ideas like racial reconciliation, ghetto ministry, etc, all sound great, but they can create a sense in which the initiator of the action is somehow in a position of higher cultural authority and is “stooping” to help the disaffected ones. In our good intentions, we can almost create a paternalistic relationship instead of one of equality, based upon the biblical teaching of imago dei.
5. We need to realize that sociological concerns ARE theological issues. Issues of social concern boil down to the fallenness of humanity for sure, but how we Reformed folk address those issues has to be done in applicable ways. Every single human on this planet is a sinner. Every area of our nation from rural to suburban to urban America is full of sin. We have to present the Gospel in each of those contexts in ways which apply to them. One example is this: an emphasis on Scripture’s teaching of God’s promise to renew creation will look differently in Edmond, Oklahoma (an almost affluent suburb) than it will in Southside Oklahoma City (a predominately Hispanic area with poverty and violence). We have to exegete our audience and apply the timeless truths of Scripture to it. It is not enough to stand back and say, “well, we preach the Gospel, it is not our fault that we don’t look like the community around us.” If we don’t look like our community, we are not doing something right. These are not new problems. They’ve been around since the Fall of humanity.
Lemuel Haynes, the so-called black Puritan, presented a vision of America. In this vision, he did not see a place where we even needed to have this conversation. In fact, he envisioned an America “where blacks and whites could live together equally and affectionately.” (John Saillant, “Lemuel Haynes and the Revolutionary Origins of Black Theology, 1776-1801,” Religion and American Culture, 2.1, (Winter, 1992), 89-90.) Haynes is just one example, but if you asked him what he thought about his theological heirs, he would probably be disturbed that Reformed America has changed very little in terms of equality and affection since the day he made that statement. Sure, slavery is gone. Everyone has the right to hold property and vote, but our churches don’t reflect that vision for which he longed so long ago.
If we in the PCA truly believe our beliefs to be biblical, then how do we communicate them to others who aren’t in the PCA majority? Basically, what do we need to improve upon as a denomination to effectively minister to a cross-cultural America? 2042 is coming sooner than we think. Are we going to be satisfied with an 80% Anglo denomination in a 49% Anglo America?