I have a lot of books.
If you were to peruse through them you’d notice a few things. Many, if not most, of them are theological in nature. Having an undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies and a Masters in Theological Studies has allowed for this. You’d probably also a notice some themes are more dominant than others. I have tried to attain and read a smattering of cultural books in an effort to have not only a robust theological mind, but also boots-on-the-ground theological feet. I want to cultivate a Jesus-centered imagination to live out of and my books help me greatly in this. So, I want to be aware of what it is I am purchasing and reading as they inform my head, my heart, and my hands; my interior life and my external practices. For me, this means chewing through a gamut of diverse reading.
You might also notice another dominant pattern amongst my books. Nearly all of them are written my white authors. Not only white people, but, at the very least, middle class, educated ones. When I first began to notice this, it was rather eye-opening.
Why is this so?
Have I intentionally done this?
What does this say about my imagination and life practices?
Perhaps it is due to being a middle class, educated, white, person myself. This is the world I was born into, grew up in, and in many ways, the table I still sit at. It has been the air I have breathed as a product of the Western, post-Enlightenment Protestant tradition. Within this tradition power – ecclesial, civil, cultural, etc. – has been fought for and amassed. Whether explicitly or implicitly, America (and the West in general) has been dominated by a diverse yet hegemonic wave of white, middle to upper class, educated people.
Perhaps it is a publishing issue. Have our publishing houses set the agenda for what we’re reading? Has capitalism influenced what does and doesn’t get put out in public? Is the financial risk in accepting and publishing lesser known voices or voices from (seemingly) powerless places too great? Has money trumped the equivocation of differing voices?
I know there are several factors that go into this.
The Shift Into Post-Christendom
The last several decades have seen a furtherance into, what is now called, post-Christendom. The days where the Church held a central position in society are fleeting, if not gone completely. In my experience, this reality has been given a blind eye and a scoffing laugh by many in the Church. Yet, once you step foot outside of the safety of the encapsulated Christian bubble, this reality smacks you across the face.
In Christendom, Christianity and culture overlapped in many ways and allowed for some interesting postures and practices. For instance, Christendom postured certain tribes within the Church to see their role as conquerors of society. The posture was one of towering over those outside of the Church and thus made for some particular practices. Instead of primarily being question-askers, we were/are “truth”-tellers. Rather than being community-infusers, we were/are builders of exclusive cul-de-sacs. Our tendency was/is to determine legislature over loving our neighbor. In short, we had/have taken a position of power over others and thus gave ourselves the permission to wield this to our own ends. (Note: just because we’ve entered into post-Christendom, the residue of Christendom still lingers, hence the past/present verb tenses.)
And now eyes that were once blind and the laughs that once scoffed have been filled with tears and mourns of woe as the power wanes and we are pushed to the margins of society.
If you ask me, I think it is a good, Spirit-led thing.
The Move to Listening
If there was ever a time when the Church – and, again, the white, educated tribes – needs to develop postures and practices of weakness, it is now. Our marginalized existence is one of liminality, fear, and uncertainty. It is odd to me to see how in the midst of this existence many have sought to blaze their own trails into unknown territory. The cultural earthquakes have begun to loosen the choke hold many of us have on influence and celebrity. Yet we fool ourselves into thinking the same postures and practices that got us here, will somehow move us forward. Our self-inflicted ecclesial isolation continues to be pervasive.
Marginal life within post-Christendom has some particular manifestations. Here are some key ones where I (and by extension, we) need to listen to our non-majority brothers and sister:
As the pool of Christians continues to dry up, so does the financial wherewithal for full-time leadership. Churches – again, that are predominantly, white/majority – that once were able to pay one or more full-time clergy/staff are now finding themselves incapable of continuing to do so. In my role within Northeastern Seminary, I have had multiple, multiple conversations where pastors are facing the dilemma of keeping the bank accounts at a level where they can receive full time pay. The problem comes to a head when they realize they don’t have either the academic degree or the necessary skills for any other work outside of a church.
Conversely, I don’t know how many conversations I have had with non-majority ecclesial leaders for whom bi-vocational life has been just that: life. They haven’t had the resources, financial allotments, or open doors. Full-time pay has only come at the taking on of a second or third job, while full-time leadership might still be needed. I have spoken with prison chaplains, construction workers, grocery store sushi-makers, public school counselors, and a host of others who double as church leaders. Over and over again I have heard the following from their lips: “This is life. This has been life for our people for quite some time.” We must attune our ears to listen to them as they are our teachers.
Meeting in Homes
A corollary to this lack of funds is the lack of buildings. Mortgages, upkeep, renovations: all take money and resources and when they aren’t available, they can’t be done. So, meeting in houses is a necessity. Having met in houses for 3+ years, believe me, it isn’t easy. It is messy, complicated, chaotic, and noisy.
Many times, the temptation is to revert to finding a building regardless of financial sustainability. Traditional Christendom thought urges us to find a building quickly in an effort to legitimize the church. However, I have seen that the finding of a building can consume the energy and imagination of the community resulting in a detriment to the cultivating of the actual community. We have lost sight of the true nature of the church as the people of God, not the building of God.
From my experience, the non-majority Jesus-communities I have come across have held tightly to the realities of church as family. What can learn from their experience of meeting in noisy, chaotic, inconvenient homes? We must attune our ears to listen to them as they are our teachers.
Unity in Diversity
One of the most inspiring things I have come across is predominantly, but not solely, found in the immigrant church. Here in Syracuse we have a large community of Burmese refugees. Like many countries, Burma is comprised of many differing cultures and tribes. Some live peacefully with each other; many have historic rifts between them, many plagued by violence.
I was humbled when I recently met with a few local pastors, one of them a pastor of one of the local Burmese churches. One of the vital aspects of his church is their unity in diversity. They are a community of Jesus-followers where their identity in Jesus has trumped their warring tribal ones. My friend – who is a white pastor – said this Burmese church is a witness to its fellow refugee churches because of its unity. Yes, but beyond that they are a witness to THE CHURCH. In a world where we shame, reject, and demonize other Jesus-followers for their worship styles, preferred Bible translations, and church signage, the immigrant church is a beacon of communal light in a world on dark divisiveness. We must attune our ears to listen to them as they are our teachers.
The world is ever-changing. Many are pointing out the effects of this transition period and how we might move into the future. For the church in the West, it is high time we grapple with the fact that the “average” Christian is an African woman. As we wrestle with this fluctuation, I plead with you (and myself) to begin to cultivate postures and practices of weakness for the sake of the kingdom and the mission of God.
Take time to listen.
Take time to know.
When we don’t listen, we assume, and in doing so, expose our propensity to use power over others.