An annual progressive Christian “C21″ gathering of 21 provocative speakers endeavored to answer one big question over the weekend: what must we do to ensure Christianity’s vibrant, lasting future?
Peppered into each speaker’s 21 minute answer, existed one common thread. The future of Christianity depends on reaching out to those marginalized by their sexuality, gender, race, class, and culture. Unfortunately, the striking absence of the so-called marginalized as well as the future generation tasked with fostering Christianity’s success was nowhere to be found at C21.
Guest speaker Noel Castellanos, the CEO of the Christian Community Development Association, offered an explanation for why Christianity’s success will always rest with those he has deemed marginalized. “Here’s the thing about Christianity in the 21st century,” he said. “At the heart of God’s revelation to us on this planet is that the margins are the center of His ultimate concern and love.”
“If the margins are the center of God’s concern, how come they are not the center of the church’s concern more often? How come the margins are where we get to once we get big enough” Castellanos asked. Or in other words, the church should not place serving and witnessing to the poor as an end goal once it attains success, but must use these objectives as the means by which to prosper the church. “We try and made Christianity so respectable. But it’s despicable,” he explained because our faith began on the margins with a pregnant unwed teenage girl.
Bruce Reyes-Chow, Presbyterian minister and founding pastor of Mission Bay Community Church, explained that Christians must be “allies” to the oppressed. In order to do this, the prosperous must not “fetishize oppression.” He clarified, “In our yearning to be compassionate, we try to place ourselves in the others’ shoes. That is not a bad thing. But often we cross this line where we begin to think we know what it means to be X.” Simply put, don’t fall into the trap of Saviorhood.
Above all, according to Reyes-Chow, to be a true ally to the marginalized means to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, while at the same time, make room for those marginalized voices.”
The idea of “Making room at the table” that Reyes-Chow purported was a consistent theme that extended not only to other Christians, but religions as well. C21 organizers emphasized this importance by inviting Ani Zonneveld, female Imam and founder of Muslims for Progressive Values, to offer her take on the future of religion.
The “Emergent Muslim” proclaimed that the marginalized should be at the center of not only Christianity, but any religion that hopes to thrive in American in the coming years. Moving away from the traditional platitudes of Islam, Zonneveld’s paradigm shift included a new list of moral values and political concerns that Islam must now focus. Her list included:
- Freedom of speech
- Universal Human Rights
- Women’s Rights
- LGBT Rights
- Critical analysis and interpretation
Finally, focus away from Western Christianity towards the global church would lend to Christianity’s future viability, asserted Enuma Okoro, author of Reluctant Pilgrim. “America has to acknowledge and grapple with the ways in which its unique form of Christianity must be a tad more wrapped up in culture than in faith.”
“It also includes taking a really difficult and painful look at the ways in which historically things like racial categorization was so deeply woven into the formation of the American Church that we are still suffering in ways that no one wants to really admit to.”
In order to bring the America church into the Global Chruch, Okoro suggests Americans welcome having the tables turned when it comes to missions.
First, Okoro recommends starting by simply being curious about how the rest of the world and other Christians think and practice in their respective cultures. “Latino, Korean churches that are thriving need to be examined.”
Second, Americans need to call an end to what she called “cultural missions,” which sees America mission trips as cultural colonization abroad. Instead, Okoro suggests more expansive ways of practicing our faith such as local American churches hosting a foreign pastor and his/her family to act as the senior pastor for several years.
A final recommendation from Okoro recommended that a collective of churches raising funds to host a Christian conference featuring clergy from around the world to speak to how they perceive the American church.
Understanding the means by which C21’s speakers believe the future church will be achieved was clearly outlined and easily digestible for an audience of Progressive Christians. The problem, however, was that missing from the crowd was the very generation responsible for fostering in the future Church.
Glancing around the sanctuary, white middle-aged faces dominated the crowd. Sprinkled amongst the room were a few 30-somethings. As Bruce Reyes-Chow pointed out, it was largely prosperous middle to upper-class white middle-aged attendees, compounded with a significant homosexual presence that comprised the audience.
When I asked Reyes-Chow if he noticed the absence of 20-somethings, he agreed it was apparent loss of participation. But he offered that it’s possible church leaders did not feel this was the conference to promote to their youth.
Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, the dynamic “Sarcastic Lutheran” and author was less concerned when I asked her about the apparent lack of 20-somethings, offering only “I don’t know. That’s not my area.”