Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Great Diversity of Our Country and Our Community of Faith

2)  What characteristics will draw the great diversity (racial ethnic, age, gender, etc.) of our country into our community of faith in the 21st century?

Answer:  Jesus.  Why?

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is in the peculiar position inhabited by so many generally progressive but majority Anglo institutions.  We think/write/meet about diversity on an almost pathological basis, wringing our hands about just how flagrantly Anglo Saxon we are in appearance every Sunday.  We commission studies, and create materials, and talk about welcoming the other.  Our pastors wear kente cloth stoles, and occasionally attempt to rap their sermons. "yoyoYO! Jeeeeezus iz in da Hooooows!"  

This rarely goes well.

Our choirs clap arrhythmically and sway awkwardly back and forth against each other as they try to sing gospel.  On World Communion Sunday, we read a few snippets of a lectionary text in mangled pseudo-Chippewa.  We really do try, in a good hearted earnest way.

And yet, institutionally, we're still only margin-of-error more diverse than the Aryan Brotherhood.   

The analogy is painfully close, even more so if the Aryan Brotherhood was entirely comprised of  skinhead septuagenarians, 'cause our efforts to be generationally diverse haven't exactly been radiantly successful, either.  We want to reach out to the young people.  We love the young people.  But they don't show up at our services or come back after college, no matter how earnestly we strum our guitars and talk about the internet.  

Why?  Why are we so bad at diversity?

I think, honestly, that we're over-thinking it.  That's what Presbyterians are best at, after all.

Wait.  Can you think about over thinking?  Doesn't that make it even worse, sort of a meta-analysis paralysis?  Hmmm.  Perhaps we should form a task force to explore it.

If we're to be diverse, then we need to do several things, all of which paradoxically revolve around not obsessing about diversity.

First, churches that are ethnically diverse see Jesus as radically shattering the boundaries of ethnicity.  One of the enduringly frustrating things about the Presbyterian fellowship is our maddening insistence on calling non-Anglo churches "Racial Ethnic" ministries.   They are not.  They are churches, full of disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.   An African American church or a Korean church or a Salvadoran church or a Ghanaian church is no more "racial ethnic" than an entirely Scots-Irish Honkey-American congregation.  

We. Need. To. Stop. Doing. This.

If you want to welcome someone, you seek that thing you have in common.  And what we have in common, if we're in a church, is that we're personally interested in the message of Jesus, and are endeavoring to live our lives in such a way that they reflect his teachings.  That "endeavoring" can take a range of different forms, based on macro- and micro-cultural dynamics, but the essence is the same.  We are following Jesus.   Congregations and denominations that successfully engage diverse perspectives embrace this, and will thrive in the richly pluralistic social ecology of 21st century America.  

Second, our theology should be diverse, multilingual, and rooted in a range of cultural experiences.  As we talk about our relationship with God, we need to be able to bring our full selves into that relation.  

However, if our understanding of our Maker doesn't point us to that paraclete place of spiritual commonality with the Other, then it is an active impediment to diversity.  This is a challenge for Presbyterians, because theologies of particularity are now deeply embedded in the theological academe of the old-line.  By theologies of particularity, I mean that strain of scholastic god-thinking that defines the conversation in neatly compartmentalized segments of gender, sexual orientation, culture, and linguistic structure.  They lead only to fragmentation and irrelevance.

The Tower of Babel was made of ivory, after all.  

Congregations and fellowships that can set aside theologies of particularity and find their way to theologies of inclusion will thrive and grow.  Focusing on Jesus and following the Way?  Guess what?  It does that real good.

Third, our communities need to reconsider the generational dynamics we've unquestioningly folded into the way we "do church."  Ours is the structure of the marketplace, as we neatly chop our fellowships up into age-delimited programming.  Growing up in the church, the faith life and struggles that exist amongst the adults exist outside of the range of our children's vision, across a firewall of youth programming.

That's fine when children are children.  But when children heave themselves through the fires of adolescence towards the adult they are to be, our continued insistence on separating them from adults mirrors not the Gospel, but the way of the world.  The best way to learn how to be a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth is to learn from the struggles and joys of those who are further down that path.  And by that, I don't mean "spiritual superior."  I mean they've lived longer and wrestled longer with their faith.  There is more weight and heft and wisdom in such a life, and when we don't allow our younger folk to be organically connected to the older church, we rob them of it.

Yeah, it ain't how the world works these days.  But since when were we to be entirely of the world?

If we're to be focused on Christ's teachings, then it needs to be clear that we expect the same focus in our younglings.  "Church" is not tae kwon do or SAT camp or soccer or karate.  It's not something you're made to go to as a way to assuage your parents' subconscious consumerist social anxiety.  It's a place that defines your being.  We need to be a tiny bit more intentional about making sure our kids know that.

Does that mean Jesus Camp Christianity?  No, it does not.  A focus on the grace and mercy and justice of the Nazarene, coupled with a willingness to accept struggles and doubts and human failing, well, that's a far cry more robust than glazed eye Jesusbot programming.  

But if we want our kids to stay, to spend their lives as part of our faith communities, and to be...well...Christian...then we need to be more front and center about prioritizing Jesus to 'em.