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I often tend toward a compartmentalized or over-intellectualized faith. But every so often something hits me on a deeper level and suddenly I feel and understand God’s love, my own and our own human brokenness, and the beautiful reality of redemption more than before. Today, songwriter Isaac Wardell’s leading this song in an afternoon vesper service at the Worship Symposium was one of those times.
My paraphrase of his introduction:
In many Christian circles there’s a high value for that “world-changing” career. But not everyone has the means, opportunity, or mobility to pursue that kind of profession. And those who do often burn out because the focus is so much on impact, glamor, prestige and… saving the world. And we ourselves don’t have ability or power to change the world. Pursuing that goal can also be problematic or paternalistic or become exhausting or unsustainable.
Children’s literature and education use the concepts of “windows and mirrors”: we need to peer into the worlds of others and we also need to see ourselves in stories (Bishop, 1990). An example would be a picturebook with illustrations of young children looking out toward Jesus. Children of various backgrounds seeing pictures of people who look like them can see themselves as part of the story.
Wardell wrote this song to be singable and also a cry, reminder, and prayer on working for God’s kingdom. It’s meant to serve as “windows and mirrors” toward a truly holistic theology of vocation; To remind us that there is honor and beauty in how each vocation shows us all of God’s love and works toward it. For those working, to help see that you are indeed part of God’s story and work even in the difficult or everyday. For all of us, to see others working and to notice how that work is part of God’s image and story. And for all of us to cry out together for God’s kingdom to come; for our God to be near to us and have mercy.
In an interdisciplinary class I recently submitted a paper: “A Christian Response to Christian Privilege.” I’ve decided to post some of my key points in a blog post as a resource for Christian students and university parachurch leaders.
Critical theory and intersectionalism — which includes feminism, critical race theory, post-colonialism, and queer theory — is increasingly mainstream at most universities. “Microaggression,” “appropriation,” and “check your privilege” have become common parlance on campuses, social media, and click-generator websites like Huffington Post, Mic, Salon, Buzzfeed, and Upworthy. It’s no longer optional for thoughtful Christians to engage with these ideas. Overall, I believe they have helpful things to say, need to be taken seriously by Christians, and can even help articulate the brokenness of the world around us and point humanity toward our need for the Gospel. At the same time, it’s important for Christians to understand their limitations and ways we can’t agree with some presuppositions or end goals. Those, however, are for another blog post or paper.
Thoughtful evangelical Christians have critically engaged with feminism, post–colonialism, critical race theory, and to a lesser extent queer theory. Deconstruction of Christian privilege and hegemony is a bit newer. However, it has already appeared in several significant academic journals, in a few books and essay collections and one widely shared click-bait blog post. Christian privilege is also a standard topic covered in textbooks on privilege used in introductory college classes in ethnic and gender studies and diversity in educational theory. Such courses are frequently required for graduation from many universities. I could not find any books, journal, or magazine articles from an evangelical Christian perspective addressing Christian privilege; the closest thing I could find was a fairly brief blog post by sociologist (and InterVarsity Press author) George Yancey where he interacts only with a click-bait post. Yancey makes some good observations but I believe he misses the point that more thoughtful critics of Christian privilege are trying to make with regard to culture. He mistakenly interprets these critiques as applying only to conservative Christianity.
I believe evangelical Christians need to interact with the broader idea of Christian privilege; as critical theory becomes increasingly influential, I have seen Christians experience paralysis or guilt in their faith because of its associations with privilege and oppression. After interacting with writing on Christian privilege by sociologist Lori Beaman and education scholar Warren Blumenfeld, I’ve concluded:
Christian privilege exists in Western society. However, it applies primarily to cultural Christianity and is highly “intersectional” with white, Western, male privilege. Additionally, Christian privilege confers significantly fewer advantages than, say, socio-economic status, race, nationality, and gender. Nominal Christians — people who identify as Christian but are not necessarily personally committed or regularly attending church — constitute the single largest religious group in North America.1 Cultural Christian privilege exists. Some examples:
- Cultural Christians in the West — whether devout or nominal — can expect to celebrate their major holidays without conflicting with work and school and without being seen as strange or exotic.
- Nearly every head-of-state in Western countries has identified as Christian to some extent.
- In Western countries, no Christian would ever fear being deported or banned from a country on the basis of their religious affiliation alone. Cultural Christianity has been a factor in the oppression of indigenous peoples. Christian privilege makes Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews and followers of other religions less welcome and sometimes harmed or threatened in Western societies. Hate crimes are rarely if ever committed against Christians in the West based on their religious identity; unfortunately that is not true of other faiths, though race has often also been a factor.
Christian privilege, thus, this is deeply interconnected with white, Western privilege and scarcely functions as a means of oppression without them. Both Richard Dawkins and Donald Trump have arguably higher or similar levels of “Christian privilege” as me, an Asian American in full-time evangelical ministry. Dawkins is a prominent atheist who nonetheless concedes he is “culturally Christian,” and Trump is a thrice-married businessman who vaguely identifies as Presbyterian while publicly professing heresy. Committed, evangelical Christianity still provides some advantages such as social capital, access to institutions and organizations, and cultural influence.2 While cultural influence has been declining, it’s also arguable it was never that great or was somewhat disproportional and exaggerated in the first place. In any case, these are hardly on the level of systemic privilege that can be directly used for oppression or structural socio-economic advantage aside from the occasional Prosperity preacher. 3
Here is how I believe we as Christians should respond to the idea of Christian privilege:
- Christians in the West — whether nominal, devout, or anywhere in between — must acknowledge our Christian privilege in a non-defensive, non-dismissive manner. However, we must clarify that it primarily applies to cultural Christianity and its high level of intersection with other forms of privilege, especially white, Western privilege.
- Evangelical Christianity must continue embracing and celebrating its globalization and racial diversity. We must actively empower our non-Western and non-white voices that actually constitute our global majority.4
- Christians in Western societies must avoid crying “persecution!” even as some forms of influence appear to diminish. Evangelical, churchgoing Christians were never a majority in the United States and Canada even though to our detriment we have at times acted like one. Such cries also demean Christians outside of the West who face actual persecution, with whom we must stand in solidarity.
- Evangelical Christians in the West must acknowledge Christian privilege but cannot be ashamed or paralyzed by it. Rather, we must use our voice, influence, and institutions to advocate for the oppressed. We must actively show hospitality as allies to those of minority religious groups in the West and persecuted minority religious groups worldwide.
- With devout Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Mormons, and practitioners of Judaism and other faiths, evangelical Christians can together seek to protect each others’ space for religious expression in a pluralistic society. Finding beauty, goodness, and common cause with other religions does not necessarily mean compromising unique convictions or faith tenets. While we should never be shy to share about our faith with anyone, especially when asked, evangelical Christians in the West can especially focus evangelistic efforts toward the secular, nominal, and religiously unaffiliated.
- Evangelical Christians should also remember, celebrate, and continue Christianity’s leading role in movements like women’s suffrage, the Progressive Era, the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, the Civil Rights movement, healing from apartheid in South Africa and the very idea that all humans are of inherently equal worth and should be treated as such.
Some of the most beautiful, rewarding partnership I’ve experienced in ministry was through local churches that genuinely rejoiced in how God was at work in the parachurch group I advised and sought to bless, complement, and strengthen what God was already doing. I hope these churches were equally blessed by that partnership; I desire many more partnerships like them. Here are some suggested do’s and don’ts for students, parachurch groups, and local churches:
- Do choose your commitments to a parachurch group and/or local church based on where you will grow the most spiritually and serve most in God’s mission.Spiritual growth may require some stylistic, cultural, and social “fit,” but more importantly involves being stretched, challenged, taught, and nurtured. “Serving in mission” involves more than just helping out: it’s how you can contribute to God’s mission and ways he is already at work in different ways. This may be big or small; simple or complex. I’m sometimes asked if this means, “so, like, ushering?” Well, yes and no. It may be something as simple as greeting people or clicking powerpoint slides, but more importantly do you see how God is at work and do you feel you are taking part in it?
- Do consider stylistic, cultural, demographic, and theological complementarity in terms of the parachurch group and local church you choose to commit to.
Do the different ministry groups you are a part of help you grow spiritually or be used for God’s kingdom in different yet complementary ways? Are you challenged to pursue your own personal ethnic and cultural identity while also learning to cross cultures? Are you in spiritual community with people who share your life-stage, age, ethnicity, and socio-economic background and those who don’t? While it may be unhealthy to try to “have it all,” it’s very helpful to consider these forms of complementarity when choosing your spiritual community or communities.
- For those already committed to a parachurch group, do seek to be involved in a local church and to be nurtured and involved in ways you cannot be in your parachurch group. These include…
- sacramental participation (e.g., Lord’s Supper and baptism.) – Some of my favorite moments in parachurch ministry were baptisms and confirmations (or professions of faith) for those who had come to faith in college. It was so amazing for their local church and our parachurch group to come together in celebrating these faith milestones.
- inter-generational community – seek spiritual relationships with those older and younger and in different life stages. Look for older role models with faith characteristics you admire or perhaps vocational interests you share.
- At the same time, don’t succumb to the commitment aversion of the culture around us.If you consider yourself a follower of Jesus, you should thoughtfully choose a church to commit to and consider membership. For more info check out my paper on how to choose a church. If you haven’t been baptized or professed your faith (confirmation) in a meaningful way as an adult you should consider that, too. If you don’t consider yourself a follower of Jesus, please continue exploring but consider trying out a few churches to get more of a feel for what Christianity looks like, too!
- However, don’t ever base your commitments to church on obligation, legalism, or a “bare minimum” mentality; you’re setting yourself up for unhealthy faith patterns.
Don’t view “going to church” as a way to appease God or other authority figures or to merely follow rules or make yourself more righteous before God or others. Make your commitments based on joyful, gospel-driven participation in God’s Kingdom.
- Do take initiative with inter-generational relationships.
Even someone is much older than you or a too-cool-for-school teenager is probably shy about approaching you, too. Initiate conversations and hangouts with older, wiser folks you’d like to learn from just to hear their stories, or with specific questions or things you’d like help processing in mind. It may be a bit awkward to jump straight to asking for mentorship but start with meeting once or twice and perhaps work more toward regular mentorship if that’s something you would like. Also approach parents with offers to babysit, dog-sit, house-sit, or hang out with their teens in a way that could lead to a mentor-type relationship.
- Do learn to identify, celebrate, and share about the distinctives, strengths, and weaknesses of different ministries and churches as well as your own. We should do this positively in a way that doesn’t put down other Gospel-based ministries or churches.If you’re checking out different churches or ministries, do learn to identify these. Choose spiritual mentors who know how to do this. Choose churches and/or other ministries whose leaders know how to do this, too.
- Do encourage students who are followers of Jesus to thoughtfully and prayerfully commit to a local church.Also encourage those exploring Christianity to visit churches with friends. Exposure and participation is an important component of faith exploration.
- Do try to help committed students find time-appropriate ways to get involved and contribute to local church programs.Some examples include helping with Sunday school, youth group, worship, outreach and justice programs, and so forth.
- Do be creative about encouraging local church participation and partnership.For example, encourage specific weeks that students not yet committed to a local church can visit churches together in groups and maybe let some folks at that church know about it beforehand so that they can be greeted, welcomed, and so forth.
- Do approach local churches and ask how you can serve and bless them and how students can become better involved.
- Do invite speakers and panelists from local churches that students may consider attending and emphasize their church affiliation.
- Do see fundraising as an opportunity for partnership.The best examples I’ve seen of this has been conference scholarships. I often approached local churches for conference and short-term missions scholarships but also sought ways these could be a blessing to the congregation and the student alike. Follow up meetings with church members or leaders and possible testimonies by the students were fantastic ways to help the church develop ownership in these students’ growth.
- Do encourage students to get baptized or confirmed in their local churches and celebrate accordingly.Do encourage membership if appropriate.
Don’t administer sacraments regardless of your theological view on them.Why not use sacraments as a beautiful opportunity to partner with local churches and encourage student involvement?
- Don’t be territorial or competitive.If someone will be better served by being committed only to a local church or another parachurch group, bless and affirm that and the ways they will be growing. Be able to identify ways other churches and parachurch groups may bless students that your group cannot.
- Do be honest about territorial and competitive concerns.Of course we all have territorial and competitive concerns for our own ministry, want credit for things, and want particularly gifted or likable people “on our team.” The only way to move beyond territorialism and competition is to be open, honest, vulnerable, and repentant about such concerns. We must pray our territorial concerns and ambitions are in line with God’s desires but prayerfully prepare for the possibility they are not. People can also sense it when we are territorial or competitive but pretend not to be.
- Do seek to share resources with local churches and bless them.Parachurch ministries often have great training resources on Bible study, discipleship, and evangelism, as well as access to books, teaching material, conferences, and much more. Also, local churches with strong partnerships with parachurch groups can also benefit from involvement by students and recent graduates: encourage it!
- Do encourage students to consider membership and to participate sacramentally in the life of the church.
- Do seek to provide students with what they cannot receive from parachurch groups.These especially may include inter-generational mentorship and gatherings, vocational exploration, serving opportunities, sacraments and membership, and some combined programs or outreach, cultural, and service events outside of the campus.
- Do genuinely ask how you can serve parachurch groups, share resources, and get creative.Free (or inexpensive) event space use and conference or missions scholarships are great ways to bless parachurch students. Follow up meetings with church leaders and even testimonies during service by students who participate in such events, missions trips, or conferences are a great way to help the congregation develop awareness and ownership in what God is doing in these students and through these parachurch groups.
- Don’t use a “blind date” model for inter-generational relationships with students.Some churches try to set up inter-generational relationships with students, which is great. However, randomized or survey-based pairings have a very low rate of success. Such relationships need to happen organically through repeated, low-pressure interactions that allows for a degree of self-selection or intentionality by someone who knows of some common interests between both parties.
- Don’t teach the myth that “parachurch ministries only exist because the church wasn’t doing its job.”
- Do exercise great caution and nuance when saying, “too many students replace their church with their parachurch college group.“
- Don’t be territorial.As above, we need to celebrate and affirm God’s work regardless of whether it takes place within our ministries and ministry models. People can sense it from miles away when we cannot or when we possessively want them in our ministry instead of another. It is unedifying and poor Christian witness. An important marker of Christian maturity is the ability to direct someone to another ministry because you see strengths or characteristics in that ministry that could help that particular person thrive. God’s work will be accomplished with or without any particular ministry or ministry model and we need to serve with that mentality. One form of unhelpful territorialism I’ve experienced is criticism of occasional parachurch weekend conferences with programming on Sunday morning. There is no Biblical basis for every Sunday morning as the exclusive “turf” for local church programs. Pretending as such encourages “Sunday” Christianity and models legalism, distrust, and territorialism. Is checking the works-righteousness box of attendance at their particular local church every single Sunday more important than ongoing joyful, Gospel-motivated commitment to that church and the Kingdom of God? Is it possible that for a few Sundays per year God can do more in and through a student somewhere other than their local church? Can God’s work in these settings be celebrated?
- Do be honest about territorial concerns and ambitions (see comment to parachurch groups).
- Do learn to affirm and celebrate strengths and God’s work in other churches and parachurch ministries.A mark of Christian maturity is the ability to celebrate God’s work anywhere. Another is identifying, affirming, and sharing each others’ ministry distinctives without putting down others.
- Do affirm and be willing to encourage “dual citizenship.”Parachurch college ministries need to encourage church commitment, community, and often formal membership for students who are followers of Jesus. Local churches need to be willing to encourage student parachurch group participation; to affirm aspects of growth, discipleship and and kingdom work that that can uniquely happen in these settings and seek to bless these students.
- Don’t model legalism. Do model kingdom and gospel-centeredness.If we proceed because of God’s grace and seek to build his kingdom instead of our own, we will rejoice in Gospel work. Similarly, we will not perpetuate and model a “bare minimum” mentality or legalism and obligation with regard to church participation. Rather, we will long to see the Gospel furthered and the kingdom joyfully built and will rejoice in our partnerships with each other. I can’t say enough how rewarding these partnerships have been in my own faith and ministry journey; I wish for many more churches and campus ministries to enjoy such joy and complementarity.
I hope you’ve found this series helpful to your views on church-parachurch relations and that we can all pursue more partnerships in a manner that reflects and furthers God’s mission and kingdom.
For more from this series see my posts on why “the parachurch only exists because the church wasn’t doing its job” is a myth, why “too many students place the church with a parachurch college group” can be unhelpful, and some unique gifts from college parachurch groups to the global body of Christ.
This is the very belated part three of my series on local church relations with parachurch college ministries. Part one covered the common myth that “parachurch college ministries should move out of the way now that local churches can do their job.” Part two assessed the commonly held and partly true belief that “too many students replace the local church.” This post will discuss some of the unique gifts that parachurch college ministries have given to the Church. My next and final post in this series will provide a list of suggested Do’s and Don’ts for students, churches, and parachurch groups as we pursue complementary partnership between local churches and college parachurch ministries.
Gifts of College Parachurch Ministries to the Church
Parachurch college ministries offer many gifts, both historical and ongoing, to the wider body of Christ. These include:
- Lay evangelism, discipleship, and Bible studyArguably, the very idea that most lay believers — those outside professional or ordained ministry — can be trained and participate in evangelism, discipling other adults, and inductive Bible study came about and entered Christian culture because of college parachurch ministries. Cru (formerly Campus Crusade) pioneered lay evangelism and the idea that any trained believer could do it. The Navigators did the same one-to-one discipleship. And InterVarsity helped pioneer the idea that almost any believer could be trained in inductive Bible study, manuscript study, and intentionally evangelistic Bible studies now called Groups Investigating God.1
It’s true that some local churches today also have some or all of these gifts and “can do the job.” However, there are far more churches that don’t. Thriving, healthy parachurch college ministries continue sharing these gifts with more and more local churches.
- Research and development (i.e., innovation)
University-focused parachurch ministries pioneered these types of training because by nature their contextualization, transience, and networking lead to more innovation. There are distinct reasons for this. Parachurch staff are missionaries whose salaries do not come from parishioners. This structure encourages missional, evangelistic thinking. Oversight and supervision comes externally, guiding a parachurch staff’s primary goals of evangelism, witness, outreach, discipleship, and innovation rather than congregational care, “feeding,” stability, and administration because most local church leaders are accountable primarily to their congregation and its elders or leaders (as they should be!). College students are also more transient than most populations, fairly high-functioning, and receptive to new ideas. To dismiss parachurch college ministry and these structures as illegitimate or less valued is to abandon and reject the innovation. There are potential pitfalls in over-emphasizing innovation:”chronological snobbery” (thinking all things new are better) or emphasizing methodology over the message of the Gospel or power of the Holy Spirit. However, to reject innovation outright is an invitation for Christianity to become the next Xanga, AOL, or Eastman Kodak. More recent college parachurch group innovations include evangelism and Bible teaching methods geared toward postmoderns and millennials; Biblical multi-ethnicity; evangelistic Bible study groups; group inductive Bible study; focused evangelism and discipleship toward specific academic disciplines, career paths, demographics, interest groups and ethnic groups; how to relate evangelism with justice advocacy; and gospel presentations.
- Evangelism to the most strategic age group and an influential demographic
I entered full-time college parachurch ministry largely because of a talk I heard by Robert Johnstone, author of Operation World. He shared that the vast majority of converts to Christianity in the world come to faith between ages 17 and 26. Addtionally, the modern university context is extremely strategic and culturally influential. For Christians, it really needs to be “all hands on deck.” The university context is far too important and the Gospel far too needed for ministries to tell others, “you only exist because…” Parachurch college ministries don’t exist to serve parishioners; they are student organizations to serve students and the campus. They fit the paradigm of “student organization” to unchurched students and within secular university culture. Local churches are by God’s intent meant to serve and care for people from all walks of life and in different life stages. Healthy local churches naturally become inter-generational2 and do not “match” or fit within the institutional structures of the university; nor should they! Meanwhile, healthy campus ministries are focused on the mission by students toward students. It’s a naturally more transient context. College parachurch staff also exchange ideas, strategies and best practices for their context. There are task forces, panels, and training: all specifically tailored to this strategic context and age group.
- Leadership development and discipleship for mission and local churches
In parachurch college ministries, students become leaders in faith and mission as they grow in following Jesus. This simply does not happen for that age group to the same extent in established local church structures of the 21st-century developed world. Because of the way adulthood is defined today, 18-22 year old students will never “own” or have a voice in the structures of an established local church in the same way. Undergraduate students in a local church rarely make organizational decisions and, thankfully, usually cannot make significantly damaging mistakes. College is exactly when people are starting to figure out what it means to be an adult and to make decisions of consequence and mistakes; to be in conflict and discuss ideas and learn to come to agreement and work through tension. A college parachurch ministry is a great place to learn these lessons that people rarely learn in local church settings until they’re well into their thirties, forties, or (in the case of many Asian churches) fifties or sixties. Experiencing this in the context of God’s mission is invaluable. Ask most churches where their young adult leaders developed or gained their leadership skills: chances are the majority were in college parachurch groups.
- Ongoing witness to secular academic culture
I was once genuinely asked by a pastor why college parachurch ministry should exist when there were “strong” churches nearby. I’ve already outlined many unique gifts of parachurch college ministries to the global Church. Additionally, local churches almost by definition will not seek to redeem and witness to a whole campus or all its structures and subcultures as their core mission. Then how about the entire global context of modern secular academia and “the university”? This witness is an important gift and task taken up by college parachurch ministries on behalf of the global Church. We as Christians are called collectively, after all, to “take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). This includes the university.
- Inter-denominational, broad evangelical unity
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that parachurch groups are among the only true means of continued inter-denominational partnership and interaction. This is significant for evangelical unity and healthy, broadly evangelical, inter-denominational Christian identity. These would significantly diminish in the Global Church without parachurch groups, institutions, organizations, movements, and conferences.
These gifts are given to the Global Church when parachurch college ministries flourish. To say that college parachurch ministries should “move out of the way” is also to say that the Global Church should not have any of these gifts.
My final post in this series will suggest Do’s and Don’ts for partnership between local churches and college parachurch groups.
“Too many students replace the church with their parachurch college fellowship”
I’ll address this commonly repeated idea somewhat differently from my previous post. “The church wasn’t doing its job but now it can so the parachurch should move out of the way” reflects legalistic anti-Gospel thinking, conflated aspects of “church,” historical fallacies, and a distorted theology of redemption. Those who hold or perpetuate this view have not examined it critically or Biblically. On the other hand, I cautiously agree with an interpretation of “too many students replace the church with their parachurch college fellowship”: I strongly believe that parachurch evangelism and discipleship are incomplete and severely weakened if students are not encouraged to participate in a local church community. After some helpful dialogue with a pastor a few years ago, I even began encouraging formal church membership for most committed Christian college students when feasible. Further, if a committed, kingdom-minded Christian student only had time for either participation in a local church or a parachurch fellowship, I would tell them to choose a local church. I’ve even advised several students to do so. However, it’s rarely that simple. In fact, I disagree with what is often meant when people say “too many students replace the church…” and strongly disagree with what is usually understood.
Those who say “too many students replace the church…” rarely understand the audience of parachurch college ministries. They inadvertently judge the students who do not participate in local churches. These days 47% of students regularly involved in InterVarsity “rarely engaged with God’s Word” prior to their involvement and around 25% are not Christian.2 And that’s a good thing! My own experience corresponds with the statistics: about half of regularly participating students in our campus ministry grew up nominally Christian or completely outside of Christianity. An even higher proportion — in fact the majority — did not consider themselves committed Christians upon entering college. We should celebrate that these students participate in college parachurch groups to hear and engage with the Gospel and grow in their faith exploration!
Most college students, churched or not, are preoccupied with two concerns: 1) academic survival or performance amid figuring out where they’re headed career-wise 2) finding a group of friends on campus with whom they can feel comfortable and included. Pursuit of faith involves moving beyond those two concerns. However, few college students — let alone freshmen — are in a place to do this regularly regardless of church background. While nurturing and challenging such students in their faith, parachurch college fellowships also help them with #2 and even #1, as campus organizations have been found to promote college inclusion and even graduation rates among participants, especially racial minorities.1 It’s unhelpful and legalistic to oblige church participation from those who do not see beyond #1 and #2. Some are this way because they are less committed in their faith. Others are just really overwhelmed or still figuring things out. We should celebrate that these students explore faith in college parachurch groups.
What is most often understood when students are told “don’t replace the church with the parachurch” or “a parachurch college fellowship is not a church, so go to church” is legalism and obligation. “Church” and “going to church” are seen as acts of piety, obligation, or works-righteousness to appease God, parents, and pastors or to convince themselves that they are good Christians. Church participation, worship, and nurture should be viewed as a gift by those freed and redeemed through the death and victorious resurrection of Jesus. “Don’t replace the church” teaches legalism and obscures the Gospel among people who already struggle to grasp it. Perhaps some students have “mistakenly” directed their appeasement, legalism, and obligation from the local, institutional church to a parachurch college group. When told “don’t replace the church,” what students hear is “ye who have mistakenly directed the appeasement of your legalism: your college parachurch participation does not make you any more righteous. Direct your legalism back to local church participation, which will!” Re-directing legalism back to a local church does not necessarily help their faith growth and may even hurt it. Some less churched students even pick up legalism that wasn’t there in the first place.
If what is meant by “too many students replace the church…” is that students expressing their faith in parachurch ministries are doing so in inferior ways to those doing so within a local, institutional church, I strongly disagree. If anything those who have been programmed to see “church” as an act of works-righteousness — and many raised in the church see things this way — have the opportunity to discover faith outside works and obligation. They have the opportunity to see it in mission. It is true that some students re-direct their works-righteousness obligation from church attendance toward parachurch participation. It’s not helpful to merely redirect this legalism back. The statement that “too many students replace the church with their parachurch group” also reflects a false, “either-or” dichotomy that also encourages a bare-minimum faith approach. It is concerned with how many visible parishioners are at church on Sunday rather than how many are truly committed in faith. It may even confuse the two. Again, this is legalism. We are called to “make disciples” rather than people who merely show up at church each week!
Under a purely “either-or” framework, perhaps local church participation is better for some of these tenuous Christians and exploring seekers because of sacramental nourishment and/or inter-generational discipleship, community, and mentorship. However, I have never heard an anti-parachurch argument from these perspectives. Those most critical of college parachurch ministries tend to duplicate its ministry model of “college fellowship”– and have similar strengths and weaknesses — rather than focusing on sacramental nourishment or inter-generational discipleship. They are upset or disappointed that these students are not fulfilling their obligation of church attendance or serving in their young adult ministries or Sunday schools.
If what is meant by “too many students replace the church…” is that kingdom-minded, committed Christian students must primarily commit their time and gifts to the local, institutional church, I also disagree. These arguments have conflated the local, institutional church with the church’s global organism (see previous post). I absolutely believe that nearly all Christians — including parachurch fellowship student leaders and staff — are called to worshipful participation, discipleship, and sacramental nourishment from the local, visible, institutional church. However, some are called to focus on work, outreach, and receiving training in specialized parachurch ministries. Common sense says “the best group of people to reach a group of people is that group of people.” Parachurch college ministry participation by students is a gift. It’s a gift to the students themselves as they grow in mission and evangelistic outreach and are trained to think strategically toward a specific context: their own. It’s a gift to the global Church in reaching students and credible, contextualized, broad-scale witness to a crucially strategic context: academia and the university. It’s a gift to local churches through reaching and developing future members, leaders, missionaries, and clergy. And it can be a gift to local churches in the present through participation of parachurch ministry students and staff. Missiologist Patrick Johnstone, author of Operation World, estimates that the vast majority of converts to Christianity do so between the ages of 17 and 26. This statistic is one of the reasons I decided to work full-time in college parachurch ministry. The university context is too large and strategically important and the people who have not heard or experienced the Gospel too many. Those receiving training and deciding to serve in this context through specialized parachurch ministry are a gift to the Church. Local churches should bless and affirm these students by treating them as such.
Why is church participation for parachurch students so often framed as negative, legalistic, and adversarial? Why aren’t we asking “how can we help more students in parachurch college groups integrate meaningfully into the life of local churches” and “how can local churches benefit from partnership with parachurch college groups”? Because we’re too busy myopically complaining about how “too many students replace the church with their parachurch college fellowship.”
My next posts will address gifts of the parachurch and how local churches and parachurch college ministries can complement each other.
“The parachurch only exists because the church wasn’t doing its job. Now that it can, parachurch ministries should move out of the way of church-based ministry.”
I’ve heard such statements quite a few times in my 9 years of full-time college parachurch ministry. I personally wrestled with them when I first began and several years later when I had an existential crisis as to whether to remain in parachurch work or ministry at all. I stayed… and I’ve come to love and value parachurch college ministries’ ongoing work in campus engagement, discipleship, and evangelism and strategic long-term gifts to the global body of Christ. I’ve also realized how these anti-parachurch ideas reflect significant historical and theological fallacies and arise from a wrong, legalistic framework of thinking. Those who make such pronouncements generally do not understand how parachurch ministries contribute to the kingdom of God: parachurch ministries aren’t a crutch and shouldn’t be treated as one.
As a parachurch worker, my relationships with local churches have generally been very positive. These days I hear fewer and fewer anti-parachurch statements and experience more and more positive partnership. Pastors and church leaders are mostly genuinely excited to partner in the Gospel. Many are humbly eager to celebrate and even learn from how God has worked in my ministry and the ministry of parachurch organizations. However, I still hear anti-parachurch ideas here and there; they just won’t go away. I’m convinced those who propagate these ideas haven’t examined them critically or Biblically: they just heard them somewhere and believed them since.
“Parachurch” is typically defined as any Christian ministry organization that exists outside the structures of local churches or denominations and does not seek to replace them. This includes many seminaries, Christian colleges, charitable organizations such as World Vision or the International Justice Mission, think tanks, publishers and publications such as Zondervan or Christianity Today, evangelistic organizations such as Arab World Mission or the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and extra-denominational associations such as The Gospel Coalition or the Acts 29 church-planting network. Fortunately, local churches and denominations rarely tell such ministries to “move out the way,” so I’ll focus on college ministries.
Here’s a short video where Tim Keller argues specialized parachurch ministries need healthy local church involvement and healthy local churches to flourish, which I absolutely agree with and hopefully have modeled. He concludes, however, that for thriving gospel eco-systems, we need a “wonderful, positive, complex, mutually-supportive, inter-dependent relationship between the local churches and all those [specialized parachurch] ministries.”
Keller names anti-parachurch arguments and refutes them: “I don’t buy it.” He explains using practical considerations. This post, meanwhile, will explain the wrong framework that leads to these statements before unpacking their underlying historical and theological fallacies. In my next post, I’ll address the partially true but often unhelpful statement that “too many students replace the church with their parachurch college group.” Wrapping up this topic, I’ll also list some ongoing gifts that specialized parachurch college ministries bring to the body of Christ that those who are anti-parachurch don’t seem to know and share some suggestions for partnership. I’ll also explore ways local church partnerships can be most helpful to college parachurch ministries and hopefully most beneficial to partnering local churches, as well.
The Wrong Question
Simply put, anti-parachurch “move out the way” sentiment begins with the wrong question. It reflects an obsession with what is right and ignores what is best. It values law over gospel: legalism. It places truth — misinformed truth — over love and grace. It places the letter of the law over its spirit. It focuses on who should or shouldn’t be doing this rather than what can be done? God intentionally involved Rahab, Ruth, the Samaritan woman, and the Ethiopian eunuch in his redemptive work; none were the “right” people.
Anti-parachurch sentiment also reflects a fundamentalist “bare minimum” mentality. By focusing on what is right or merely sufficient, it ignores the bigger picture of how the body of Christ can qualitatively and quantitatively reach and disciple the most people. It is so narrowly obsessed with rightness and sufficiency that it verges on the same fallacies that lead to superficial questions such as, “what’s the least I need to do to get to heaven?” or “how far is too far” in terms of sexual boundaries or even “how can I prove my righteousness by dissociating with the unrighteous and even those who associate with the unrighteous” rather than, “How can I most love God and others?” and “How can the most come to know and love Jesus?”
Occasionally, anti-parachurch sentiment is based practically on the idea that church-based ministry offers better discipleship — especially if inter-generational — and models better ecclesiology. I absolutely agree on the strengths of church-based ministry! However, this is not an issue of “either-or” except under a very wrong framework of thinking. Church-based ministries simply cannot do targeted outreach, evangelism, student community, and academic engagement like parachurch groups. Those who try, as Keller points out, begin resembling parachurch groups, anyway, and offer fewer of the benefits of church-based ministry. These ministries will never have the paradigm and scope of seeking to redeem the entire national or global university context nor develop and replicate context-specific strategies and methods. Why reject or oppose these? Preference for one particular ministry model’s strengths does not necessitate opposing the strengths of others in the body of Christ. There is diversity in the kingdom of God to accomplish a diversity of work. Exclusive preference for one model would be akin to a modern-day army general entering battle with only infantry and adamantly refusing to utilize other personnel, weapons, vehicles, or branches of the military. “But infantry is the primary and most important force upon which militaries are built!”
Anti-parachurch ideas proceed from a “bare minimum,” legalistic mentality and reflect an additional assortment of theological and historical fallacies as outlined below:
“… parachurch… church”
This dichotomy as stated confuses the different concepts constituting “church.” The church exists both locally (each individual congregation) and globally (the whole body of Christ); visibly (those in the pews on Sunday and/or official members) and invisibly (those who truly follow Jesus, governed by the Holy Spirit), and is both an institution and an organism.1 Those who say “the church wasn’t doing its job” in this context have confused all of these concepts. Parachurch ministries are very much part of the global, invisible church and its organism; they generally seek to build up the local, visible, institutional church (and should).
Protestant parachurch ministries as we now know them did not exist until the last couple centuries and truly developed after World War II. Roman Catholic orders such as the Benedictines and Jesuits date back to almost the age of the Church Fathers and are in some ways “parachurch.” Neither orders nor parachurch groups existed, though, in Biblical times. Nor, however, did individual local churches as we now know them with denominations, Sunday services, children’s programs, and mutually exclusive attendance or membership. This isn’t to say that First Baptist, Second Presbtyerian, or Oak River Community Church are un-Biblical or that any ministry model not mentioned in the Bible must be rejected.2 We are unable to follow Biblical prescriptions to the letter in this age and cultural context but we should do our best to apply Biblical principles. Based on Biblical principles, I strongly believe that the primary instrument through which God builds and develops his kingdom is local, institutional churches — usually welcoming those of all ages — preaching the word, administering the sacraments,3 and practicing church discipline or discipleship.
In our multi-denominational world, there are varying definitions of what constitutes a local, institutional church. In American evangelical Protestantism, Presbyterianism and Congregationalism are the two dominant views. Both have strong Biblical roots and their own respective strengths and weaknesses. Congregationalism believes any group of genuine Christians can gather together, form a system of accountability and ordain leaders, begin administering sacraments (or ordinances) and constitute a local, institutional church. Presbyterianism, meanwhile, believes that a higher governing body of leaders from several local churches — often called a Presbytery — should exercise oversight over individual local churches whose members are accountable to the leading and teaching of their church’s elders and edified by the work of their deacons. In either a Presbyterian or Congregationalist view, parachurch college ministries could easily decide to cease being “parachurch,” ordain leaders, begin administering sacraments, and form churches or denominations.4 However, in order to maintain our missional focus and to partner with and rely on local churches rather than compete with them, college parachurch ministries intentionally choose not to. This self-imposed “forced partnership” is an incredible gift to the kingdom of God and to the past, present, and future of the global Church.
Because denominations differ on what constitutes institutional “church” (among other disagreements), parachurch groups are among the only means of genuinely inter-denominational fellowship and partnership. As a parachurch worker, I’m happy to partner with any Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching church and strongly encourage all Jesus-following and Jesus-exploring students I have ever worked with in an ongoing basis to participate in such a church. Based on applying Biblical principles to our present context, I especially prefer elder-led congregations that are part of larger bodies of accountability and churches that practice membership and take their members’ commitments seriously. In order to complement parachurch college ministry involvement, I also generally encourage student participation in inter-generational congregations. However, we should never close ourselves off from seeing or participating in God’s work beyond the boundaries of the local, institutional church, let alone the ones we prefer.
“…wasn’t doing its job”
This assumption is based on a false golden-age “once upon a time” premise that there was once a time when local churches effectively or at least sufficiently5 reached and/or discipled university students. In actuality, “once upon a time,” modern universities didn’t exist. Around the time modern European universities began emerging in the mid-1800s, a student prayer group was founded at Cambridge University in 1848 which three decades later named itself the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU). CICCU was the first chapter of the “Inter Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical Unions” which later helped plant IVCF Canada and IVCF USA. Similarly, the American university as we now know it emerged after World War II through the G.I. Bill. Campuses and enrollments expanded significantly because millions of returning war veterans received financial assistance to become first generation college students.6 University education became accessible to most middle-class Americans for the first time in history. Six years after the war, as universities were still rapidly expanding, Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) was founded in 1951 at UCLA.
Parachurch college ministries don’t exist because churches weren’t doing their job; they came about because the university came about. People needed to hear the gospel or sought people to pray with in these brand new contexts. Cru founder Bill Bright and IVCF USA founder Stacey Woods didn’t look around and say, “local churches aren’t doing their job. We must!” They saw the university and saw people and a setting that needed Gospel witness. “Evangelizing, discipling, and mobilizing college and university students” was never an item on the local church’s job description they suddenly abdicated; nor was Bible publishing, educating seminarians, or distributing relief supplies after Hurricane Katrina. These are all tasks for the whole people of God rather than any particular local church. Saying local churches “weren’t doing their job” with college students is like telling a stove it isn’t doing its job of brewing coffee.
That said, from the 1920s through the 1970s, most of American Christianity — the “American Church organism” — was barely in a place to evangelize at all, let alone on rapidly growing college campuses. American Protestantism was embroiled in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy and its continued fallout.7 Modern mainline liberal Christianity was often so focused on accommodating and compromising Christian belief to science and culture that it began treating many core doctrines of Christianity as optional such as the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ, the infallible inspiration of Scripture, and the necessity of salvation through Jesus. Kind of hard to share the Gospel if you don’t believe in those!8 On the other hand, fundamentalist Christians became overly fixated on maintaining doctrinal purity and separating from culture and even other Christians. Comparatively, evangelism became an afterthought and very few gospel-believing Christians enrolled at secular universities for fear of their corrupt culture and liberal ideas. Students at secular universities needed to hear the Gospel more than ever, as did most of the United States. The entire organism of the church was “not doing its job.”9 Cru pioneered the idea that every Christian could and should engage in the work of evangelism and, arguably, InterVarsity USA pioneered the idea that every Christian could learn to study the Bible inductively. There is some truth behind the statement that “the church wasn’t doing its job” and “now… it can…” but that has absolutely nothing to do with parachurch ministries needing to “move out of the way” of local church ministries: parachurch ministries are an active part of the organism of the American Church.
“Now that it can… move out of the way.”
This reflects a plainly illogical theology of redemption. Throughout Scripture and now in the Church Age, redemption does not move backwards or undo itself. God brought about different languages and set apart Abraham in Genesis 11-12 because humanity “wasn’t doing its job.” The Church, through most interpretations of Romans 9-11, came about because ethnic Israel “wasn’t doing its job.” The Reformers reluctantly began Protestant denominations in the 1500s because, at the time, the Roman Catholic Church “wasn’t doing its job.”
In Revelation 7, God does not try to cancel or erase Babel. Instead, he celebrates and delights in its continuing redemption through the presence of all languages, nations, and tribes in New Creation. People are not monolithically speaking only Hebrew or Esperanto (or English), nor is any speaker of these walking around telling everyone “well, now that all your different languages have done their job…”10
Nor do today’s Jewish synagogues or Messianic Jews tell Gentile churches, “you’re only here because we weren’t doing our job, now out of the way!”11 I realize these examples differ slightly from local church vs. parachurch relations because some form of local church is a Biblically prescribed institution. However, my aim is to show that God’s redemptive plan doesn’t eliminate newer, compensatory means of redemption in order to re-establish or privilege older, original, proper ones. God creates even more beauty out of redeemed brokenness. This is part of the fallacy behind statements like “now it’s time to move out of the way.” Rahab, Ruth, the Samaritan woman, and the Ethiopian eunuch were certainly not crutches. There are no crutches in God’s work of redemption, only instruments.
Denominations and even Protestantism present a more interesting case study because neither were explicitly prescribed in the Bible: they began as an improvisation based on faithfully pursuing Biblical principles amid an imperfect reality. Rampant corruption, works-righteousness, and serious doctrinal errors in the Roman Catholic Church have been significantly addressed since the Reformation and especially since Vatican II. If local churches have a legitimate claim that they “weren’t doing their job but now can” and therefore parachurch ministries need to “move out of the way,” Roman Catholic churches –especially ones that are not corrupt, teach against works-righteousness, and affirm justification through faith — can legitimately claim that Protestant churches should “move out of the way.” At the very least, anti-denominational churches would be able to ask denominational churches and ministries to move, dissolve, or merge. But we won’t and shouldn’t, because Protestant churches and even denominational differences picture the beauty and diversity of the kingdom of God and are unique, effective instruments of its work. God took human limitations, sin, and divisiveness and created even more beauty and function out of it. This is the heart of redemption; A heart that would be thoroughly lost if newer redemptive mechanisms simply “moved out the way.”
Next week’s post will address whether “too many students replace the church with their parachurch college group.” In future posts I will discuss gifts of parachurch college ministry to the Church, why they need local churches and should seek to complement them, and some practical ideas for improved partnership.
In recent months, students from several campuses have communicated distress with me about local church – parachurch tension or hearing anti-parachurch teaching. These posts are intended as a resource to them, to explore my own thoughts, and to hopefully create healthy dialogue. They are not intended as a direct response to any one church or pastor. However, in an effort to model charity, transparency, and healthy dialogue, I have personally sent several pastors involved drafts of this post and welcomed responses from them. Two have responded graciously and one even offered some really good questions about partnership which I hope to explore in my final post. I’m very encouraged.
Following an apology for comments he made on social media about a campus diversity event, Moody professor Bryan Litfin wrote a Letter to the Editor of the student-run Moody Standard asking that in Christian dialogue we rescind use of the term “white privilege.” The president of Moody had already distanced himself from such views and reaffirmed MBI’s commitment to diversity and racial justice. Christianity Today even ran a story about the whole ordeal and Litfin’s letter yesterday.
My own reaction to Litfin’s letter as an evangelical Christian committed to Biblical multi-ethnicity and racial justice went through several stages…
Anger and Hurt
HOW DARE HE?! Who does this guy think he is?! How can someone get away with such thinly veiled racism in this day and age at a flagship evangelical institution?! As a person of color who displaces myself working in white-dominant evangelicalism in a very white-dominant state, I take his denial of white privilege (or request that we employ some sort of euphemism) as a personal affront. Every effort I’ve put into minority inclusion and empowerment is invalidated by his claim; this is hard not to take personally and angrily. Furthermore, his view actually represents evangelicals in the public sphere! Way to make us look like racist bigot idiots! ARGH!
Why should I even care? This really won’t affect me much and it’ll all go away in a few weeks, anyway. Time to get back to planning my students’ last large group meeting, senior send-off celebration, and a baptism this weekend for believer who came to faith in AAIV. So many better things to be doing with my time. Why should I even bother…
This guy is such an idiot it’s not even worth my time. He’s just some privileged white guy born into the halls of power of evangelicalism, yet he has no real influence and is in denial of his own privilege. The fallacies in his letter are so obvious it’s not even possible to talk sense with him. I can’t believe he’s in legitimate Christian academia, or maybe Moody is just a lazy, ignorant institution. I work with undergraduates for an evangelical campus ministry and the vast majority of students I’ve worked with would never say anything so ignorant and most have a far higher emotional intelligence. Google tells me he studied the Early Church Fathers and that he writes fantasy novels; his knowledge of how to interact with the world today is about as up-to-date and as realistic…
In this day and age, I want his head! What’s a good hashtag? #firelitf… ? I’ll encourage my Moody alum friends to start an online petition! This kind of ignorance has no place in Christian academia and his penalty to pay should be his career! I’m going to tweet and contact prominent evangelicals to try to reprimand and punish him!
His letter contains so many fallacious arguments it wouldn’t even take that long for me to list them all out and dismantle them one by one. I have never seen such lazy biblical theology or out-of-context proof-texting against corporate sin. His request that we “draw our terminology from the Bible” instead of using words coined by “worldly unbelievers” is the most ridiculous regulative principle I’ve ever seen. If we can’t use any extra-biblical terminology in Christian discourse, are discussions on democracy, child abuse, social science, and psychology all out of bounds? Clearly the Bible never refers to them…
It would be so easy to write a point-by-point refutation of any point Litfin tried to make and tear down all of his attempts at saying something coherent… Then again maybe it’d be more effective and satisfying to go ad hominem and just publicly shame him…
The more I think about it, Bryan Litfin probably feels confused and backed into a corner. He apologized for his online behavior but he can’t figure out what’s wrong with his views though he senses something is wrong. His response was to go after the terminology that set him off but he hasn’t resolved his cognitive dissonance and isn’t sure whether it’s the concept or the term that he truly disagrees with.
Dr. Litfin, if you ever read this, I genuinely empathize with your predicament and I would love to sit down and talk. I’d be happy to meet somewhere close to Moody’s campus or in the west suburbs. Feel free to tweet me @calvindeecee
I’m not convinced you’ve ever sat down with a racial minority American you respected who has experienced racism, asked them about their experience, heard them and empathized. I don’t accept all the presuppositions and conclusions of critical theory, but I’m not convinced you’ve ever seriously dialogued with it intellectually; something absolutely required in today’s academe.
Finally, I’m not convinced you’ve dealt with your own privilege and the color of your skin. Do you realize that you belong to the racial majority in this country and have you dealt with that? In your letter you attack the term “white privilege” and see its use as a personal attack while you also struggle with the concept. You don’t seem to advocate for euphemism; I’m not sure you’ve ever had the concept explained to you in a way that you were able to hear. Generally, those who use the term are not seeking to scorn, shame, criticize, or stigmatize; it is descriptive. Nor are we declaring that every white person is culpable and guilty for the sins of a few slave owners and traffickers. Nor are we ignoring other forms of privilege; of course a person of color raised in a socio-economically privileged, safe, nurturing environment experiences far less oppression than a white child sex slave. I don’t bring this up in hyperbolic sarcasm; this is the example you used.
I’ll actually use your example of the hypothetical 12 year old white female child sex slave. You argue she has no privilege. I cautiously agree with you. Difficult as this is to say, though, she could benefit from white privilege. Let’s say she is freed and enters the foster care system. She is significantly more likely to be adopted than a black girl from exactly the same circumstances due to racial preferences that exist in this country. That’s white privilege. Let’s say she is adopted by a middle-class family from the suburbs. You just assumed this family is white and so did most other readers of that sentence. That’s white privilege. It wouldn’t be an ignorant assumption; 73% of adoptive families in America are white, and that’s not a bad thing! These are (mostly) great, loving, white families! Now let’s say that same girl successfully re-enters middle school at grade level. In most swaths of middle-class America, she will never feel like an outsider because of the color of her skin nor will she wonder if people are treating her in discriminatory ways because of it. She will never doubt her ability to succeed or integrate socially because of her race. Now let’s say she makes it to college. Even after controlling for test scores, family income, and educational background, she is more likely to graduate than her peers of other races because she and her peers will not attribute inability to succeed to the color of her skin. Neither will she ever feel like an outsider at the vast majority of universities in this country for racial reasons. Social scientists and education scholars call this “stereotype threat” and it is a real, quantifiable phenomenon. Freedom from “stereotype threat” is part of white privilege.
I respectfully disagree with you that God merely “celebrates” privileges. As a beneficiary of many forms of privilege myself — aside from racial privilege — I believe that God calls us to steward privilege and use it for his purposes. And although “white privilege” seems marginal compared with socio-economic and educational privilege or being raised in a safe and loving home, it is nonetheless a form of power that can be stewarded and used on behalf of God’s kingdom.
I’m not trying to change your mind just by writing this. However, I am hoping you will hear my invitation to talk and my genuine empathy toward your feeling attacked by the MBI and minority communities. I truly desire to help you grapple with the concept of white privilege and perhaps even deal with and come to terms, positively, with your own white identity. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood you and you actually do understand and have dealt with the fact that those who are racialized as “white” in this country, including yourself, can benefit from structural privilege. I’m happy to talk, but if you don’t accept my invitation, I recommend you read Being White by Doug Schaupp, a fantastic resource. I am praying for you and for MBI.
“Hey, I can be Asian American, right?” an undergraduate who is white exclaims to me during a regional Christian conference I am staffing of about 800 students from throughout Wisconsin. “Ni Hao! Ahn Young Ha Saeyo! [followed by more Korean phrases]. How does my Korean sound? So am I Asian American now?”
I politely ask him to stop and clarify that I understand Mandarin (Ni Hao) but not Korean; that he isn’t Asian American. He continues uttering Korean phrases nonetheless and asking for affirmation or response from me. I tell him that if he doesn’t stop soon I will be offended and repeat my request several more times, each more firmly: that he shouldn’t mimic a racial group or mock a language spoken by some of its members, and that what he’s doing isn’t too different from a “ching chong ling long” taunt that many Asian Americans have experienced. After several more rounds I finally make as firm a request as I can without yelling. He realizes he should perhaps stop but is genuinely confused as to why I might be offended. I spend several minutes trying to explain but realize I’m getting nowhere. If I try any longer my anger may get the best of me.
I head toward the room where students from the Asian American college fellowship I advise are hanging out and preparing for a time of debriefing and prayer. As I walk, I remember how our newly affiliated Asian American-focused fellowship attended this exact conference for the first time 7 years ago with just 11 of us and over 700 other students. Only 4 other students at the conference were racial minorities (yes, I counted). Our group certainly stuck out but through the years the experience had always been positive. We’d come a long way as a chapter and a regional ministry: this year in addition to 50 Asian Americans from our chapter there were at least 70 other racial minority students at the conference.
Back with my chapter, we decide to take a few group pictures as we transition from games to smaller group prayer and debriefing. After the pictures, I overhear an exchange between two students that has problematic racial implications. I make a mental note to maybe speak with the students later if I have a private moment and I think they’re in a good place to listen. This may never happen, but I resolve to have the conversation should the opportunity arise. In case other students may overhear the exchange if it continues, I quickly shout, “All right! Everyone transition to your process groups!” to keep everyone moving. I attempt to briefly check in on another student whom I know is dealing with a difficult situation back home.
As we move into our process groups for sharing and prayer after the picture, I hear a group of giggling students gathered outside of our room.
“Oh my gosh there are so many Asians in there! Hey, come look at this!”
“There are so many Asians in that room! ”
“You’re right, wow! There are so many Asians in there! Have you ever seen that many Asians together before?!”
I take a deep breath, assuming that group of white students doesn’t know we can hear them even though the door is open and they’d poked their heads in to peek multiple times during their exchange; that they know no better than to view a gathering of racial minorities like an exotic exhibit. I turn to the group of students I am sitting with to ask them about how the conference is going for them and how they are meeting Jesus. Later that night, I have trouble sleeping. I am worried about these incidents while also thinking through the talks on the Historical Jesus and the Problem of Evil I am giving tomorrow. The audience will be a group of 50 mostly non-believing students from throughout Wisconsin seeking to learn more about Christianity.
Though rarely in such quick succession, my job as staff worker for an ethnic-focused ministry in a predominantly white region frequently involves incidents like these. I hate the stereotypes of the angry minority or political-correctness police, yet I feel myself becoming them.
I’m regularly asked to be an expert on all things ethnic-minority because most of my 94 white colleagues in the region want to grow in welcoming more students like the 3 of us staff who are minorities. I’m glad to help in any way I can because my region’s leadership and the vast majority of my colleagues want to be hospitable and grow in our ability to share Christ’s love with all students on college campuses throughout our region. But incidents like these wear on me, as does feeling like I could be the only person to speak up when something is done insensitively or in a way that is less welcoming to minority students. I tell an older staff member from another region that he probably shouldn’t refer to a conference speaker as “that Oriental woman.” I ask myself whether I’m informed and vocal enough about Ferguson and Eric Garner then try to muster emotional energy on behalf of a Hmong American hunter who was shot in a possible hate crime around the same time. Then I learn he’s from the same church as one of my students and the empathy comes involuntarily. I remind white staff not to describe me and the other two minority staff as “ethnic,” “multiethnic,” or “diverse.” I make a comment here or there about worship music or an introduction. I worry about whether staff or other students at conferences with our chapter may make ignorant remarks OR be terrified and walk on eggshells. I hear about a staff member who was skeptical about the whole “diversity thing” but has decided he can give me a chance. I do everything I can to place my students around staff more experienced with diversity and at conferences with more racially diverse campuses for the sake of my students’ exposure and growth opportunities; but also to protect them from such situations that could turn them off from Christianity or perhaps even traumatize them.
At the same time, I worry about offending staff by doing so. When I do speak up, I worry I come across as nit-picky, whiny, angry, unloving, or “not Christ-like.” I also worry my words and actions are still insufficiently confrontational on behalf of minorities. When I don’t speak up, I worry I’m letting down minorities or my students by not confronting. Or perhaps I’m hindering Christian mission for my organization because I could be improving our ability to reach minorities and our standing with secular liberal academia. Regardless of whether or not I speak up, I feel a Christian burden and a minority burden.
Christian blog decorum suggests I now say something about how it’s all worth it for Jesus or it’s all about the Gospel. For the most part it has been, or else I would’ve quit a long time ago; I do love our movement, my colleagues, and the students we serve. It’s been amazing to see Christ’s work but that doesn’t make this all any less tiring or frustrating.
This is a bit late and irrelevant at this point, but several students in AAIV came to me feeling ill-equipped on how to vote so I decided to write a simple, no-nonsense and (mostly) non-partisan guide on how I hope typical InterVarsity students or alumni would go about voting.
It’s too late for this election cycle (oops) but hopefully this will provide some food for thought for the future.
Vote the Issues
How do you believe the US should go about in its foreign and military policy? How about taxes and minimum wage? How about health care and immigration? How about gay marriage, abortion, or climate change? Usually each candidate lists on their website what they believe on each issue, or even simpler there are some great websites like Project Vote Smart and iSideWith.com to help you figure out which candidates you are most compatible with ideologically.
Don’t Vote the Issues
I’ll let you in on a dirty secret: very few politicians care about the issues, especially the most controversial ones. Republican politicians love stoking emotions among their constituents on abortion and gay marriage. Democratic politicians, lately, love stoking emotions among their constituents on immigration and union-busting. Politicians also love to tout their records on economic performance or job growth while their opponents slam them, even though in the short term, they have very little impact or control on these except through pork-barrel spending. However, politicians tend to pick their positions based on national mood or what they feel is most appealing to their voter-base. Elections are also seen as signs of approval or disapproval for sitting (incumbent) politicians. For example, Republican victories in this mid-term election cycle are seen as a loss for Obama and his ability to implement policies or get laws passed. Similarly, Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin will be seen as a vote-of-confidence for him to continue enacting some of his laws and policies. Be sure to also consider each candidate’s record, experience, and tone in addition to whether or not you agree with them on “the issues.”
Vote Your Convictions but Respect Those Who Don’t Share Them or Disagree on Their Implementation
There is a clear Biblical mandate to advocate and care for the poor, oppressed, foreigner, etc. Concern for bio-ethics and the environment also have strong Biblical bases and I also believe the Bible defines marriage. However, our own convictions on these issues still allow a lot of room for disagreement on whether and how our government should uphold, implement, or enforce them and how we as Christians ought to live faithfully among those who don’t always agree with us. (For the record, I’m convinced it’s a myth that the US is or ever was a “Christian nation,” though there were certainly and have been throughout its history Christian principles involved in its founding and leadership — I’m happy to have this conversation at a later time).
Yes, the system is broken and rewards partisanship; politicians are manipulative and self-serving; the current tone among politicians and in Washington is utterly nauseating. However, voter turnout — specifically, the demographics and beliefs of those who turn out — affect what politicians consider important. Christians are called submit “for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” (1 Peter 2:13), and in the US today that is a democratic system which, though imperfect, has worked for a few hundred years and has upheld the rule of law, freedom of worship, ideas, and a relatively prosperous economy. That means making our voices heard through voting. It may be too late this time around for some folks, but it’s certainly not too late to make a lifelong habit and discipline of exercising this privilege and doing so responsibly.
It’s also never too late to try to stay informed. Local news, papers, and websites (like madison.com) are a great place to start and I also highly recommend regularly reading or at least browsing The Economist and either the New York Times or Washington Post.