Discussion Points

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Generational Transitions in Ethnic Minority Culture

on October 24, 2011 , Print- 1 Comments

At Trinity, what we are doing is ensuring that it is an intergenerational church.
We're letting young people know that it's not just the senior citizen's church. It's not
the old people's church. This is your church because the church is an entire body.
Therefore, we are integrating. This past Sunday, we had a member of the church
who is a hip hop poetic writer who's won national competitions. He also works in
the church bookstore. We allowed him to come to the pulpit to share his words. He
was representing the hip hop community, but again, showing that it's an integration
of hip hop, of spirituals, of hymns and so that, in today's 21st century church, we
cannot just limit it to the hymns and the traditional standards. We have to ensure
that there is an integration of the various voices.
— Joan, pastor, 30s, African-American, Chicago

In the urban north from where I am, you have a lot of kids who weren't raised in the
church. The baby busters born '64 to '82 mark the first generations of persons of
African decent that were not raised in the church. So, they don't know the
scriptures, they don't know the songs, they don't know the hymns. For that matter
they don't even know church culture. So, I have them getting up and walking
around during sermons.
[laughter]
And they're doing what they do in all the large venues that they are accustomed to—
concerts and sporting events. Jay-Z doesn't care if I get up and go to the restroom.
He's getting paid. So, he doesn't care if I get up and go. The Giants don't care if I'm
doing something and I go back to my seat. So, that's their frame of reference.
— Anthony, senior pastor, 50s, African-American, New York

You have someone like James Cone, right? He talks about, back in the day, that the
American church was the chaplain of white supremacy. He saw a lot of theology
going on, but it was not life giving. But even James Cone and all of the folks that
came after him, their thinking has not penetrated, at all, African-American worship
or church life. So he's reinscribed the very thing that he himself was critiquing.
— Michael, pastor, 20s, African-American, northern California

Here we are in Bay Area, six of the highest cities with the highest percentage of
Asian peoples live right here in Bay Area. It's under my watch as a regional director
and I feel pretty irrelevant about how we're making impact there. So what's Asian
thought? What's Asian philosophy and what are the great Asian thinkers thinking
about? And how do we find ways to create common thread with those that I need to
have that discussion? . . .
[Fuller might be able to provide that] translation opportunity for us . . ., to walk out
feeling better equipped there.
— Alberto, ministry director, 40s, Mexican-American, northern California
 

 A tremendous amount of vitality in North American Christianity is concentrated in ethnic minority and immigrant communities. Globally, the same could be said for the new Christian movements, only two or three generations old at most, in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The growth of these movements is surely one of the great moves of God in our time. It is also a sheer demographic reality—already, as Philip Jenkins reminds us, the “typical” Christian globally is a materially poor, African woman in her young adult years. In the lifetime of most readers of this report, the United States will become a “minority majority” country, where no single ethnic group will have an outright majority.

First, global Christianity is a multicultural phenomenon and needs institutions where intercultural encounter can happen.

Second, global Christianity is a multigenerational phenomenon and needs institutions where intergenerational encounter can happen.
 

What role do North American seminaries, especially those rooted in the dominant Western culture, have to play in the stories that are happening outside that culture? Ultimately that is for leaders from the Christian communities in the Global South and the minority communities of the United States to decide for themselves. But these seminaries have played a formative role already. Most of the most influential leaders in the global church have been trained in Western (especially British and North American) institutions. These leaders not only have carried the resources of these institutions back to their own cultural contexts; they now are themselves resources to their alma mater institutions for insight into the church’s global mission. It was inspiring to meet leader after leader at the Cape Town Congress who had studied at Fuller or other North American institutions and now was leading contextualized, creative initiatives in their own country. It is hard to imagine a better “growth investment” than scholarships and targeted programs from leaders from parts of the world, and parts of North American society, where the church is growing.

But there are two specific ways that North American seminaries (and in many ways, Fuller above all) are positioned to be of great value to emerging Christian movements.

First, global Christianity is a multicultural phenomenon and needs institutions where intercultural encounter can happen. In one focus group, Alberto, a Mexican-American ministry leader in northern California, expressed his need to understand Asian culture, philosophy, and theology in order to effectively lead in his cultural context. Where better for Alberto find this kind of education, and encounter the peer leaders who could give him first-hand insight into Asian communities in the United States, than a multicultural seminary? Likewise, in our focus groups in Cape Town we were struck with how frequently leaders from, say, Brazil, Malaysia, and Francophone Africa faced similar challenges and were in search of similar biblical, historical, and theological resources.

While many parts of the world are becoming more and more multicultural thanks to urbanization and migration, the United States and Canada are unparalleled in their cultural diversity. These are strengths for any North American seminary to assiduously build on—providing a space for theologically rich multicultural encounters that benefit from the guidance of leaders who are themselves fluent in multiple cultures. Eventually there will be institutions of equal strength in the Two-Thirds World that can foster these kinds of encounters, but at present, and very likely for the next critical generation or two, there will be no institutions in global Christianity more able to convene leaders across cultural lines than institutions in the West.

Seminaries could provide a safe place for difficult and important conversations to happen between generations—and not just safe but biblically, historically, and theologically rich environments for reflection on what it means to be both aliens and citizens.

Second, global Christianity is a multigenerational phenomenon and needs institutions where intergenerational encounter can happen. As dramatic as the differences are between cultures, equally dramatic differences are emerging between generations. In the United States, the greatest discontinuity is often between a first generation of immigrants who speak the language of their country of origin, a second generation that may be able to speak their parents’ mother tongue but prefers English, and a third generation that only speaks English and cannot understand their grandparents. Accompanying these stark linguistic differences are differences of culture that can be the source of tremendous tension. In many communities the church is the stage on which these cultural discontinuities play themselves out, in healthy or unhealthy ways. This generational divide is not limited to newly arrived immigrant communities; analogous transitions are occurring in the Black church and are a well-documented phenomenon in established Asian and Hispanic communities. There are equally dramatic changes in economic circumstances and cultural reference points playing out in urbanized communities from Nairobi to Buenos Aires to Seoul.

These generational transitions are fraught with danger and opportunity for the mission of the church. At best, the older generation struggles to accommodate the younger; at worst, there is no struggle at all but simple resistance to change. At best, tension leads to theologically grounded conversation about the shape of a biblical faith that is both countercultural and honoring of cultural traditions; at worst, extreme and theologically naive positions are staked out in the name of generational relevance or cultural continuity.

What role can seminaries play in these stories of identity, conflict, and change? One of the things most needed by communities in the midst of generational change is "neutral ground" where they can negotiate theologically informed understandings of identity, leadership, and mission. Seminaries could provide a safe place for difficult and important conversations to happen between generations—and not just safe but biblically, historically, and theologically rich environments for reflection on what it means to be both aliens and citizens. Something like this has begun to happen at Fuller’s Asian-American church consultations, where conversations that might never be able to happen in any one Asian-American congregation can be facilitated with due respect for the perspectives of several generations of leadership.

While this applies especially vividly to immigrant communities in the US, we sensed a similar hunger among the global leaders in Cape Town for environments where the most difficult issues facing church leaders (both ordained and non-ordained) can be discussed and negotiated without having to constantly attend to internal institutional demands. Furthermore, leadership in communities that are under tremendous economic pressure and are experiencing dramatic, even drastic, cultural shifts necessarily must be quite pragmatic and direct. But this creates all the more need for an environment where deeper kinds of learning can happen, where leaders of different generations can learn and talk together, and where personal, spiritual, and intellectual depth can be cultivated.

Clearly North American seminaries already play a role in providing these kinds of environments. Our conversations suggest that even more intentional focus on creating this kind of neutral ground could be a tremendous contribution to God's mission and the needs of the church at its most promising, and perilous, growing edge.

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