Two More Church Growth & Leadership Lies: The Church is American and White

American flag shadowI am a proud American. But Jesus wasn’t. The church isn’t. And my faith isn’t.

I’m also white and English-speaking. But Jesus wasn’t those either. And neither is the vast majority of his church.

Yet, if you pay attention to the church stats cited by most bloggers, speakers and authors, they tend to be very heavily slanted towards white, English-speaking Americans. Often exclusively so.

This slanted view gives us an inaccurate picture of who and what the 21st century church looks like.

It’s a big world out there. Jesus cares about all of it.

So should we.

In today’s post I’m going to take a hard, possibly uncomfortable look at two lies we end up believing when we pay almost exclusive attention to the white, English-speaking, American church.

Since today’s post is a sequel to last week’s post, 14 Church Growth and Leadership Lies We Need to Stop Believing, these lies are #15 & #16. None of the 16 are in any particular order.

 

Lie #15: The Church Is American

When we see the church through red-white-and-blue-tinted lenses, it causes us to make several inaccurate assumptions about the state of the church today. 

Mostly, we lose sight of the church as the diverse, 2-billion-strong, worldwide wonder that it is. Instead, we’ve become used to seeing the church as a subsection of American life. It’s something X number of Americans do on weekends (and isn’t it a shame that fewer Americans do it on weekends than a generation ago?)

If you’re like me, you’ve read dozens, maybe hundreds of blog posts, books and magazine articles mourning the plight of the church. Christian leaders wonder if we have any relevance in our society any more. Every statistic seems to show the church being less important and more on the fringe of people’s lives than it used to be.

Is the church in America on the decline, both numerically and influentially? Yes. Is the church in decline internationally? Not by any measurable statistic. There are massive regions of Latin America, Africa and Asia for instance, that are experiencing unprecedented, legitimate revivals.

In America we’re wringing our hands, wondering “who has the answer to reverse the decline of the church?” Yet we keep staring inward for answers. We don’t have an accurate picture of today’s church because we’re paying too much attention to American stats alone. We can’t get there from here.

Is it possible – just possible – that the American church might have something to learn from people outside our borders? That some of our travels abroad shouldn’t just be as teaching missionaries, but as willing students? Or are we determined to remain as arrogant as we’ve been?

 

Our Actions Speak Very Loudly

Both of the lies we’re looking at today are based on statements no one thinks they believe. Much of what I’ve written here may be met with harrumphs of disagreement from many readers. That’s OK. Our actions speak louder than our harrumphs.

What other conclusions can we draw from our behavior? We talk about the growth of the megachurch for instance, but those stats are almost exclusively American. In fact, the very existence of the megachurch is an American phenomenon. Click here for a pie chart from Stan Granberg, showing that there are fewer than 1900 megachurches in the world, 1661 of which (over 85%!) are in North America.

Here’s how ingrained these subtle prejudices are. Not long ago, a magazine reprinted a segment from my book, The Grasshopper Myth, in which I cited some church statistics. All my stats were international. The magazine edited my post by replacing the international statistics with American stats. They did it because American stats are more readily available and more accurate. But using American stats changed the article’s intent. (No, I won’t tell you which magazine it was. But If you find an article with my name on it containing stats that make it look like the American church will save the world, that’s the one.)

When we limit our understanding of the church to a strictly American viewpoint, the church looks wealthier than it is, populated with bigger churches than it is, less effective than it is – and whiter than it is.

Which leads me to…

 

Lie #16: The Church Is White (and Speaks English)

I’ve attended several conferences in recent years in which the following statement has been made.

“Last year, our church group experienced mild growth (or mild decline) across the board. But if we remove our non-English-speaking and ethnic churches from the statistics, our numbers have fallen dramatically.”

What?! Really?!

Why would anyone want to remove ethnic churches from the mix, even statistically, no matter what language they speak or what color their skin is?

The unintentional message sent by a sentence like that is “ethnic churches are growing, which is nice and all, but the white churches are shrinking and the white churches are the ones that matter.”

How can we draw any other conclusion from such a statement?

(Anyone getting uncomfortable yet? Good. Me too.)

For hundreds of years, the face of the church was white, older and European. Not any more. The face of the church today is younger, darker and more Latin, Asian and African.

It’s also fueled, almost entirely, by small and house churches, not big and megachurches.

 

The Church Is Bigger Than Any Of Us

The church is bigger than any of the restrictions we try to place upon it. Because Jesus is her architect, her contractor, her groom and her life breath.

The church of Jesus is bigger than any nation, any ethnicity and any gender (I left that last one out today. Gotta gird my loins for Lie #17: The Church Is Male, still to come).

This is one of the reasons I’m so passionate about encouraging, connecting and equipping innovative Small Church leaders. It’s easy to see the greatness of a megachurch without even looking outside our own doors. But to see the greatness of Small Churches, we have to expand our vision.

We have to look outside ourselves, our church walls, our national borders and our ethnic biases. But when we do, Wow! The picture of what God is doing around the world is beyond encouraging, it’s explosive!


Want more? Click here to read the original post, 14 Church Growth and Leadership Lies We Need to Stop Believing


So what do you think? Have you had too restrictive a view of what Jesus is doing in the church today?

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(Americana photo from Kait Jarbeau • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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3 thoughts on “Two More Church Growth & Leadership Lies: The Church is American and White”

  1. I am with you Karl. Since I have been in ministry (both as clergy and lay) this has been a struggle for many small churches at which I have served. When I started at my current appointment, I received stares of astonishment by saying that Jesus was Jewish and of a dark complexion. But in time, they have come to understand more and more that the God we serve is bigger than our smallness, and that is a good thing.

    1. It is amazing how some people stick to the Jesus of our stained-glass windows more firmly than Jesus as described in the bible, isn’t it? Keep breaking down those barriers, Faith.

  2. I am with you Karl. Since I have been in ministry (both as clergy and lay) this has been a struggle for many small churches at which I have served. When I started at my current appointment, I received stares of astonishment by saying that Jesus was Jewish and of a dark complexion. But in time, they have come to understand more and more that the God we serve is bigger than our smallness, and that is a good thing.

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