The Evangelical Church, Demographic Change, and its Discontents

In the past few months, two events of note have taken place: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship invited Michelle Higgins, active in Black Lives Matter, to speak at their triennial mission conference and Wheaton College suspended Dr. Larycia Hawkins after her public efforts to establishing better relationships with Muslims. Both events have caused ripples in Evangelical-dom that signal something quite significant: some evangelicals who are riding the tide of demographic change are raising issues of what it means to be a racially, ethnically, and religiously diversity nation in ways that other parts of this community can no longer avoid.

There has always been this impulse among some evangelicals: In the late 1970s, InterVarsity was establishing an Asian American/Pacific Islander campus ministry, and I was part of UCLA's InterVarsity Christian fellowship from 2003-2006, after La Fe and Black Campus Ministries were up and running - with much of this action originating in California. Our state has been ahead of the demographic curve: In the 1990s we became a majority-minority state, a line the U.S. is predicted to cross in 2044 (National Equity Atlas).

Now, the rest of the nation is in the throes of demographic change, too. Evangelical Christianity is part of that: It is an institution with its own structures, power players, and cultural norms - just like higher education or business or the arts. And so far there are parts of Evangelical-dom that are making this transition better than others.

In some parts of the nation, demographic change has yet to really take off. See maps created by my colleagues at the National Equity Atlas. In these places, communities look much like they've always looked and the Black Lives Matter movement, the immigrant rights movement, and other efforts around racial equity might seem discordant because residents -and congregations - do not have much personal experience with these issues.

But in other parts of the country, demographic change is being felt by evangelicals for the first time. Sometimes this is because of immigration patterns or the growth of the second generation in new places - immigrants are now neighbors. Sometimes this is because the pain of minority communities is bursting to the surface in new (for some) and visceral ways--a la Black Lives Matter--as systemic injustices continue, as our disconnection is deepened via segregated communities, and the fluctuating economy worsens it all.

Just this Sunday one of my heroes, Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, was our guest speaker at our small house church. She spoke on the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) and reminded us that the rich man's error was his non-responsiveness to Lazarus and his dire need. The rich man may have literally "seen" Lazarus, but not figuratively--he didn't see him deeply as a human being, as a brother--an in death their circumstances were reversed.

Today, much of the Evangelical church is struggling to see who we are, as a nation. A lot of this has to do with our general disconnection: The layout of our cities and suburbs encourages segregation and technology has enabled isolation in an already individualistic nation. We don't know each other across race or place. Much of the mainstream evangelical church does not "see" the working poor (who exemplify the limitations of bootstrap capitalism), the mothers of Black boys who fear for their sons lives, or what it's like to be priced out of your own home (meaning, the displacement that comes with gentrification that we are experiencing in California).

Intervarsity leadership choose to "see" what was happening in the US and to "show" it to a generation of young evangelical Christians. It was a bold move and one that I hear has caused IV to lose a big donor (but gain others). In a similar way, Dr. Hawkins at Wheaton College reminded a generation of evangelicals of our proximity to our Muslims neighbors--and Wheaton's botched response shows what a nerve it hit. (As the first tenured African-American female at Wheaton, she is also a reminder of the ongoing difficulty that women of color face in the academy and in evangelical circles. Of note: Dr. Christina Cleveland announced her resignation from Duke at the top of this year.) And this week, Jim Wallis of Sojourners is speaking on his new book America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America in Los Angeles.

Times are changing, transitions are bumpy, and the outlook is good.

Such are the issues I plan to explore: How can the more privileged parts of the evangelical church "see" everyone else? How can we follow in the tradition of incredible women like Rev. Alexia Salvatierra and Wendy Tarr who helped to build bridges between wealthy congregations and their impoverished mostly-immigrant neighbors a few miles away? What are the bad theologies, built environments (hey, I'm trained as an Urban Planner), and blind spots that keep us from seeing each other - and why does it matter? What does it look like where grassroots justice and the evangelical church meet?

My blogs will engage these questions from my vantage point as a Lutheran-Evangelical, millennial, social-movement researcher, bible-study teacher, confidante of conservatives, coworker of progressives, Angeleno, sometimes inner-city resident, suburban-born gal. And, hopefully, my evangelical activist friends will consent to co-author with me along the way.

Hoping you will join me on this journey and leave lots of constructive feedback in the comments.

My best to you in Christ,

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