A new America is aborning before our eyes. Immigration and other factors are changing political philosophies, voting patterns, sociological assumptions, cultural expressions, and religious, moral, and ethical beliefs and styles.
There must be a new church for new America – really the "old church", that of the early New Testament fellowship where there was "neither Gentile nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female," but a common community retaining some cultural and social distinctives, yet transcending them in their unified love for and commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord. (Galatians 3:28)
Though America may not have a state church she does have a national church, which is not good for the nation or the church.
In fact, the United States has many "nationalisms" and "national" churches. In our fractured era we speak of "White America," "Black America," "Hispanic America," "Asian America," and "Gay America," "Straight America," "Poor America," "Rich America," and "Native America" to name a few. Each "America" has its own nationalism and church that enshrines its worldview, sanctions its beliefs, conserves its values, preserves its culture, and perpetuates its social norms.
It's not merely American churches strapped into narrow nationalism. Globally, many include their nationalisms in their official names, like the various Orthodox groups – Russian, Finnish, Ukrainian, Greek, etc. In America, Protestant denominations include the Southern Baptist Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the Dutch Reformed Church, the Moravian Church, and many more.
Some labels distinguish theological positions rather than nationalistic roots. The theologians and church historians understand that, but the average person needing Christ probably doesn't. The titles unwittingly become shapers of the particular group's self-perception and preferred socio-cultural lifestyles.
A national church is one whose greatest aim is the "national" interests of its dominant demographic group. To their credit, many of the aforementioned groups seek to get beyond their nationalism, yet retain their nationalistic labels.
A Kingdom church transcends nationalism and sees itself as the embassy of the Kingdom of God within localities, regions, nations, and the whole world. Rather than assimilating the worldviews, beliefs, values, cultural expressions and social practices of its environment, the authentic church calls all of them to the Kingdom.
A national church is unhealthy. It picks up and cultivates the spiritual, ethical, and philosophical viruses producing dysfunction within its particular society. A few examples:
• Much of the church in Europe's Empire Age became a facilitator of imperialism.
• A hefty portion of the German church was infected by Hitler's National Socialism.
• Protestant and Catholic churches in Northern Ireland went berserk with nationalism.
• The white church in the American Deep South developed whole theologies to justify slavery, and later to maintain segregation.
• Some black churches embraced a "nationalism" formed by black liberation theology that sometimes became anti-Semitic and anti-white.
• Many of the government-sanctioned official churches in totalitarian nations function as legitimizers of the regime in power.
When a church becomes the slave of narrow political movements and cultural enthusiasms regarded as essential to preservation of national interests and personal happiness, a malignancy has entered the organism.
How does the American evangelical church transcend provincial nationalism and rise up into the trans-national worldview and style of the Kingdom of God?
1. The church must grasp its identity as the Embassy of the Kingdom of God disbursed throughout the world, its nations, and communities.
"To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered…" wrote Simon Peter in the salutation of his first letter to the disbursed Christians. (1 Peter 1:1) Later, he refers to them as "aliens" as well as "strangers." (1 Peter 2:11) Paul wrote that "we are ambassadors for Christ" and primarily citizens of the Kingdom of God. (2 Corinthians 5:20; Philippians 3:20)
For a church to define itself in provincial or national terms is to abandon the high call and strategic mission for which God has placed it in the world, a nation, and locality. Ultimately it confuses the local with the universal, and, worse, mistakes values and styles of the immediate socio-cultural environment as synonymous with the Kingdom of God. Such a church easily loses vision for the Kingdom and its very purpose for being.
2. Churches should see the provincialism-nationalism in the way they identify themselves, and consider new names that express Kingdom awareness rather than nationalistic alignment.
In 1973 Presbyterians concerned about theological liberalism in mainline American Presbyterianism assembled in Birmingham, and formed a new denomination, initially called The National Presbyterian Church. In 1974, the name became The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The change was more than cosmetic. The PCA freed itself from the provincialism that could have unconsciously limited Kingdom vision, and saw itself as planted by the Holy Spirit in America as its "Jerusalem" in that wider mission that would take it into "Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth."
The Church of England, of Scotland, of Ireland, of Sweden, etc., might free themselves from cultural and social entrapments and be more biblically accurate if they labeled themselves "The Church in England," etc.
3. Churches must see and be willing to embrace the whole demographic of their communities, regions, nations, and world.
Provincial-nationalistic churches target limited demographics. Where does a city-slicker fit in a "cowboy church" or an older adult in a "contemporary church," or, for that matter, a teen or college student in a "traditional church"? Where does a Hispanic or Latino find a place in an "Anglo church" or vice-versa?
This is not to say churches are not to target special groups. However, targeted demographics should not become the whole identity of a church. The Kingdom church is inclusive but not preferential. The Grecian widows were not the whole of the first Jerusalem church, but they and their needs were important to that fellowship, and led to the establishment of deacons who would serve the widows and the whole church. (Acts 6) Later, James recognizes there were both rich and poor in church assemblies, and warned against preference being given to what the world viewed as the "aristocrats". (James 2)
So how does the contemporary church rediscover its Kingdom identity and shed the nationalistic encrustation? That's what we will examine next as we consider things learned in seeking to build a multiethnic, multinational, multicultural church in Houston, Texas, America's most cosmopolitan city.