Minorities and the meaning of Christian, Christendom, and Church

Not long ago I was talking with a colleague in leadership in an African-American congregation.  We were swapping stories of our relationships and encounters with those who don’t attend church.  Our perceptions and experiences had some overlap but also were quite different.  The overlap was that we each of us knew and met those who either knew little about Christianity or who had rejected the  Christianity they were raised in.  We differed in that my colleague assumed that the majority of those he interacted with who weren’t active members of a congregation shared a more or less Christian perspective.  Where as I assume that anyone who isn’t active in a Christian congregation doesn’t share Christian language and perspective.

A question that arose for me was the degree to which in ethnic minority contexts does Christendom still function? I’m wondering what meaning if any might my distinction between Christian, Christendom, and Church have in African-American or ethnic minority contexts?

When my Swedish forebears came to the United States, Swedish Lutheran and Swedish Mission Friend congregations served as not only places for worship and community with other Christians and Swedes but also, a place where one could get help finding a job,  support in illness, or aid while jobless.  Congregations were places of empowerment and mutual support.  This function of congregations seems to be one function Christian congregations have in Christendom in the U.S.  I’ve noticed that some multicultural congregations, most African-American and Hispanic congregations in the evangelical Covenant Church still are such centers of community, mutual support and empowerment for both members of the congregation and for those in the larger community.    Outside of these context congregations don’t function that way.  Also, it seems that once the Swedes in my denomination assimilated and became English-speaking congregations that we developed programs (another aspect of Christendom in the U.S. in my opinion) and ceased to be places of mutual aid and support.

Something is needling me around my own categories and the debates and the anxieties around all the future of Christian institutions in the United States.  Are these problems and anxieties around our institutional life really about loss of dominance and influence, the loss of privilege, thus a “White” problem? (C.F. Tripp Hudgins recent post on seminary education and pastors being middle class.)

The question emerged out of my conversation with my African-American colleague, as I experienced a difference in presupposition rooted  in a difference in the lived experience of congregational life.  The impression I was left with from our conversation was that I engage the world based upon the assumption that Christian faith no longer holds a privileged position in my (White?) contexts.  For me acting as if I could have a shared perspective and language based in Christian presuppositions is to insist on privilege.  I chose to let that go.  From my colleague’s approach to the world was the presupposition that the shared Christian milieu was a means of empowerment and mutual aid and support.  Thus, for him to encourage a return to Church or Christ to those he meets on the street and interact with socially was an invitation into a community of empowerment and mutual aid, and a means to work against injustices.  There are contradictions here since the source of that injustice and oppression is other (White) Christians, which is the reason some my colleague engages outside his congregation is rejection of Christianity as a White religion. An assertion my colleague obviously rejects.  Though it does show that even for my colleague a shared Christian understanding isn’t  monolithic in his context.

Yet, what I’m seeing is that my attempt to make sense of and faithfully respond to our changing context is based upon a presupposition that much of U.S history has been a history of Christendom, and thus privileging of Christianity.  I assume that the way through is let go of the privilege.  However, for my colleague Christendom didn’t offer a privileged status, rather the structures of congregations in Christendom allowed for, in a segregated context, centers of empowerment and mutual aid.

I guess I saying that even as we seek to figure out where we are at and at the same time seek to work for justice that those from privileged places need to accept a loss of privilege while not dictating to those without our privilege how to navigate the changes, and those changes may actually be different in their contexts.

The problem is that it leaves us still separate, segregated even, in the ruins of American Christendom.  I’m not sure what to do with that.  Perhaps, it is finding ways to listen.  Our place of meeting may be that we all need to find ways to carry the reality of the Church, as Body of Christ, into our changing context, while letting go of the trappings of Christendom and Christianity that no longer apply.  We need to do this together but without telling each other how to do it.  It perhaps begins as my colleague and I did sharing and swapping stories of how we minister and live out our faith before the world.