After a cancelled flight on Sunday, I finally made it to Princeton on Monday afternoon for the Envision 08 conference. I was bummed about missing some of the opening sessions, but it's been great to be here. I've been catching up with people I know and meeting new folks that I've heard of but had not yet met in person.
Last night's plenary consisted of five presenters in something of a "preach-off." One of the speakers was Soong-Chan Rah, professor at North Park Theological Seminary, and he gave a preview of his forthcoming book The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (releasing spring 09). He talked about how the church in Acts 15 was shifting from a culturally Jewish church to a majority Gentile church, and that the North American church today is likewise transitioning from a predominantly white context into an increasingly diverse, multiethnic world. Just as Philip Jenkins has chronicled in The Next Christendom that the future of the church is in the global south of Africa, Asia and Latin America, so to is globalization and immigration transforming the face of North American Christianity.
Soong-Chan used to be a pastor in the Boston area, and people would ask him about how spiritually dead things were there. He'd respond that the church was thriving in Boston - the number of churches there had doubled in the last three decades. But much of that growth was from immigrant congregations, many of which worshipped in languages other than English. So it's not that the church is declining - it's just that the face of American evangelicalism is changing away from a predominantly white culture.
A recurring theme here has been that the gospel must be good news for both the individual and for society. Presenters have talked a lot about shalom theology and seeking the welfare of everybody, especially the marginalized and alienated. We've unpacked what it looks like to seek justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. It's not enough to have a theology of personal salvation; we must also live out a commitment to care for the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy.
This afternoon I was on a panel about the future of the church. Eight of us presented in a pecha-kucha format where we showed twenty slides for twenty seconds each. I've never prepped so much for a six-minute, forty-second talk. It's much harder to put together than the usual PowerPoint presentation; it's really more of a performance art form where image and word go together in a very disciplined, structured format. My presentation was on the missional suburban church, and others talked about different corners of the church, whether overseas or in the cities or the Native American experience or the emergent church.
A common theme was the importance of understanding our context. Several of us talked about needing to understand our history, the legacy of empire and colonialism, and while all of us face challenges, there were signs of hope in every case. So it was tremendously encouraging to hear these reports from other corners of contemporary Christianity and hear how communities are working together to be heralds of the love of God and the peace of Jesus Christ to the world.
During the Q&A, I plugged Andy Crouch's Culture Making and cited something that Andy said about how in today's society, almost all of us are like immigrants, and all of us are missionaries. And I extended that and said that all of us also need to be cultural anthropologists. We need to study and explore the context that we've been called to inhabit and minister to.
Later on another speaker observed that one of the major shifts that the church needs to make is to stop thinking in terms of "us vs. them" and to think more in terms of "us for all of us," that we can partner and collaborate with our neighbors and fellow citizens for the sake of the common good. It's a recovery of our Christian tradition of charity and social justice, like our 19th-century heritage of abolition, hospitals, schools and human rights. We can likewise advocate for justice, health care and education, work to alleviate global poverty, fight sex trafficking and build bridges for reconciliation in our own generation.
Tonight's closing service honored activist John Perkins for a lifetime of work for civil rights and justice, community development and racial reconciliation. Conference co-director Lisa Harper also cited Andy Crouch, who said of John Perkins, "It is funny how little known his name is, but in terms of shaping American evangelicalism as it comes into the twenty-first century, he is right up there with Billy Graham." (Lisa has a new book, Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican or Democrat, coming out soon that references this.) The conference named a new award in his name, and Perkins then gave some remarks. He said that he was very encouraged by Envision, that this generation of motivated and mobilized Christians is in some ways the fulfillment of the legacy that he was working for back in the '60s.
This was the first Envision conference, and the conference organizers told me that they hope to hold it again every two years or so. I was honored to be a part of this inaugural one, and I wish them the best as they plan for the future.