the (or at least “a”) problem with evangelical white churches

the (or at least “a”) problem with evangelical white churches July 2, 2015

ConnBelow are some words of wisdom from Harvie M. Conn (1933-99) from his book Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching GraceConn was one of my theology professors in seminary, who spent 12 years as a missionary in Korea to women in prostitution, seeing them as victims of sinful societal structures rather than simply “sinners.”

For too long evangelical white churches in the United States have had a “come” structure. . . . One cannot be a missionary church and continue insisting that the world must come to the church on the church’s terms. It must become a “go” structure. And it can only do that when its concerns are directed outside itself toward the poor, the abused, and the oppressed. The church must recapture its identity as the only organization in the world that exists for the sake of its non-members.

I am drawn to this quote. It captures for me a bigger vision for how to spend our time on this earth–for others. I often lose that sense when I am doing repairs on my house, getting ready for classes, balancing our check book, or writing blog posts.

Conn was a bit of a radical back in the day, and many of us loved him for it. He was always pushing us vanilla white Presbyterian males to get over ourselves and our strangle hold on intellectual orthodoxy. Following Jesus meant venturing out of our ivory towers, getting dirty–and exposing our familiar theological categories to scrutiny.

Conn was a truly missional theologian: true theology means living it among those who are not at all like you, and in doing so, you will likely find your own intellectual theological structures challenged and changed for the better (echoes of Lesslie Newbigin, to be sure).

Not always the easiest thing for protectionist Calvinists to hear (and Conn got into a bit of trouble for being so outspoken).

[I blogged on Conn a few years ago at my old website, and you can access those posts here, though comments will only be engaged on this blog.]

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  • Chip

    Harvie was my advisor at Westminster and whenever I was to be on campus he would write me and ask, “Could you set aside a lunch for me while you are here so we can catch up.” I would have been content to follow along behind Harv in a hallway to listen in on his conversations with other students…and he wanted ME to set aside time for HIM?? He was a great man. He traveled around the world but found time to spend two weekends in my church. He’s been gone for 16 years and I still think about him.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Thanks for the reference to Conn. New to me, but appears to be a voice from the not too distant past that can help us measure how far we have come (or not come) in the last twenty or thirty years.

    A fine summary indeed of the sad effect of thinking that all (our) current doctrine is fixed – not to mention interpretations of Scripture. “a time warp that gnosticizes the particularity of time and culture.”

    Easy to see how he raised a few hackles in his day. Also clear that we still wrestle with the same ideas. Hopefully, more are seeing things his way now ?? “…. biblical theology does not pride itself on its ‘objectivity,’ its ‘presuppositionlessness,’ its ‘value-neutrality’…….The ‘not yet’ of biblical theology should make us ‘pervasively suspicious’ about our ideas, our ideologies, our value judgments.”

    I may just have to pick up a copy of Conn’s “Eternal Word and Changing Worlds” on the used market. Would be great if Amazon would publish an electronic version.

    Also good to be reminded of the original blog. I liked that header and the bit about tearing down in order to build up. Painful but sometimes the only way. The same principle applied to a different but essential arena can be detected in the developing alliance between Canada’s most famous secular Jewish feminist and the Pope. Just go to Google News and search Naomi Klein.

  • Gary

    What I yet find fascinating about it is that the viewing of outsiders is the poor, abused, and oppressed–the lesser. While very noble to aid those of lesser benefit, this kind of simple view of us vs. them still can yield terribly problematic consequences. Navigating the “come” vs. “go” fork in the road merely gets one to a next junction. One can “go,” but the challenge of the implicit superiority that can come as pre-packed bags for this mindset is that one is thus to “go and tell” or “go and do.” “The world” has more than Korean prostitutes. Yes, it most certainly does and yes there’s much goodness to be done and given, but yet another as sad stranglehold can be found. That’s when one doesn’t think one has any of the lesser traits of any kids of poverty, abuse, or oppression that can not be benefited from the interaction with outsiders. Something else to be pondered is not just to “go and tell and do,” but to “go and listen and receive.” Maybe somebody else has found a better way. Maybe the outsider bucketized into the label of “the world” has something greater. This is a first step along a journey, but there are many more. All one has to do is to put “go” with nationalism or sexism or imperialism or religiosity and perhaps it might have been better to have stayed home. As a frequent backpacker, I can’t help but think of the principle of “leave no trace”–the idea of taking only photographs and leaving only quite light footprints. That’s not quite what I have in mind here but at least related. A few years ago I had a youth worker going into my son’s world for instance. On the bus trip back from camp he was telling my son about the centrality of the earth being 6,000 years old and a literal Adam. My son, then around 10, pretty much knew it was lunacy. My son, now a decade later, still thinks that way of thinking is lunacy. You talk as if getting theological structures challenged is a secondary side effect. What if it were actually that which was sought? Being “missional” (at least in most of my exposure) centrally has a high-minded certainty about one’s being right and giving a cup of cold water or something to poor unfortunate souls. I think service for service’s sake merely for the dignity of those young women is better than the bait-and-switch of the Gospel almost every single time I’ve seen it proffered. Do I think Newbiggin got this? Yes. Conn? From what you describe. Most? Not at all.

  • Mark K

    How’d you win the lottery with a guy like this? My most notable professor in seminary was a psychotic 12-year-old from Texas.

    On a more productive note, “The Word’s Out” by Male and Weston urges the same point Conn makes, and by a couple of British Anglicans (well, both are British, anyway). And Bevans and Schroeder, “Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today,” is where I first came across the saying: It’s not so much that the church has a mission, it’s that the mission has a church. How much of American Evangelical angst would just dissolve if we bought this?

  • Paul D.

    How can you “go” anywhere when all your effort goes toward fences to keep members inside the fold? 🙂

    • Mark K

      And to keep the great unwashed out of our pristine assemblies. Remember, bad company corrupts good morals.

      • Stuart Blessman

        Got to keep that faithful remnant race pure…

  • “Go” was the command for followers, but somehow “Build it and they will come” seems to be what many churches do (“they” being people reflecting the right fit for the group of worshipers–a model coopted by exclusive country clubs)

  • Harvie Conn was one of the good guys and a good reminder that, even in the middle of an ideological cauldron like SoCal presbyterianism, you’ve got some good people who just love the church and ministry and would just as soon focus their sharp theological minds on that.

    One thing this article made me think of is the relationship between the “go” call and the “come” call. It seems like the core of both is the radical embodiment of Jesus Christ in the world in all its blessing, forgiveness, healing, and salvation. I think the “come” strategy would be a lot more effective if we were the kinds of communities people would actually want to come to.

  • Ross

    I suppose that both we and our churches are much more assimilated into the “World” than we’d easily care to admit.

    I’m not sure of any church which resembles the “early church”, though some do more than others.

    Maybe our churches need to be filled with “sinners” rather than the “pure”. I find it very difficult going to churches where everyone else seems to be so much better behaved than me!

  • HenryC

    Do you go out into the community or elsewhere in the world. There are plenty of changes to go into the school, the community, and your neighbors. Opening a branch church on the other side of town can save as many as opening on the other side of the world.

  • He has different ways to treat other people. He doesn’t look people from their covers. He has an attempt to bring those people to the right path. If there are more people like him, I’m sure this world is safe.