In 2 Kings 6, the prophet Elisha has become the object of the king of Syria’s ire. The king has sent “horses and chariots and a great army” to rid himself of the man of God. When Elisha’s servant sees the host arrayed against his master, he understandably freaks out and cries, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” to which Elisha replies, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
I suspect that the look on the servant’s face told Elisha everything he needed to know because he then prayed, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” Then his servant saw what Elisha saw: “The mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” The Syrians never stood a chance.
We are all Elisha’s servant sometimes (most of the time? virtually all of the time?), especially when it comes to talking about the fate of Christianity in American culture. We are locked into a narrative of decline in which America will become like Western and Northern Europe, and being a faithful Christian outside of church will be difficult when it’s not impossible.
O Lord, please open our eyes that we may see.
I recently heard a portion of an address by a prominent evangelical leader who, having talked about the dire straits that American Christians, and the United States more generally, find ourselves in, including the takeover of government by “godless secularism,” told Christians that they could no longer afford to be “quiet.”
My first response to that was, in the words of Norm McDonald, “Wait . . . what?” We haven’t shut up since Ronald Reagan was president. There’s no shortage of whatever-the-opposite-of-“quiet”-is-in-this-context (noisy? loud?) Christians.
My more considered response was “O Lord, please open our eyes that we may see.”
During the Wilberforce Weekend, I spent a lot of time with Joseph Castleberry, the president of Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington and the author of “The New Pilgrims: How Immigrants are Renewing America’s Faith and Values.” (Castleberry’s book was the subject of this BreakPoint commentary.)
I had lunch with Castleberry along with my dear friend Paul and my new friend Steven, during which we discussed the implications for American Christianity of what Castleberry calls the “high octane” Christians coming to the United States, especially from Latin America. (Actually, Paul and Steve patiently listened while Joseph and I went on and on . . .)
The first thing that needs to be said is that one of the ways God has blessed the United States is in the nature of the people immigrating here. Whereas Europe is currently struggling with a huge wave of refugees/migrants/people-who-showed-up-one-day that is overwhelmingly Muslim, three quarters of those seeking to come to the United States, and virtually all of the Latin Americans, are at least nominally Christian. (According to Castleberry, for those here illegally, the number is closer to 85 percent.)
And, in many instances, this Christian faith goes way beyond the nominal. I’ve told the story of the women who clean my home: All of them are Latina immigrants and all of them are Pentecostal Christians. Thus, we share two languages: the mother tongue, and what might be called the “Father tongue,” i.e., the language of Christian faith.
As Castleberry and others have documented, they are far from outliers, and their impact is already being felt. An example is Castleberry’s own denomination, the Assemblies of God. “In 2001, nearly 71 percent of the denomination was white Americans. By 2012, that percentage had dropped to under 60 percent. By 2020, it’s estimated the Assemblies of God will be a ‘majority-minority’ denomination.” All of this has coincided with steady growth here in the United States, as well as abroad. The principal engine behind this growth is immigration—in particular, Latino immigration.
The same story can be told about the Catholic Church. As Castleberry writes, “Immigrants from Latin America, the Philippines, and Africa keep parishes open and even thriving. In 2014, Hispanics made up almost half of all Catholics under age 40, with 54 percent of young Catholics being non-white.” What’s more, in keeping with his “high octane” theme, an NPR and Robert Wood Johnson report found that “about one-third of Latino Catholics in the U.S. identify as Charismatic.”
Yet, as I’ve said elsewhere, “In all the talk about Christianity’s ‘decline’ and the rise of the ‘nones,’ it is clear that those doing the talking had a particular image of Christianity in mind that definitely did not include [these folks] or even their children or grandchildren.”
And that brings me to the second thing that needs to be said: Christianity, at least the kind that goes beyond the nominal, isn’t declining—its “face” is literally changing.
Actually, that’s been true for a while. In an important piece for Christianity Today, “Defining Evangelicals in an Election Year,” Ed Stetzer and Leith Anderson told readers that “Broken out by ethnicity, 29 percent of whites, 44 percent of African Americans, 30 percent of Hispanics, and 17 percent of people from other ethnicities have evangelical beliefs.” Do the math and you will find that around 36 percent of people with evangelical beliefs are “non-white.”
And that percentage is only going to grow. As I’ve pointed out, even African-American and Latino “nones” are different from their “White” counterparts: They were much more likely to say that religion was “important” in their lives, which raises the question of whether they are truly secular and/or post-Christian, or simply unchurched. (For what it’s worth, Castleberry and I say that it’s the latter.) American Christianity as a whole is on the same trajectory as the Assemblies of God and Christianity as a whole worldwide.
If the literal face of American Christianity is changing, this change has not registered with the people behind the narrative of decline. For them, the figurative face of American Christianity is still a white, middle-class Evangelical.
By “the people” I mean everyone who matters in defining the narrative. Neither the media nor the people WORLD Magazine calls “Evangelical Insiders,” with the notable exception of Christianity Today, take any meaningful notice of this changing face. (In the case of “Evangelical Insiders” this is especially ironic, since their preferred presidential candidate and his wife are part of the phenomenon.) Their dueling and intersecting narratives about Christianity in the United States assume an American Christianity and a United States that, increasingly, no longer exists, at least not demographically.
¿Y para que leer un periodico de ayer? Roughly, “that’s yesterday’s news.” Tim Keller has said “Whenever people say to me, ‘We’re getting more secular,’ I say ‘No, only white people are getting more secular.’” He points to what he calls the “spring breezes” of Christianity in places like Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Today’s news is that people transformed and empowered by those breezes are coming here, and they are bringing their “high octane” faith with them.
So, where does this leave us? Somewhere new, to be sure, but not in decline, unless you measure vitality and strength almost entirely in terms of cultural and political influence. It’s true that there isn’t any part of creation over which Christ doesn’t cry “Mine!” but that was equally true during the first three centuries of Christianity’s spread, and those Christians had no illusions about wielding cultural and political influence.
In other words, just as the risen Lord didn’t restore the kingdom to Israel at his ascension, the much-prayed-for revival may not be accompanied by a corresponding restoration of what Mark Noll has dubbed an “informal Christendom.” We may have to settle for the Book of Acts, complete with those who might as well be Gentiles as far as the “official” narrative goes. Hey, that didn’t turn out so bad, did it?
O Lord, please open our eyes that we may see.
Have a Follow-up Question?
Want to dig deeper?
If you want to challenge yourself as many others have done, sign up below.