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A Summary of The Transformation of American Religion – Alan Wolfe

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I read it because it is often cited along with James Hunter’s To Change the World, a book on culture to which I refer often.

Where Hunter looks at how the church, in its distinctive liberal, conservative and Anabaptist expressions, tries to change society and culture, Wolfe looks at how culture has changed religion (looking primarily at Jewish, Catholic and Protestant religious communities). As a non-believer and non-theologian, Wolfe’s analysis is of one looking from the outside in.

“Sociologists a few decades ago predicted the decline of religion in modern societies, but in the most modern society of all religion has neither declined nor advanced; it has been transformed.” Hence, Wolfe is sympathetic to religions and aware of their prominent place within American society.

Yet, he affirms, “American popular culture is both amazingly indifferent to those seeking to shape its direction and astonishingly competent at absorbing and transforming anyone who tries.” From the book jacket, it states that “God has met and struggled fiercely against American culture – and the culture has won.”

Wolfe begins with worship, stating that it no longer centers on God but rather on the self: the self’s experience, relationship to the divine, development and general good feelings.

He then looks at fellowship, which he thinks has moved from being denominational to being anti-institutional. The effect is a free-agent moving from denomination to denomination and to non-denominational and para-church gatherings, looking for that which best meets the individual’s needs.

Concerning doctrine, Wolfe says that it is no longer central to faith communities. Doctrine is liberalized, making it more palatable for the surrounding society. Where commitments are made to doctrine, they are mostly superficial and adherents rarely know the rational for the doctrine or are able to engage with countering ideas. Often, there is belief without a specified content of the belief.

Tradition. Conservative religious communities may continue to commit to traditional forms, but the locus of applying tradition is not in the “handing down” but in the “picking up” of what the individual wants and how they want. Generally, traditions succumb to American innovation that seeks to be familiar and welcoming to potential converts.

In his chapter on morality, Wolfe talks about how conservative doctrine marginalizes women. Yet, the actual practice in their faith communities is less misogynistic and more empowering of women. While sexual promiscuity and divorce rates are the same if not higher in religious communities, sexual practices are shaped by the religious communities – although in ways that view sexuality positively (as opposed to Church Fathers like Augustine or Puritan beliefs). That is to say, morality is redefined. Because of its success in adhering to its moral requirements, Wolfe treats the Mormon Church in this chapter, stating that it too may be more influenced by surrounding society as it grows out of its Utah bed. While he is skeptical of calling it causal, Wolfe also mentions religious communities engaging in helping poor communities and the holistic change that occurs in these communities. Finally, Wolfe cites a study in which religious adherents were more honest than their non-religious colleagues (signs of the impact of faith on behavior) and other studies that show that they are just as likely to cheat and more hypocritical (signs of behavior irregardless of faith).

Wolfe surprisingly laments the loss of conceptualizations and vocabulary for sin because he understands the social costs of not naming and aspiring to high ideals of conduct. He sees the crux of the problem shifting from offense to God to the destruction of the human. He sees the loss of sin in its homiletic usage as preachers do not want to sound judgmental but rather positive. He sees the replacement of sin with psychological notions of dysfunction. Thus, response isn’t repentance or penance but rather therapy.

Wolfe goes on to discuss “witness,” by which he means the sharing of one’s faith with non-believers. He notes how conservative Christians have moved from fire and brimstone preaching to the sharing of faith by their lifestyle or by service to others. While there may be increased timidity in the face of society, where there is willingness to share, it is not judgmental. In this way, the evangelist, like a good salesperson, is asking less from the potential convert and offering more. Wolfe also looks at the changing demographics caused by urban sprawl, which make the public spaces, where interaction occurs with potential converts in the city less secure, and greatly reduces space for interaction outside the city. Finally, using the Christian television and music industries as examples, Wolfe describes how in employing the media of the world (i.e. radio, movies, etc.), Christians gain notoriety and finances but loose their Christian identity – what Wolfe calls a Faustian pact.

In his chapter on identity, Wolfe discusses Islam, its ability to preserve the religious identity of its adherents while also changing its religious practices in the American context. Wolfe here also describes how immigrant communities, typically from Asia or Latin America, are conservative and stable, aspects which meet deep needs of volatile migrants. Some convert to Christianity upon arrival in America, describing their new faith as enabling to their becoming good Americans. For second-generation immigrants, conservatism is not as important and many turn to charismatic and para-church expressions of Christianity. Where Islam is being preserved by its immigrant adherents and Christianity discovered, Buddhism is drawing Americans. However, Wolfe describes this as an Americanized Buddhism that is more psychological, more meditative and organized more like churches and that is not wholly condoned or accepted by Buddhist immigrants. Looking at the broad sweep of American identity, Wolfe believes that religion, in light of immigration policy, can no longer be a central and unifying feature of American identity, which raises questions about pluralism, tolerance and social cohesion. (Written in 2003, Wolfe’s optimism for increased religious tolerance, while perhaps true, did not anticipateTrumpian exclusive nationalism.)

Wolfe concludes by advocating for ongoing religious practice in society, albeit with lower expectations as it shifts in conformity to American democracy. Wolfe also chastens liberals who quickly write off religious communities as close-minded and unable to engage intellectual debate, suggesting that they make room for democratic discourse, for their voice and practices, even when they are not agreeable. Pragmatically, Wolfe advises that society give less credence to what believers say (which may be dogmatic and exclusive) and more to what they do (which is typically moderate and more shaped by the surrounding culture than not.)

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For Mission or For Church? – A Question about the Future of the Lausanne Movement

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the church’s participation in the Lausanne Movement. At the event, there were about 4,000 participants from 198 nations. The goal was to have the participants represent the demographic of global church leaders. Although women, as a percentage of the global church, were underrepresented, the ethnic representation was quite diverse. I was impressed by the constant possibility to listen, to encourage and to build relationships across broad swaths of the church.

However, Andy Crouch noticed that another particular group was underrepresented. In his article for Christianity Today entitled ‘Unrepresented at Cape Town’, Crouch observed that of the four thousand delegates participating at the Third Lausanne Congress in Cape Town, the prominent figures from evangelical churches in the U.S. were underrepresented. Crouch speculates that their absence is due to these “important” leaders’ decision to use their power and time elsewhere. From his observation, Crouch extrapolates implications on power, influence, innovation and the future of global evangelical movements. While I would agree with some of Crouch’s analysis, I think that the absence of “western” Church leaders is not simply a matter of their deciding how they use with their influence and their limited time; rather, it points to a deeper problem inherent in the Lausanne Movement. It reveals a division in the Lausanne Movement between traditional “sending” countries and traditional “receiving” countries, and it indicates a misguided division between church and mission.

The West and the Rest

The inception and development of the Lausanne Movement has had the primary goal of engaging those outside the church through mission and evangelism. Many of the signatories and proponents of the Lausanne Covenant were churches interested in global mission, missionary agencies and para-church organizations.

However, as missionaries and evangelists established churches in these “unreached” locations, many of the new churches adopted the Lausanne Covenant as a statement of faith. The Lausanne Covenant was an intrinsic part of their make-up. Moreover, as churches networked, evangelical alliances and federations used the Lausanne Covenant as a basis for their organizations.

The result from these historical developments is that churches from the so-called “west” view the Lausanne Movement as relevant for outreach and primarily for cross-cultural mission while the rest of the global evangelical church understands the Lausanne Movement as a central statement of faith and a basis for ongoing church development.

So, I don’t think “western” evangelical church leaders were absent because they were not interested or because the Cape Town Congress was trumped by other priorities. Rather, I suspect that “western” church leaders do not view Lausanne as relevant to their church ministry. If my suspicion is true, a sad corollary is the cloaked patronization that our “western” churches, perhaps unwittingly, communicate: “We think that the Lausanne Movement is good for you, but we don’t need it.”

This, I think, is the real issue regarding the use of power – and not merely the access to the public platform, as Crouch supposes. The power of the “western” churches is the ability to do it alone. The “western” churches can afford to have their own individualized statements of faith and to choose whether or not they develop local partnerships. While these choices and individualistic stances are simply wrongheaded, in places where churches are a minority or where they have few resources, they are also luxuries. What is worse is that this use of power divides rather than unites the global church.

Church and Mission

Recognizing that the traditional “missionary-sending” churches appeal to the Lausanne Movement for its “missionary” activity but not for its “church” activity helps to identify an underlying theological problem. Namely, there is a rift between “church” and “mission”. Thinking that there is “mission” for those outside of the church and “church” for those inside the church is a mistake. Mission is the action of God through the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ, empowered by the Spirit to be the Father’s witnesses in the world. The church is missional, and mission is ecclesial.

Of course, this division between “church” and “mission” has been identified by many like Brunner, Newbigin and Bosch. What we see today in the lack of participation by “western” church pastors in the Lausanne Movement is a very concrete social manifestation of this theological error.

Unity through the Lausanne Movement

Although the divisions between the traditional “sending” churches and the traditional “receiving” churches and between conceptions of church and mission pose problems for the Lausanne Movement, the Lausanne Movement is in a unique position to ameliorate these divisions.

Lausanne can begin by naming these divisions as a problem.  Lausanne can continue bringing churches together, including traditional “receiving” churches but especially traditional “sending” churches. Lausanne can help the “western” churches learn from the missional churches in the “non-west” to develop missional perspectives and activities in their local church contexts. They can also help the “western” churches understand that the Lausanne Movement is not simply a mission movement but a church movement, and they can build relationships between local churches in the “west” and local churches throughout the world.

Likewise, Lausanne can facilitate the “non-western” churches in working with “western” churches to send missionaries not only into the local communities, cities and villages but also into trans-geographic contexts.

The Lausanne Movement can also facilitate the development of a more robust theology of missional churches and ecclesial mission.

By recognizing and mediating these divisions, the Lausanne Movement can support not only the church’s engagement in the world but also mediate healing and development within the global church. The church’s power can serve to bring us together. The church’s resources can be shared more effectively. The global church can become more united. And, at the end of the day, the Lausanne Movement itself will be a more credible representation of the global church.

Negotiating Citizenship: Immigrants

What if citizenship in heaven translated to immigrants being made to feel at home and as fellow citizens because we too are strangers and aliens made to feel welcome and offered citizenship in a kingdom in which we are completely unworthy to visit, let alone call home?

What if citizenship in heaven meant that immigrants were viewed by the church as a gift rather than a threat?

Negotiating Citizenship

A country always calls its people to be good citizens. This commitment to citizenship trumps all other allegiances.

We see this in American Christians who do not differentiate between being a Christian and American but rather equate being Christian with being American. We fly American flags in our sanctuaries, support our troops, and encourage Christians to support the Constitution and to obey the laws.

The fact that the commitment to one’s nation is the paramount obligation is even more evident in the national discourse on American Muslims. At every turn, Muslims are asked to prove that they are “good” Americans, which they do by affirming the Constitution, their belief in freedom and democracy, their participation in and sacrifice for the military, and their fidelity in paying taxes. But the burden of proving their American-ness is constantly on their shoulders – and the shoulders of other non-White and non-Christian citizens.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, citizenship was even more a privilege than it is in our democratic countries, and just a small portion of the population was citizens. Only males qualified for citizenship. You could not be a slave. Most were land owners. The Greco-Roman society was structured around its citizens, who were the Pater Familias, around whom other family members, servants, slaves and beneficiaries had their livelihoods and status.

Although cities were allowed to have their own civic religions, the emperor demanded utmost allegiance to himself. A good citizen was loyal to the king. Interestingly, one of the purposes of Josephus’s history of the Jews is to demonstrate that Jews are good Roman citizens.

In the early Church, there are also Christian claims to being good citizens. For instance, some speculate that Luke’s description of the Jerusalem church in Acts 2 and 4 depicts the ideal Greek notion of society.

However, most Christians were not citizens but rather, as Peter says, “strangers and aliens.” The early Church spoke about having their citizenship in heaven. Although they were not given citizenship in the kingdoms of this world, early Christians asserted their citizenship in the heavenly city. Today, I often hear interpretations of heavenly citizenship as being one’s passport to heaven. But for the early Church, heavenly citizenship was not so much about one’s eternal destination as it was a different basis for living in the present world. This citizenship shaped one’s convictions and actions. This citizenry was a place of belonging and social identity for the excluded and oppressed, particularly, for women, slaves, and non-property owners.

When the Church is later accepted and authorized by the Roman Empire, the distinction between Roman citizenship and heavenly citizenship is diluted. How did the Church respond? Many of the Church Fathers defended Christians as “good” citizens but still challenged the claims of the empire. Others renounced the privileges of the empire and lived in solitude or in small communities on the fringes of the empire, committing themselves to celibacy, poverty and other ascetic disciplines.

Usually, the ascetic commitments to celibacy, poverty and obedience are viewed as a reaction to the world’s dominant temptations of sex, wealth and power. While this is true, this view usually fails to see the social implications. Patlagean points out that these ascetic commitments redefined citizenship. The ascetic commitments challenged the foundations that shaped traditional identity: marriage, family and property. To be a “good” citizen in this new vision of society meant to choose poverty, celibacy, and ascetic generosity. This meant that relationships were based on freedom rather than power, on chastity and equality rather than progeny and misogyny, and on generosity rather than competition.

When I look at the vision of the early Church for a new society and its citizenry, I am challenged to renegotiate the places in which I commit to country and the places where I must resist its demands. I am challenged to re-evaluate my commitments to the state in light of my ultimate allegiance to my citizenship in heaven.

Former President Bill Clinton’s Use and Misuse of “Theology”

A few weeks back, former President Bill Clinton said that the present political environment is poisonous. The Republicans and the Democrats have gone beyond ideology into a kind of political theology.Clinton said, “If we can break out of theology and get back to evidence and experience and the aspirations of ordinary people, I think we can have bipartisan cooperation.”

I appreciate Clinton’s naming of “theology” and his introducing of the concept into public discourse. However, his understanding of “theology” is incorrect. He understands “theology” as those beliefs and commitments for which there is no evidence. And he thinks that “theology” is a more extreme position beyond “ideology,” a relentless commitment to one’s own position. Contrary to Clinton’s view, each ideology is also based on beliefs and commitments for which there is no complete ground of evidence. Thus, some faith commitment is necessary for every ideology. Moreover, each ideology is itself a particular theology, addressing perspectives on justice, power and life. Each ideology flows from a particular understanding of “god,” and each ideology legitimizes and sanctions itself by appealing to its “god.”

Clinton’s observations and recommendations are themselves based on Clinton’s own theology.Clinton insists that we “look at the job numbers, look at the vested numbers, look at the growth numbers, look at the productivity numbers, look at the numbers.” Using these numbers requires a certain selection and a certain interpretation, and it portrays and sustains a certain theology. Clinton says, “It cannot be possible that either the Democrats or the Republicans are always wrong. It cannot be possible that a hundred percent of us are proceeding in bad faith.” Notice the bald theological language that Clinton uses: “faith.” The basis for discerning and determining what is right implies a “faith.”

Clinton urges us to move away from our theologies. This really is impossible. Politicians promote a certain view of society that reflects a particular view of “god” – even when the promoters claim to be secular or a-theistic. People cannot become less theological. Political views (just like social, economic, health policies, etc.) are always begging the question: which “god?” or whose “theology?” In a realm of lies, doublespeak and demagoguery, we should be calling for politicians and public personalities to be more theological. If theologies (i.e. ideologies, social visions, economic polices, etc) are clarified, policy objectives can be affirmed or disapproved in relation to the declared theologies. Deriving policy objectives from theology also creates space for negotiation, where policy objectives may be compromised without having to compromise one’s theology. And in democratic societies that include many diverse and contradicting theologies, compromise is essential.

In trying to have a gracious reading of Clinton’s view, I think that he is not really calling us to be less theological. Rather, he is inviting each party to become less entrenched in their own particular ideologies and to have the courage and willingness to consider the view of the other. Unfortunately, most political “gods” are jealous of their adherents and don’t allow them to consider others. As Christians, however, we can offer a unique perspective based on our theology that claims to know truth and to love those completely other than ourselves. In the sphere of larger society, we can call for candid speech and truth-telling, while naming and condemning discourse that is deceptive. And we can attempt to understand the perspectives of others and to build society together, even where there is disagreement. At this point, we can appropriate Clinton’s suggestion to identify what is right in those different than ourselves.

Advocating for the Spirit’s Power to Transform Society in the Cape Town Commitments

Section 5 of the first part of the Cape Town Commitments affirms that “we love God the Holy Spirit.” I really appreciate the emphasis in this section on the Person of the Spirit and mission of the Spirit, which are not subordinated to the other Persons or actions of the Trinity.*

In the draft version of part a), which elaborates the activity of the Spirit in the Old Testament, the effects of the outpouring of the Spirit listed are “new life and fresh obedience to the people of God.” Keeping in mind the theme of the Congress, “Reconciliation,” I was surprised that there was no explicit reference to “sons and daughters” or “all humanity,” which are clearly articulated in the text from Joel 2. While section 5b) does mention the power of the Spirit for social engagement, I recommended that 5a) should mention accessibility of the Spirit which, by virtue of the Spirit’s outpouring, brings social transformation.

In the final version of the Cape Town Commitments, the document incorporated this recommendation, stating:

Prophets also looked to the coming age that would be marked by the outpouring of God’s Spirit, bringing new life, fresh obedience, and prophetic gifting to all the people of God, young and old, men and women.

* This is my second post on the Cape Town Commitments. Please refer to the first post on Mary for background.

Can Christians Celebrate Memorial Day?

Memorial Day is the major holy day of American civic religion. More than Presidents’ Day, more than Labor Day and even more than Independence Day, Memorial Day is set apart for a service of commemoration of a particular narration of what has made America America. The power of the saluting rifles, the glory of the roaring F-16s, the waving red, white and blue, and the parading military is public liturgy, evoking worship from each citizen. Although the celebration feeds the acceptance and perpetuation of the largest military the world has ever known, the focus of this worship service is the memorial for the fallen soldiers. My question is: should we as Christians participate in Memorial Day?

A few months ago, I was asked to write a letter to my grandfather to honor him for his service in the army during World War II. As a Christian, I wrestle with the reality of violence and its correlates of war, nationalism and soldiers. This is not a new struggle for we know that the early church debated whether one could be a Christian and still be a soldier. But I do realize that we live in a violent world and that our actions and reactions are not always black and white. Although my views on my grandfather’s military service are certainly different than his own, I wanted to honor him for risking his life, for fighting for something greater than himself, for the suffering he witnessed and experienced in his body and soul. And I honored him for surviving and for living his life as a veteran by trying to honor those who did not survive.

There is something to be said for committing to care for one’s place, to one’s community and to one’s people. E.M. Forster said that if it came to a choice between dying for his country and dying for his friend, he hoped that he would have the courage to deny his country. However, Alasdair MacIntyre criticized Forster, saying that if anyone can formulate such a contrast, they have no country and that they are a citizen of nowhere. Still, a major problem with our commitment to country, to friends, and to citizenry is the increasing tribalism, which grounds its collective identity through the exclusion of others. This is easily visible on Memorial Day as we honor our victims of war but not their victims of war. As a Christian participating in the Memorial Day liturgy, I think the honoring of the victims of our “collateral damage” would be a good start in differentiating ourselves from non-Christian commemoration. After all, we are the “holy people” that is called to love the strangers and even our enemies.

This can be a first step but not the last, as the waters of this strange baptism of the military run deep. A dear Christian lady that I know attaches to the signature of all her correspondence this declaration: “Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you.  Jesus Christ and the American GI. One died for your soul, the other for your freedom.” Sadly, the enshrinement of soldiers alongside Jesus is not uncommon.

This not only wrongly legitimizes the American military, it is also heretical by projecting salvific power onto the American GI. Here the soldier is not only an American idol; they are also the sacrifice placed on the altar of American claims to power. As Christians, we say that all power, honor and glory belong to a slain Lamb – an image that counters and subverts all worldly idols and their claims to power.

Also, Christians do not understand freedom and conferred by the State but rather by Christ. He whom the Son sets free is free indeed. That is why the heroes of the church are the martyrs: those who are free to lay down their lives for others. It is a little disturbing that many churches set aside time during their worship services to honor the soldiers who have died but do not set aside time during their services to honor the Christian martyrs, who lived and died as examples and witnesses to our faith.

The major irreconcilable difference between the American GI and Christ is that the soldier is commissioned to kill for the American people, while Jesus chose not to kill but rather to die for me and for all peoples, while we were still his enemies.

Ultimately, for Christians, America’s Memorial Day must be subordinated to the Church’s “Memorial Day,” which we celebrate every time we partake of the Eucharistic liturgy: taking the cup and the broken bread in remembrance of him who chose to die for us rather than to destroy us. We remember, ingest and proclaim his death until he comes. That is a Memorial we can truly celebrate.

 

Advocating for Mary in the Cape Town Commitments

Our community has used the Lausanne Covenant as a statement of faith and has also promoted the Manila Manifesto with our staff. The latest statement of faith from the Lausanne Movement is the Cape Town Commitments. Although all statements of faith have their weaknesses, I am a fan of the Commitments. While the Lausanne Covenant and the Manila Manifesto took as their point of departure Jesus’ Great Commission to go into all the world to make disciples of all nations, the Cape Town Commitments start with Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The translation of the Cape Town Commitments into Romanian has just been completed by Paulian Petric and published on Danut Manastireaunu’s blog.

With the advent of the translation, I decided to post some of my suggestions for the final version of the Cape Town Commitments. We received a draft at the convention in Cape Town, and I sent my suggestions to a few of the members of the theology working group. Although I never heard back from the theology working group, I did notice that some of my suggestions were incorporated into the final version.

In the draft, under point number four, the Commitments affirm that “We love God the Son.” Sub-point a) offers a summary of Jesus’ life. However, nowhere did it reference Mary, to whom the church later gives the name “God-bearer.” It might be expected of Protestant and Neo-protestant Christians to exclude Mary, either intentionally or unintentionally, from their statements of faith. It actually seems strange to me that I would be advocating for Mary in light of the fact that I have witnessed many non-orthodox attitudes and practices towards Mary. Still, to marginalize Mary from our theologies and practices means that our own theologies and practices are distorted.

When we affirm Mary as the virgin mother of Jesus, as the Nicene Creed correctly does, we acknowledge that Jesus is situated not only in historical terms (which the Commitments imply by naming Jesus “of Nazareth”) but also in human terms. If Jesus would not be born of Mary, then the Son would not be human. Athanasius and the Church Fathers said that whatever is not assumed by Christ is not redeemed. By assuming all of our humanity, all humanity may be redeemed (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). That is, God didn’t act in human history from an outer realm, and the Son didn’t fall from the sky into human history. Rather, the Son is “born of a virgin through the Holy Spirit”, bringing salvation through and within humanity. Without Mary, our humanity is lost.

Mary has been included in this section of the final version of the Cape Town Commitments.

 

St. Basil on Greed

The harshest form of covetousness is not even to give things perishable to those who need them.  “But whom do I treat unjustly,” you say, “by keeping what is my own?”  Tell me, what is your own?  What did you bring into this life?  From where did you receive it?  It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all-this is what the rich do.  They first take possession of the common property, and then they keep it as their own because they were the first to take it.  But if every man took only what sufficed for his own need, and left the rest to the needy, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, no one would be in need.

Did you not fall naked from the womb?  Will you not go back naked to the earth?  Where is your present property from?  If you think that it came to you by itself, you don’t believe in God, you don’t acknowledge the creator and you are not thankful to Him who gave it to you.  But if you agree and confess that you have it from God, tell us the reason why He gave it to you.

Is God unjust, dividing unequally the goods of this life?  Why are you rich, while the other is poor?  Isn’t it, if for no other reason, so that you can gain a reward for your kindness and faithful stewardship, and for him to be honored with the great virtue of patience?  But you, having gathered everything inside the empty bosom of avarice, do you think that you wrong no one, while you rob so many people?

Who is the greedy person?  It’s him, who doesn’t content himself with what he has.  And who the thief?  He who steals what belongs to others.  And you think that you are not greedy, and that you do not rob others?  What had been granted to you so that you might care for others, you claim for yourself.

He who strips a man of his clothes is to be called a thief.  Is not he who, when he is able, fails to clothe the naked, worthy of no other title?  The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.

How Generous is the American Church?

Over the past few weeks, I blogged about the vast income disparity between the rich and the poor – even within the U.S. – and about the meager aid given by the U.S. One could argue that the burden of the problem lies with the very rich. While this may be true, I don’t understand why someone would be motivated to be generous or philanthropic – someone, that is, who is not a Christian. Christians are called to love, to respond compassionately to the needs of others, and to share what they have with others. This is one of the main mandates Christ gives to his church. So, the important question isn’t “how generous is the U.S.?”, but rather, “how generous is the church?”

The church in America is the wealthiest church in the history of the world. In his book, The Hole in Our Gospel, Richard Stearns tells us that the total income of American churchgoers is $5.2 trillion. It would take just a little over 1% of the income of American Christians to lift the poorest 1 billion in the world out of extreme poverty.

American Christians, who make up about 5 percent of the Church worldwide, control half of global Christian wealth.

If tithing is defined as giving 10 percent or more of one’s pretax income to the church or to nonprofit ministries, only about 5% of American households tithe. The number of those called “born again” Christians in America who tithe is higher: 9%. Of those who call themselves “evangelical Christians,” 24% tithe. That still leaves 76% who are not tithing!

If we are not giving 10%, how much are we giving? The average giving of American church members in 2005 (pre-economic recession) was just 2.58 percent of their income, about 75% less than the oft-promoted 10%. Sadly, as our incomes have increased, our giving has significantly declined. In 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, giving averaged 3.3 percent, 27 percent more than what we gave in 2005.

If we look at where the money goes after it is received by the churches, we find that just about 2% of it goes to overseas missions of any kind. The other 98% stays in the U.S., within our churches and communities.

American Christians, the wealthiest Christians in all history are making to the world is just about 2 percent of 2 percent – actually about five ten-thousandths of our income. That amounts to 6 pennies per person per day that we give through our churches to the rest of the world.

If American Christians gave 10 percent of their incomes instead of the 2.5 percent we currently give, we would have an extra $168 billion to spend in funding the work of the Church worldwide!

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