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Credibility for Christianity: A Revival at America’s Margins

October 25, 2009

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“Being here made me decide to not be afraid to call myself a Christian.  I didn’t know Christians were doing all this” – participant from Denver at the Christian Community Development Association conference (CCDA) in Cincinnati

When I arrived in downtown Cincinnati Friday, I went to the wrong hotel.  Yes, there was a worship team in the enormous conference room, singing praises to Jesus.  Yes, the room was teeming with people .  But they were all white, mostly over 50 years old, well-dressed, and there wasn’t much energy in the room.  Nothing wrong with all that.  But after 20 years of going to CCDA conferences I knew it wasn’t the right group.

When I found the CCDA folks across the street, three thousand people packed the room.  Unlikely co-founder John Perkins, nearly 80 now, son of a Mississippi sharecropper, was teaching passionately from 1 John about God’s love.  Maybe one-third were under 30 years old.  These are mostly Christians living and ministering in the abandoned places of America.  And 22 years after the first conference in Chicago in 1987 when 200 gathered, CCDA might simply be the largest interracial network of Christians in America.

Suddenly I ran into an old friend from Chattanooga, Carl Ellis.  Carl is an African-American veteran of the days when such ministry was deeply resisted in white American evangelicalism.  We marveled at the scene before us.  “You know,” he said, “CCDA has given evangelicals credibility in America.”

Yes, the Christians in the room do a lot: from multi-million dollar church-based community development ministries like Lawndale Community Church in Chicago, to communities of the “new monasticism,” to fledgling storefront churches, to wealthy lay people and suburban congregations partnering across city divides, to a ministry whose co-director is a former drug dealer who spent time in prison.

I’m not working at the grassroots these days, and this is often difficult for me—it’s my DNA.  Yet what drives me back to this community of friends year after year is not so much their activist ministries.

Even as they raise their voices louder on behalf of the “least of these” (in Cincinnati it was a strong focus on the broken immigration system), the source of their life is far deeper than a commitment to justice.  No, I realized the reason I long to be with these friends is how they continue to be drawn deeper into intimacy with Jesus, in the “fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10), their reception of the purifying fires of daring to love in difficult places, and the gifts God gives to surprise, sustain, and grow you within a new community of friends.

Glen Kehrein of Circle Urban Ministries in Chicago once told me “Chris, the reason I believe in racial reconciliation is it’s the best way I know of for white males to die to self.”  Each year I find my friends in CCDA becoming holier people—more gentle, more humble, taking themselves less seriously but Jesus more so, while remaining faithful to “a long obedience in the same direction.”

Being in Cincinnati last week affirmed a new conviction I came to about 10 years ago:  what is at stake in the church’s vocation of justice and reconciliation in the world is not solving race and poverty.  Rather it is on this terrain that God is seeking to heal and renew the church.  I see my friends in CCDA becoming more Christian.

A few voices from the Cincinnati conference:

“Amidst all our programming we easily forget people … To echo the theme from the TV show ‘Cheers’, the real purpose of ministry is to create new places across divides where ‘everybody knows your name’” Bart Campolo, co-founder of Mission Year, who relocated to Cincinnati a couple years ago to share live with the poor.  Bart gave a powerful message about not romanticizing ministry or poverty, the messy realities of presence to people who won’t get fixed, and the “metrics” of love as the strange logic of the gospel

“My ecclesial world has been so limited.  I had no idea there was a community of Christians like this.” — A Duke Divinity seminary student.  Our nine Duke Divinity School students were one of the biggest contingent from any seminary.  They were organized by two students ignited by their summer in inner-city Baltimore with the Center for Reconciliation’s Teaching Communities apprenticeship at New Song Community Church and Ministries

“The civil rights challenge of this generation is immigration” – Glen Kehrein, whose life-long work has been black/white reconciliation.  The CCDA board is going to the U.S./Mexico border in January led by Kit Danley of Neighborhood Ministries in Phoenix to listen, learn, and discern “what next?”

“We saw that we needed to become friends with the people and church of inner-city Baltimore to become closer to Jesus” associate pastor Ben Abell of 3,000 member Grace Church, a suburban congregation which is building a deep partnership with New Song, two miles away in a different world of the city

“The immigration challenge came to us in northwest Iowa, and it’s tearing our churches apart” — Pat Vander Pol of Justice for All in rural Rock Valley, Iowa.  20% of the children in their public schools are now Latino.  Churches are deeply divided over the government’s deportation raids on local factories

“What were neglected urban neighborhoods are now becoming invaded neighborhoods” –Jeff Johnson of Mile High Ministries in Denver, telling me how widespread urban gentrification begs for a fresh initiative of reconciliation

“We want to choose ministries that are comfortable” — African-American pastor and student from Shaw Divinity School in Raleigh, during a networking session for seminarians at CCDA.  Twenty of them, nearly all under 30 years old, gathered  from 10 diverse seminaries (Wesley in DC; Fuller in Pasadena; Gordon-Conwell in Boston; Shaw in Raleigh; Trinity Evangelical in Chicago; Sioux Falls in Iowa; Emmanuel School of Religion, Tennessee; Union PSCE in Richmond; Northpark in Chicago; Alliance in New York)

“John Perkins is the Apostle Paul of our time.  Like Paul’s apostolic ministry from God to bridge his fellows Jews to the Gentiles, John Perkins was raised up from the black church to a prophetic ministry to both the black and white church of America…” A.G. Miller of Oberlin College, in a workshop “The Theological Legacy of John Perkins”

My friends in CCDA living at the margins see, feel, and carry the burden of enormous pain which remains hidden within the abandoned places of America.  But my biggest takeaway every year is always hope:  remembering this way of life is not crazy, that God is alive at the margins, that we are not alone, that people are being altered at their very core into new people, that it is worth it to keep bothering, and that we must proclaim and illuminate these signs of the Holy Spirit’s work in our time.

Maybe one day the church historians will look back on a second “Great Awakening” in American Christianity, and say that it began here.


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12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2009 7:52 pm

    Great article and reflections. Please continue to illuminate the displacement and gentrifcation occuring everywhere and how it is impacting families living in the inner ring suburbs, where the municipalities and villages are ill-equipped to serve them. Which just continues to perpetuate their plight, regardless of the geograpic relocation to communities that cannot accomodate them or the succeeding generations.

  2. October 26, 2009 11:32 am

    Chris,

    Thank you for your workshop at CCDA and your ongoing writing and work. I hope to be a part of the weeklong session next summer and would also like to find otherways to stay at the table with you on your journey and work around reconciliation.

    Glen Kehrein is a close friend and colleague here in Chicago. . . as one who regularly talks and teaches about these CCDA and reconciliation themes I am so refreshed and re-energized by your the work of those who are going ahead of me.

    Blessings. joel hamernick

  3. October 26, 2009 4:59 pm

    I share your sense of encouragement, Chris. I shared with my congregation yesterday about how I’ve really seen the conversation grow, mature, deepen at CCDA the past few years, and ESPECIALLY at this year’s conference. I was struck by the significance of how Soong-Chan Rah engaged the 3Rs, i.e. that he insisted that we re-embed the work of CCDA into the larger narrative, character, and initiative of God. This is a crucial corrective to the vulnerability that CCDA (and most all American Christian ministry organizations) has to being shaped by (or held captive to) American pragmatism, entreprenurialism, individualism, and all ideologies associated with American “democratic capitalism.” Critical, I think, to this growing conversation has been the widening participation, not only generationally, but of the boldened contributions of folks from very different ecclesial traditions (and contemporary movements like the emergents and new monastics, for example) that serve to push better theological, missiological and (what gets me going) ecclesiological questions. Had great conversations, for example, of the distinction increasingly being made between “community development” and “community transformation” and the attendant critique/implications for CCDA (“alternative, successor, or neither?”) The growing use of the conference venue for denomination-based and parachurch-based convening is notable. And the eventual conversation between these two broad camps will be critical, I believe. Enough said for now, brother. Thanks for this helpful blog entry. This, by the way, is the first time I’ve ever commented on a blog. Dates me, I realize : )

  4. October 26, 2009 5:31 pm

    Great article, my friend. CCDA is a unique gathering, as you mention, however, we have been historically only in a black/white dialogue and slow to engage the inhumanity of our immigration policies. I am glad that we (myself included) are finally awakening to this injustice. CCDAers have always been honest to admit our struggles and failures and as such a great place of grace and growth.
    Endure the struggles and keep the faith,
    Glen Kehrein

  5. October 26, 2009 11:42 pm

    Dear Chris,

    Thanks for this inspiring and thought-provoking reflection on the conference. I linked to it at the UrbanFaith.com blog. It was a joy and privilege to spend time with you in Cincinnati. I’m praying that God will continue to bless and use you and your work. As we discussed, I’m looking forward to participating in one of the future events at the Center for Reconciliation. Thanks again.

    Peace,
    Ed Gilbreath

  6. Reggie permalink
    October 27, 2009 11:01 am

    Ah Chris, just reading this made me long for the old days at Building Together Ministries in Raleigh when we all attended CCDA. It was indeed all that and more! I miss the joy of the crowd and the many committed people who hear the call of God to the “whosoevers” and “least of these!” and readily get out there and “give ’em Jesus” in all the ways He wants to reach them! I know no other place for reconcilers to gather like that. That’s why your coming this way was definitely a God thing. Only people who have ever been a part of CCDA can gather like minded people and allow Jesus free reign.
    I miss that!!!!!

  7. October 27, 2009 12:14 pm

    Chris,

    I’m sorry I missed you in person while you were in my adopted hometown, but as your article makes clear, you were pretty busy appreciating the varied goodness of that wonderful group of faith-doers.

    Keep the faith…it’s a long road to justice.

    Bart

  8. November 1, 2009 11:44 pm

    Chris,

    It was a real blessing to meet you and listen to your teaching at CCDA. Thanks for the sharing and the ministry. Rarely do I hear such candor. It was very insightful and refreshing.

    Meeting you and other like-minded people at CCDA fostered hope that God is still moving, changing hearts, lives and communities. The multi-cutural worships, teachings, and networking experience was special. It expanded my vision and understanding of God’s global family. I am looking forward to attending CCDA next year and participating in the Summer Institute in May, 2010.

    Keep up the good work!

    Blessings,

    Mary-Catherine, Asbury Seminary doctoral student

  9. Peter Slade permalink
    November 9, 2009 11:46 am

    Chris, thanks for this piece. I came away from CCDA this year with a joyful grin pasted firmly on my face and you help me understand why. If CCDA is the start of a new Awakening, then it has an interesting thing going for it: it is not hampered by the anti-intellectualism that is characteristic of so many grass-roots movements. I think the involvement of seminarians and their teachers indicates a movement that will continue to impact churches a generation from now in ways we cannot imagine.

  10. November 9, 2009 1:30 pm

    Hey Chris,
    Sorry I didn’t know you were at CCDA! But I was in that other meeting with the mostly over 50 crowd. And afraid I have to agree with your assessment. I slipped across one morning to hear John Perkins and he oozed Scripture from I John. Also spent a good bit of time browsing their bookstore and the Urbana booth. Even stayed around for the booksigning with Steve Corbett for “When Helping Hurts”.
    John is a hero of mine. It would be interesting to know the reason for the difference in the atmosphere of the two groups. I am not sure I can nail it on the head but I have my surmises.
    Blessings,
    Cody

  11. Cristina Comer permalink
    November 11, 2009 9:54 pm

    Thank you so much for this posting! CCDA changed my life! As you know, this was my first conference, and I will never be the same. My eyes have been opened to an image of the Kingdom that reveals that God is SO much bigger than I ever imagined (as Alexia Salvatierra said)! For the first time, I felt completely free to imagine God’s Kingdom in all its glory and splendor and to work for that here and now. I am renewed with excitement about the Church, knowing that there are other Christians out there to remind me that I’m not crazy for being passionate about what God has given me a passion for! PTL! (Praise The Lord!) Can’t wait for next year! Thank you for all your encouragement and support along the way and for getting our group to CCDA! Christina Comer, Duke Divinity School student

  12. A.G. Miller permalink
    November 12, 2009 3:40 pm

    Hey Chris,

    I am sorry that I did not get a chance to talk with you at the CCDA session. I see that you saw me or at least heard me from the blog quote. I hope all is well!

    A.G. Miller

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