Credibility for Christianity: A Revival at America’s Margins
“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.