“Do you feel the world is broken?” This opening question in Andrew Peterson’s hymn, Is He Worthy?,” is a sobering one. And it’s a question the song doesn’t leave unanswered. In the very next line, congregants join their voices to answer in unison: “We do.” For millennia, the people of God have felt the brokenness of the world acutely. We are not a people, typically, who plug our ears and cover our eyes in response to the pain and the plight of the world. Many churches in America are faithfully walking with God and ministering his Word and care to their communities. But in recent years, the church in America has been pock-marked with its own brokenness, with scandal and syncretism and egregious abuses of power. As a result, the integrity of the American church has been called into question, leading to a crisis of faith for many and other, deeper questions for us to wrestle with. How did we get here? And what can we do to make it right?
It is these questions that Eric Costanzo, Daniel Yang, and Matthew Soerens set out to address in their new book, Inalienable: How Marginalized Kingdom Voices Can Help Save the American Church. With candor, the authors shed light on many of the ills plaguing American Evangelicalism, pairing that with an optimistic framework outlining what “saving” the American church will entail. Inalienable is a courageous book that doesn’t look away from the dark underbelly of American Christianity. And yet, it’s a book drenched in biblical hope, centered on the kingdom of God and its King, with an ancient blueprint for how the American church can move forward.
A blueprint in four parts
“The ship that is American Christianity is filling up with water, in many cases as a result of holes we’ve drilled ourselves” (6). Indeed, the water is rising, such that we are daily flooded with news of moral failures, of ongoing strife and divisions, and of political activism that is sometimes more militant than it is Christian. We seem to be drilling holes faster than we can plug and repair them, harming untold numbers within our churches. And as our malformed practice of Christianity is broadcast across the social internet, onlookers who are supposed to know us by our love (John 13:35) know us only by our scandalous behavior and angst. Consider these statistics:
- “Just 9 percent of non-Christians have a positive opinion of evangelicals” (2).
- “Fewer than one in ten non-Christians describe evangelicals as hopeful” (5).
Acknowledging that “Many within our evangelical world would consider an increasingly negative reputation among those outside the church as proof that we are doing something right,” the authors argue, “The reality is that evangelicals are most often despised not because we are Christians, but because of [our] distinctly unchristian attitudes and behaviors;” things like the public fall of prominent pastors and leaders and revelations of sexual abuse within churches (2, 4). So, how can we turn from our sins and return to being the church as God has intended? The authors’ answer comes in four parts, with each rooted in this one guiding principle: by recovering and returning to the inalienable truths about and established by God.
Four inalienable truths
The authors define the term “inalienable” as that which “is essential and undeniable” and, specific to the Christian faith, those “truths [that] are at the very center of the biblical narrative” (6). “What is inalienable has been established by God and therefore cannot be removed or abolished” (7). Stemming the tide that threatens to flood and sink American Christianity, Costanzo, Yang, and Soerens argue, will depend on our retrieval of these four inalienable truths: God’s kingdom, image, word, and mission.
The kingdom of God
There is a battle raging in the hearts of many would-be American Christians, a battle that spills out into our neighborhoods, our politics, and our public squares. It’s a battle of kingdoms; a battle for our ultimate allegiance. Will we align ourselves with the kingdom of this world where character and integrity are subservient to the accumulation of power and where a love for every tribe, tongue, and nation wilts in the face of our tribe, our tongue, and our nation?
Or will we prioritize God’s “countercultural kingdom,” a kingdom that “advances through Christlike humility, weakness, and surrender” (23, 37)? As Christians, the kingdom of God demands our utmost allegiance; it supplants all other, lesser loyalties. “Centering the kingdom of God,” the authors contend, “is our way back” (23).
The image of God
Next to the kingdom of God, there might be no Christian doctrine more disregarded than the doctrine of the imago Dei. While in one breath we advocate tirelessly (as we should) for preborn children in jeopardy of being aborted—whose lives we insist ought to be preserved because they’re created in God’s image—in the next breath we effectively curse others who share, equally and irrevocably, the same stamp of the same divine image. “The way we talk about other human beings has become a crisis of the soul” (87). “My brothers and sisters, this should not be” (James 3:10).
To plug and repair the holes we’ve drilled, the authors of Inalienable argue that a retrieval of the doctrine of the imago Dei will be imperative. We’ll need to view others not as “other,” but as neighbors (95).
The Word of God
In Inalienable, the authors don’t argue for anything novel or particularly trailblazing regarding the Word of God. Instead, they call readers simply to approach Scripture recognizing that God has spoken, and continues to speak, through them, and that we are to engage his Word with humility and honesty, and in the company of others, especially those on the margins of our society and those the authors call “global Christians” (119). The charge is for us to read the Bible “with a fresh awareness” that American Christianity does not have a corner on the market of biblical interpretation (117), and that our practice of the faith will be enhanced when marginalized and minority voices are welcomed to the table.
The mission of God
The fourth and final part necessary for “saving” American Christianity, they propose, is the prioritization of God’s mission. It’s a return to the understanding that “faith comes first” and that “politics and everything else flow out of faith and come much later in priority” (153). Costanzo, Yang, and Soerens are not calling for a retreat from politics, but a firm commitment to forming our political beliefs by our religious convictions and not the other way around, which occurs when political and religious identities are conflated (154).
This is a call to participate in the mission of God, in a way that’s consistent with the kingdom of God, informed by the Word of God, for the good of those made in the image of God, through the political means and mechanisms we have at our disposal—all to the glory of God.
Learning from the margins
While most Christians would agree with the basic framework put forward by Costanzo, Yang, and Soerens, the point of contention will undoubtedly lie with their “hook,” which calls for a “decentering of the (white) American church” (40). But the authors argue, rightly, that “If we are to stem this tide of decline and decay, it will take all of us—and it will take humility to listen to voices of the church beyond the white American evangelical stream of the faith which has long assumed leadership” (7, emphasis added).
And that, beneath virtually everything the authors argue for, is the fundamental issue in view: humility. To be kingdom-centered, to recognize the image of God in others, to sit under the authority of God’s Word and obey it, to take part in the mission of God, and to do it all in partnership with other Christians, will require from beginning to end a fundamental posture of humility. It will require that we take seriously our call toward Christlikeness. “If the church in the United States is to recover our gospel witness, we will need to be more deeply discipled toward Christlikeness and freed from the idol[s] that [have] malformed us in recent years” (167). These idols—individualism (69), materialism and consumerism (72), celebritism (74), Christian nationalism (76), tribalism and partisanship (79)—are idols of the privileged and powerful. And they are distorting American Evangelicalism into something that is borderline anti-Christlike.
Costanzo, Yang, and Soerens argue that it’s time to pull up a chair for those on the fringes—global Christians, indigenous Christians, minority Christians; the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable. And rather than driving the conversations taking place around the table, “we’re going to need to learn to listen to [the] voices [who] have historically been at the margins of American Christianity” (3).
We can all agree that if we hope to see the ship of American Christianity floating upright again, our churches will have to commit ourselves anew to these four inalienable truths—to be kingdom-focused, to value every person as made in God’s image, to be obedient to God’s Word, and to be committed to the mission of God. By God’s grace we will do this through “constant dependence on Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit,” and alongside the global body of our brothers and sisters (198). And we can do this all with great hope, knowing that God has promised to build his church (Matt. 16:18).