Snow Shovels and Evangelical Social Justice

(an irritatingly general perspective on evangelical social justice)

Snow Shovel

Four inches of snow showed up today. The HOA (Home Owner’s Association) didn’t. Normally, my neighbors and I can count on them to faithfully plow our driveways before we head out for work in the morning. Not today.

So I made the trip to the local hardware store, shelled out the $15, and bought a snow shovel. By the time I got home, I had the words “Do for others what you would have them do for you (Mt. 7:12)” in my head.

Lovely.

It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t say: “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t have them do to you.” In other words: “Just avoid hurting people. Hold back. Restrain yourself.” That’s too passive for Jesus. For Jesus – and therefore, for the Christian – love is necessarily active.

It isn’t God’s design that the church merely hold back hate – but that we actively help, serve, and love a hurting world – that we do. I’m pretty sure that’s what God means when he says “faith without works is dead (Jms. 2:26).”

So I shoveled my neighbor’s driveway too. Incidentally, I don’t mean to sound noble. According to Jesus, loving your neighbors is probably just supposed to be normal.

Honestly, I had a hard time just wanting to. After all – it’s cold out there.

A huge part of my 9-5 job is developing strategies and thinking strategically. Strategy is great. Strategy ensures that we don’t waste time and effort with needless mechanisms. But here’s the question: When we see a need in the world – when governments fail and other social institutions prove their impotence – are our churches agile enough to respond?

Christians are supposed to be the people entrusted with the power to love honestly and unconditionally.

But maybe we spend too much time waiting on the HOA (“isn’t that someone else’s responsibility?”). Maybe we spend too much time thinking about what snow shovel to buy (“I’m not sure we’re ready to partner with those types of Christians…”). Maybe we’re simply scared of what active love might mean (“after all, it’s pretty cold out there“).

In the mean time the snow keeps piling up and our neighbors find us shockingly un-shocking.

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So Many Churches?

Maybe what we need isn’t another church, but simply a better church.

Here’s the trouble though: However well-intentioned, most of young leaders think that the way to get a better church is to start one. At least that’s what I thought – and am continually tempted to think.

Rather than do the hard work of internal reconciliation, many young leaders seem quick to abandon ship. A little disappointment here or there, and we’re racing off the next thing – sexier, hipper, more in line with our preconceptions about what church ought to be.

Let’s imagine a different scenario: rather than re-inventing the wheel, what if those young leaders buckled down and committed to using their gifts and ideas to be a catalyst for change and rebirth? Think of the resources that would save. Think of the relationships that could be mended. Think of the testimony to a hurting community. That seems to be a better story – more in line with the way of Jesus.

Yes, there are absolutely occasions to call it quits. Abuse. Manipulative or hardened leadership. And there are also plenty of reasons for church planting. But I get the sense that we’re often more discontent than we’d like to admit.

Here’s a brief sketch:

A better church isn’t necessarily a sexier church.
A better church isn’t necessarily one that you like.
A better church isn’t trying to impress you.
A better church doesn’t play “the right kind” of music.
A better church doesn’t look a certain way.

A better church shows you how to be like Jesus.
A better church has the courage to call you out.
A better church knows who you are – and loves you.
A better church may let you fall, but helps to pick you up.
A better church builds relationships through forgiveness.

What you think: Are there too many churches? Why is that?

Cross-Centered Days

This evening, after returning from Resolved:2011, I finished reading C.J. Mahaney’s Cross-Centered Life.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with so much content packed into 88 all-too-brief pages.  Simply incredible. There are plenty of take-aways from this little read, but the one that sticks with me the most is as follows:

“A cross-centered life is made up of cross-centered days.”

I’ve also found myself recently enjoying the music of Josh Garrels.  Able to meld profoundly biblically-informed lyrics with loops and melodies that bid the listener to soar, Josh creates a beautiful fusion of ancient and inventive.  Here’s his latest.  And it’s incredible:

In mashing the two together, here are a few takeaways from The Cross-Centered Life and White Owl:

  1. You will live and dream for something.
  2. That dream won’t be like an event, but like a continual thread.
  3. Your dream will impel you.
  4. Your dream will nourish you.
  5. Your dream will embolden you – even to death.
  6. The One who bids you to venture out will catch you at the end.
  7. Faithfulness and courage are what matter.

What if we were Children?

Recently, I was told that I’m a loving person.  That surprised me.  I don’t think I’m abnormally loving.  At least not worthy of the remark.  I often struggle with love.

In An American Childhood, Annie Dillard writes: “Young children have no sense of wonder. They bewilder well, but few things surprise them. All of it is new to young children, after all, and equally gratuitous. Their parents pause at the unnecessary beauty of an ice storm coating the trees; the children look for something to throw. ”

The point: Childrens’ imaginations have far higher expectations than ours.  They are expecting beauty.  Grace is normal.  For children, extravagance is a given.  Sometimes it’s almost as if my son Joseph (5) wants to grab me by the face and say “Daddy, of course pigs can fly,” or “haven’t you ever seen a polka-dotted unicorn with propellers?  What’s the matter with you?” Excellent question.

I’m wondering if it’s the same thing in the way with church.

Here’s the question (and I think Annie Dillard’s point too):  Is the reality that we’re so quick to affirm the nobility of normal acts of love indicative of the fact that we have lost our sense of childlike expectancy?  Instead, what if our churches were so childlike that love, joy, peace, etc. were all “equally gratuitous?” What if love didn’t surprise us?  Maybe our imaginations for the once-alluring bride of Christ have been so drastically tamed that she has become predictably common (shockingly un-shocking).  

She is beautiful – make no mistake – but not surprisingly.  She’s always beautiful.  And we should expect her to be so.  But in our cynicism, we have lost our ability to see it.  Perhaps our wonderment is a sign that we’ve fallen out of love.

for we have sinned and grown old – and our Father is younger than we.”  – Chesterton

A Practical Missiology: Micro-attractional, Macro-missional

This post is concerned with what it actually looks like to live as a missionary.  This is really just a series of observations thrown into two larger buckets.  Those buckets are: “How do I live as a missionary individually?” and “How to I live a missionary lifestyle as part of a collective (church, organization, etc.)?”

The concept known as “missional” (all phrases that include the word: “thinking missionally,” “going missional,” “part of a missional church / movement”) is enjoying some time in the Sun these days.  The concept of “becoming more missional” seems to be fueled by a few main tensions.  While I admit these are widely open for discussion, here are just a few:

1.)  The economic disparity between the western church and the developing world. We have wealth.  Much of the world doesn’t.  We’re wrestling through this one.  History teaches us that a wealthy culture can often move the church to the periphery.  The gospels tell us that wealth can keep us from kingdom living.  Perhaps western Christians hear the faint echo of western 16th-19th century Europe and wonder silently if the American church will soon follow suit.

2.) The theological necessity of authentic evangelism.  Another factor contributing to the rise of missional theology surrounds the irreducible kernel of authentic evangelism.  We long for revival.  We’re tired of crusades and televised events.  We instinctively feel that revivals can be no more planned than they could be contained.  Something has to give.  If the Spirit is at work at all on Sunday morning (and hopefully throughout the week), something will happen.  Perhaps our move toward missional thinking is a state of readiness.

3.) The ever-swinging pendulum of American church culture. “We didn’t plan it.  We didn’t build it.  We’re just in it.  When we have our seat at the table we’ll probably change it.”  It seems to be that every successive generation of believers seems to say the same thing.  Perhaps our movement toward a more missional church is really just a reaction against what we perceive as negative from past generations: Our parents polluted the earth.  They messed up music.  They standardized church programming.  If that is the case, here’s some food for thought: It’s rarely a good idea to be known by what you’re against – far better to be known by what you’re for.

So where do we go from here?  I want to encourage us to think on two levels: micro (dealing with ourselves as individuals), and macro (dealing with ourselves as part of a collective).

Thinking on the small / micro-scale:  There’s no getting around the idea that Jesus was attractional.  While there was nothing externally attractive about Jesus (at least in the way that we might think about attractive-ness), there was something about him that resulted in follower-ship.  The problem becomes, when we plug ourselves in the equation, conscious Christians will likely feel dirty or self-messianic to say that there also ought be to something attractional about us.  And that’s a good feeling.  We’re aren’t good at being attractional.  We are, however, good at building relationships.  Carrying the gospel across the well-laid pathways of our relationships is probably the most attractional thing we can do.  Not because we’re attactional as individuals, but because the message we carry – the irreducible core of the gospel – is absolutely attractional  (“May His beauty rest upon me / as I seek the lost to win / And may they forget the channel / seeing only Him”).  Attractional then, becomes not the opposite of missional, but a just piece of the pie.

Thinking on the large  /macro-scale: Reflecting back on point 1.) above: Resources are one the greatest gifts the American church has.  We have been given buildings.  We have been given leadership.  We have been given the financial support of congregations.  The question needs to be asked: As a church, are we being the best possible stewards of what we’ve been given?  Perhaps more frightening is the follow-up: If not, why not? We need to be macro-missional.  And that means resources.  If you’ve ever planned an event for any number of people, you know that you don’t see noticeable changes to the bottom line by changing a $30 / person giveaway  to a $25 / person giveaway.  You see noticeable changes when you cut out the giveaway all together.  I’m not advocating that we fire staff and get rid of our buildings – although in some cases, that’s not a bad start.  The kind of paradigm shift that I’m advocating means re-thinking a few key areas of our church life – namely stewardship.  In my estimation, that’s a far more courageous road.  What would it look like if our churches began scaling back to reach out?

So.  When I go home from work in a few minutes, I’m going to hopefully connect with my neighbor.  When I go to church on Sunday, I’ll give out of obedience, trusting my church leadership to take my gift and stretch it as far as it can reach.  When I’m asked what I think about both of those two things, I’ll probably pray.

Away from a Cluttered Missiology: Part One

This post is about what it means to be a missionary.  At least as far as I understand it.  The groundwork for this post has been laid in several discussions with friends and co-laborers who share a burden for the future of God’s Kingdom.  I want to make sure that from the onset: I’m not just wondering where to draw the linguistic or semantic lines between “missionary” and “salesman.”  Rather, I want to address what it means to be a missionary – and simply a missionary.

Perhaps a little background:

For six years I lived in Colorado.  During that time (along with working through the haze of seminary), I worked as a bi-vocational faith-supported “missionary.”  I worked as part of a church planting team, as well as a tent-maker of sorts.  In my case, I worked alongside a local honey farmer in various capacities – among them as a sales representative.  I soon learned that it was hard to juggle the demands of both sides of my life.  I found myself frequently and rapidly switching gears between “… and that’s why you need this product” and “Jesus came to seek and save the lost.”

The lines became blurred.  Techniques that I learned as a sales representative bled into my understanding of the gospel to an unhealthy level.  I found myself arrogantly (albeit unconsciously) looking at myself as upwardly mobile in ministry.  I had innovation.  I talked about models and structures that were “groundbreaking.”  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was slowly moving away from both roles – seeking an awkward fusion of the two.  But over time, I learned something that saved my sanity: I found that the ends of both were better served by keeping a clear distinction between the two.

Being a missionary means a form of bondage.  Unlike the images of bondage that we might immediately jump to (slavery, punitive servitude, caste systems, etc.) – where one is in bondage to an outside, incidental ruler – the missionary’s bondage is a bondage to the essential – the irreducible – something to which he / she is inextricably linked.

When I worked as a sales representative, I couldn’t exist without the larger complex superstructure of business to support my initiatives: goals, strategies, sales pitches, relational dynamics, invoices, deliverables, follow-ups, etc.  And anything evaluated by economic measurements is very complex.  A missionary, however, needs only to sink him/herself more and more deeply into a few simple things that are incredibly important.  When I read how Paul looked at himself (“bond-servant”), he always seemed to point to a few simple, obvious things (the cross, Christ and Him crucified, the proclamation of the gospel, the need for personal holiness).  Maybe a helpful formula: The more complex your missiology (the more you’re “bonded to”), the less devoted you are to dying for it.  A read through 1st Corinthians might bring greater clarity to what I’m getting at.

We’ve got tools.  We’ve got innovation.  And – in many Christian circles – we’re almost keeping pace with the culture.  But no one that I know would honestly consider dying for the models their innovations produce.  I think it was Henri Nouwen who said that “the Christian in this world is called to be completely irrelevant.”  Exactly.  Relevance is not our concern.  Because the question is: “When the model fades and when innovation dies, will we have anything left to stand on (better: stand for)?”

In future posts, some of these issues might re-present themselves along related lines.  But maybe next time, I’ll drop in some poetry.  That’s always refreshing.