Sunday, December 5, 2010

When is the Church being the Church?

While staying home from church with my recently widowed mother, I was doing some reading and came across this quote:

“How does the Church contribute to the survival of the communities in which it ministers?” Churches invariably struggle with their relevance because they don’t know how they contribute to their respective communities. The survival of an individual church, in some respects, becomes an end in itself. Churches exist for their own sake.” Bruce Bradshaw.

This quote, among other things, has demonstrated to me that the church’s engagement in social justice issues on global and local levels is not only the natural outflow of a biblical ethic of love, grace and justice, but the very means by which individual churches are to survive. Without re-inventing the wheel and giving the complete rationale for social justice as stemming from a purely biblical ethic (read Howard Yoder), suffice it for now to say that Jesus’ summary of the law into the Great Commandment is enough reason for the church to engage in social justice. Many churches separate evangelism and social justice as two unrelated commandments, and often evangelism is prioritized when both are actually interdependent missions/commandments for the church. Teaching in churches on biblical ethics, holistic ministry, and social justice is largely lacking which affects the world view of each person in the pew. I think that any efforts in discipleship that don’t include doing social justice just reinforce a pietistic and doctrinal heavy emphasis type of discipleship that leads to non-engagement with the social system and powers. Obedience in many forms of contemporary discipleship boils down to sins of commission, not sins of omission like our call to social justice. I have only attended one church, Pasadena Mennonite Church, where social justice was treated fairly, given a place in discipleship and the life of the church. This church engaged society and the powers. My expat church in Cambodia didn’t need to address it too much because it was what many of us were already doing.

Early on in my Christian life I felt empty or that something was missing in my Christian life. It just seemed too shallow and when I tried to share the gospel with friends and strangers, it was too forced because my motivation was that I had the “truth” and they needed it- not that I had this particularly great experience that I want to share with someone because they needed it too. I could not even share that my experience was all that great or describe what was different about me (except I didn’t drink or smoke). In the late 80’s I began reading C.S. Lewis and Francis Shaffer and they were a catalyst for thinking about a Christian World view and the evolution of Christian thinking over the last two thousand years. My world view began to allow more space for a biblical ethic of social justice. My exposure to Jai Sankarsarma at World Vision, Cambodia in the early 90’s and living in a developing Buddhist country further enabled me see how interdependent evangelism and social justice were. When I went to work for World Vision I had to develop a Christian Witness Training Module for World Vision National Staff. In the process I read Paul Hiebert, Bryant Meyers, Bruce Bradshaw, Ron Sider, Don Kraybill, John Steward and a host of others. I enrolled in Fuller in 2005 and my courses began to pull everything together in light of God’s missional and redemptive plan for the cosmos.

The course am taking now was very helpful as we studied a biblical view the powers and principalities, and how church needs to engage societal or systemic evil in order to fulfill its mandate of being salt and light and bearing witness to the Kingdom of God in the midst of the cosmos-it should not simply address the symptoms. This challenges my faith in a way because it takes cooperation between churches, unity, organizing, research, and risk. It is much easier to just teach bible studies, preach a sermon or handout food to the poor and feel good about it when we have abdicated the important responsibility of the church being the only entity that can successfully engage the powers. Recently I have been given more light to see, and I want to be part of a ministry that realizes the Church’s responsibility to engage powers. I am saddened in one way because I have recently been divorced and need to be near my children in Seattle where jobs are not easy to find and it looks like I may have to take a low paying job doing anything I can to pay alimony. I would love to find a Christian non-profit to work nearby that does engage the powers and can transform societal systems. So I am not comfortable in my position now, because I want to act, and it seems like those doors are closed for the time being.

The ethical issue, then for me, is not about bribery, or lying, or when to obey the government vs. God, etc., it is how can we live in a particular society and system without giving more leeway to the powers in the exploitation of the working class, the poor, oppressed and alien? How can we let high insurance costs, high interest on credit cards, high health costs, high food costs, and high pharmaceuticals continue to be made available only for the wealthier members of society? How can I live my life in the system without receiving benefits that cost others or make others go without? This will continue to challenge and grow my faith as I pray to God for more clarity in my role in civic society or overseas as a community development worker. Most churches would never have challenged me or pushed me this far toward a holistic type of discipleship. I unfortunately had to come to this point of faith and challenge through working for Christian NGOs and taking seminary courses.

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