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When I get asked about churches and what they’re like I sometimes describe them as being either a “Bibley church” or a “social justicey church”. I feel a little bit silly when I do so, because I know that it’s a false dichotomy. Or at least, it should be. You shouldn’t be either a Bible Christian or a Social Justice Christian. Being a Bible-believing Christian should lead to being concerned about mercy and compassion in the world, and if you are a concerned about social justice there is no better place to look than Biblical faith. Unfortunately when we create this dichotomy, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, we lose more than we gain.
Them Bible Nuts
If I’m honest, I fit in the Bible category more than the social justice category. When you’re in the Bible category you spend a lot of your time talking about Jesus and the Gospel. Biblical orthodoxy is important, because in the end that’s what we base our faith on. If we don’t find our truth in something objective and unchanging, then everything is up for grabs. Of course we don’t choose to believe the Bible because we need an objective standard of truth, we hold to a Biblical faith because we believe that it is God’s word to us.
So here’s the issue. We love the Bible, we love Jesus, we love the Gospel but we neglect to live out the Gospel while we proclaim it, we forget to love the world that Jesus died for and we ignore the clear teaching of the Bible that commands us to care for the poor. Sometimes our commitment to the Gospel can lead to pride that we haven’t been distracted by secondary matters like social justice. We might agree that it’s good, but we don’t believe that it’s core, and so we neglect it to our shame. We claim to be Bible people, and yet we disobey the Bible.
In almost every part of the Bible we are commanded to care for those who have less. From the Pentateuch (Deuteronomy 15:7-11), the Wisdom books (Psalm 82:2-4, Proverbs 14:31), the Prophets (Amos 5:21-24, Micah 6:8, Isaiah 58:6-12), to the Epistles in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 8:9, James 1:27) and especially Jesus (Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 4:16-21, Luke 10:30-37, Luke 12:33). There are a whole lot more verses on justice than on many of the other hot topics that we get distracted by so we have no excuse not to be ordering our lives in such a way as to give material aid to those in need, advocating for those who cannot speak for themselves, and teaching others to do the same. It may not be as vital eternally as bringing people to faith in Jesus, but it’s not an either/or situation. Our words of Christ’s love for the world will carry weight when they see his people loving the world. Even if our only motivation is to see people saved (which is shouldn’t be) then obeying these biblical commands is prudent.
Some people use the argument that when the New Testament talks of caring for those who have less it is talking about helping disadvantaged Christians. From my reading of the New Testament, this argument has merit, but it is not the whole story. There are plenty of times when the Bible commands that we love our brothers and sisters in Christ who have less than us, and we make this a priority. But this is not the only way we engage with issues of justice for the marginalised in the world. The New Testament never calls on Christians to exclusively care for Christians. We are called to care for our family (Christians) and our neighbours (everyone else).
My feeling about social justice and the “Bible Christian” is that our neglect of issues of justice stems at best from neglect in preference for the “more pressing matters” of evangelism, and at worst from disobedience and an unwillingness to have our lives made uncomfortable by our engagement with caring for the poor. I suspect that for me, the issue is both, and many of the reasons that fall in between. That’s not an excuse. I believe the Bible, I love Jesus, I must choose to live responsibly and respond to the needs of those who have less than me.
Those Social Justice Crazies
The Social Justice crew… well there are a lot of them. Some of them are Christians, some of them aren’t*. For the Christians, what worries me is that while I see many “Biblely Christians” ignoring to some degree the Bible’s commands to care for those with less, I see many “Social Justicey Christians” minimising the role of the Bible, and Jesus, to merely being a support for the argument for engaging with issues of social justice.
For instance this Easter on Facebook, within the many posts from the bible types talking about Jesus’ death and resurrection and the new life on offer as a result, and many posts from other people talking about long weekends and chocolate, there were a few from those with a more justice bent to their faith talking about Jesus’ death and resurrection as an imperative for acting with justice. There were quotes about the how the cross commends the power of non-violence to change the world, there were posts identifying Jesus’ unjust suffering with Australia’s unjust treatment asylum seekers and posts about Easter being a time to honour Jesus’ death by eating fair trade chocolate. Now this is not necessarily wrong, in fact, I think Jesus is an excellent example of change achieved through non-violence, I think Jesus is deeply saddened by the Australian government’s treatment of refugees and I think if at any time we should be striving to be ethical in our consumption it is in the celebration of our God’s most significant act of salvation. However I think the danger of using Jesus death and resurrection as only a springboard for discussion of these issues is that it may seem to reduce Jesus’ work at the cross to the only being about issues of justice. Jesus’ death and resurrection achieved more than just the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection to new life for those who trust in him, but it never achieves less than that. When discussion of Jesus always (or usually) ends up in how his life, death and resurrection influences our response to issues of justice, Jesus has been turned into a servant of social justice, a trump card in the argument for action on behalf of the marginalised.
The motivation for this is obviously good. As I said before, the Bible is clear in its commands that we respond with love to all people, especially those who are poor or oppressed. However when the Bible, and particularly Jesus, are reduced to being a reason for social justice, then social justice has supplanted Jesus as god.
One article I found called the traditional teaching about Easter “nonsense about dying for sins, and three days later, like a Jack-in-the-box, the Easter-Bunny Jesus springs back to life” and said that the true reason Jesus died was because “He dared to stand up with an unbent back” to the evil Roman Empire. The implication was that Easter demands that Christians “be Jesus” and take a courageous stand against the violence of today’s corrupt and violent governments (source). This is obviously an extreme example, but it shows when can happen when Jesus is used as merely as an impetus of social and societal change.
The folly of this that if you truly do believe in Jesus, as God and Saviour, then he is not only the best reason for caring for the marginalised today, he is the way that this world is transformed and he is the best hope for those who are poor. The gospel teaches that the root cause of injustice is human sin. It is choosing to put our needs before those of others, it is choosing to love ourselves before we love God and love others. The solution to sin is not an external set of rules, it is not merely a reallocation of finances, it is not a change in foreign policy (though these can all be good) but the solution is found in the work of Jesus. Trusting in Jesus as God and saviour is the only long-term viable solution to our sin. His work at the cross wins us all, rich and poor, forgiveness for our selfish, sinful actions, his Holy Spirit gives us the power we need to have hearts changed to love. When Jesus comes back he will make all creation new, to a perfect, just, loving society under his benevolent rule, for all who trust in him. This is the solution to heart change now, and a new world order in the future. It is only Jesus, as God, who can truly transform this world the way that we long for.
And so, using Jesus merely as a rallying point for the cause of social justice, dishonours Jesus and short-changes the movement for justice in the world. More than needing our voice, our money, or our time, the marginalised of this world need Jesus. They need Jesus because only he can save them their own sin and selfishness, only he can offer them true justice for the injustice that has been committed against them, only he can change the hearts of those who have oppressed them, only he can welcome them into the new creation where the last are first, the poor are rich, the oppressed set free, the blind can see, and the persecuted have inherited the kingdom of heaven.
I know I’ve painted both groups at their worst, it’s silly to think that people will fit clearly into one or the other camp. If only we did fit clearly into one camp or the other, our disobedience and idolatry would be so much easier to address. Instead all of us who hold to the Christian faith have a much more complex relationship with the Bible, with Jesus, with faithfulness. But while categorising people is complex, the answer is not. The solution for all us Jesus people – Bibley, social justicey, Holy Spirity, any type of Christian, whatever your mix – is to allow Jesus to take his place as God in our lives. Only in him as risen Lord and Saviour do we receive the mercy we need for our own acts of injustice, the grace we need to have our hearts set free from sin, the power we need to start living out his kingdom now. It’s Jesus we all need. Come, Lord Jesus.
In case you are feeling like you should be doing more, just to get started, here are three Christian aid organisations that you can support. They love Jesus and they love his world. It’s not the whole solution, but it’s a good start.
*For those who aren’t Christians: as far as I know there is no better justification for caring for the world than that God created the world, he created humanity in his image, he loved everyone in his Son, and he commands us to do the same. If the Bible is true, then it gives us an objective reason to engage with issues of social justice. Any godless philosophy of social justice which finds its imperatives for action in the value of humanity and the authority of human ideology will be hamstrung by relativism. Who is to say that humans are valuable? Who is to say that we need to care for all people? One person may say so, but others may say not. Why is one idea more right than the other? Because it feels right? Pragmatism? In the Christian faith we have a much better reason. Our motivation and imperative for love comes from outside ourselves, it is not subject to relativism, because if true, all truth finds its source in God, all goodness begins in him. Needing a good argument for social justice is not a reason to believe in God, but when the merely human-based logic for right and wrong falls down, but your heart keeps pulling you towards justice, maybe the answer is bigger than you imagined.
Photo by Duncan C
It’s been over nine months since we pulled the plug on Recom. Since then, everything has changed. If I was a woman, I could have had a baby in this time. I’m not and I didn’t, so that didn’t change, but everything else has, and a lot of that change is because of the end of Recom.
One thing that we (Scotty – co-pastor and I) did after we ended the church planting adventure was to sit down and debrief what actually happened, and what we felt went wrong. Of course in any pursuit as spiritualised as church planting it’s hard to think in terms of things going wrong if you’re trusting that God is in charge. So we tried to view things from the purely human perspective. Where did we go wrong? If we were going to do it all again, what would we do to make sure we succeeded where we failed.
The answer we came up with is perhaps quite unique to our situation. But there might be some lessons that are useful for other ministry endeavors.
As many of you would know our plan for the church plant was to have a church with three pastors, each with equal authority and differing responsibilities. The idea was to value the biblical principle of plurality of leadership as well as maintaining a cohesive vision. We felt that having three pastors would allow us to have a more well rounded leadership team, a church that wasn’t reliant on any one person but without many of the burdens of an entirely congregationally led church.
The Tripastorate (as we came to call it) was central to our church structure so it was my plan to get the three pastors in place before we proceeded with planting the church. In the early days I approached a bunch of people who I thought would make good pastors, they were all interested and polite but they all turned me down.
Eventually though I found Scotty who believed in the vision and, along with his family, was willing to commit to the ride. Along the way a few couples/families had jumped on board to be part of the core team of planting the church. We found ourselves a location and we picked up our third pastor, Kaye. She came on board for a three month trial period. Things were super exciting, and we were ready to go. (You can read my blog post from that time here)
Then a few months after Kaye joined us, she left us. She found that our structure wasn’t going to work for her, so she moved on. She made the right decision, and she made it at the right time. For us though it was a bit of a blow. It was at this point that, in retrospect, we made our biggest mistake.
Having our three pastors, our location and the makings of a core team, we had been really keen to get moving. When Kaye left, we became worried that the momentum that we’d gained in finding the people to join us would be lost if we put all our plans on hold while we looked for our third pastor. Instead we chose to slow everything down. We would slowly work towards moving to the area, meeting on Sundays, growing our core team, so that when we found our third pastor we’d be ready to just go for it. Everything would be in place, we’d just have to hit the launch button.
However this isn’t how it worked. For over two years after Kaye left, Scotty and I kept trying to take little steps forward waiting for that third pastor to come. We advertised, met with people, prayed, and invited people to join us, but nothing worked. We never found that third pastor.
At the same time we moved to the area, started meeting weekly on Sundays, did church together for about a year, named the church, got our web and social media going, moved our meetings to mid week, and did anything we could not to lose momentum.
A lot of our motivation for this was that we didn’t want to lose the people who had joined us. We loved our small team, they were faithful, kind, committed, and whole-hearted followers of Jesus. We enjoyed doing life together. We were afraid of losing these excellent people so we kept moving forward.
And that was the problem, we were too afraid of losing momentum and losing people that we gave our church plant a limited life span. Instead of trying to continue as we had planned, and find our third pastor at the same time, we should have put everything on hold, been willing to lose what momentum we’d gained, so that we could live out this core vision for what we thought the church should be. We knew the third pastor was vital to what we wanted to do, and we knew our team and momentum was valuable. We tried to hold on to both but we couldn’t. We chose what was valuable over what was vital, and in the end, this cost us the plant.
We didn’t know any of this at the time. At the time we thought we were making the right decisions. We were praying, seeking counsel, trying to be wise, but in a purely results oriented economy, we made the wrong decision. We couldn’t have known that the path we put ourselves on years before the end would take us where it would, but it did, and so we must learn.
If I was to learn any lessons about how not to break a church plant, it’d be these:
1. Don’t be afraid to lose momentum.
2. Backwards steps in the present can prevent failure in the future.
3. Choose what’s vital over what is merely valuable.
All that said, I don’t believe church planting operates in a merely results based economy. I know God was interested in our faithfulness, and I think we achieved that. We were working hard to make decisions which would grow his kingdom, help people meet Jesus and love the people we had with us, these are good things. I know that, while the church plant didn’t end how we wanted it to, God’s goodness overrides everything. For all of us who were involved he used, is using, and will continue to use, what we did, and the experiences we had, to grow us and grow his kingdom. God has used, and is using, the church plant to get us right where he wants us. He is neither thwarted nor perplexed by our failures. So while I have learnt valuable lessons about leadership, momentum and decision making, the best thing to see was that while I might be able to break a church plant, I can’t break God’s plans or his goodness. It’ll all be good in the end.
If you want to hear a bit more on thoughts like these, I preached a bit about the church plant in my recent sermon on success idolatry. You can listen to it here.
When we arrived at our new apartment in January we were very excited. A home for our new, very small family. We had our own lounge room, kitchen, bedroom, balcony, and mailbox. When we opened our mailbox for the first time it was full of advertisements from local businesses. The apartment block we’re renting in is newly built, we were the first tenants, so the mail we had was all about welcoming us to the neighbourhood. It was very kind of them, but I tend to hate junk mail. I hate it because I don’t like people wasting paper trying to sell me things I don’t want. I have always wanted to get a “No Junk Mail” sign because I know I’m just going to recycle it, so why not save us both time and them the money, and the junk mail can move on to greener pastures.
So, in our Newly-wedded bliss, Em and I headed off to the newsagent to buy a sign for our mailbox. It was very exciting. Our first mailbox sign. We were truly married now. In the newsagent, we picked the sign that best suited the French-family style guide for mailboxes, and took it to the counter. The friendly lady at the newsagent wished us all the best in our new life, free from unsolicited printed advertising material.
We stuck the sign on our mailbox, and thought everything was over. Little did we know our adventure with junk mail had only just began.
At first we weren’t getting any junk mail. Then one or two pieces. Then a few more pieces, multiple times. To begin with I was a bit angry. I thought “Can’t that person read?” I thought about delivering the catalogues back to the businesses. Or complaining to Australia Post. But I’m lazy so I just got a bit angry. Not very angry, but angry enough that I sometimes contemplated how to deal out junk mail justice not only within 5 minutes of checking the mail but at other times throughout my daily routine too.
But then in this last week it became clear to us that the junk mail we’re getting is no accident. People are deliberately putting their junk mail in our letter box. We are the only people in the apartment block with a sign so our mailbox is the place where a significant minority of residents have decided to post their unwanted mail. We know this because there is no other reason why we would receive the Domino’s vouchers (which we actually like) four times, or the unaddressed letter from our local member seven times over the space of a week. But what confirmed it was the MX magazine which is handed out at train stations that had been on the floor of our mail room for a few days which was delivered to our mailbox this past Sunday!
Now that I realise what’s going on, it’s kinda funny. Somehow a group of residents has decided that the people who need junk mail most are the people who have the No Junk Mail sign. It’s like deliberately walking on grass which has a “Do not walk on the grass” sign. Those signs seem kind of petty, so why not point out the pettiness and walk on the grass. I get it. We probably do seem a little petty being the only ones snobbish enough to refuse the free literature of the masses. Perhaps we do deserve everyone’s unwanted advertisements for local plumbers and real estate agents. But what is amazing is that this isn’t just one person, this is a group of people who live in different apartments. How did they organise this? Was there a secret meeting where they decided to troll the couple in 303 for daring to refuse junk mail? Did one person get the idea and then pass it on to whoever they see in the lift? Was there a directive from Strata that we should receive everyone’s junk mail? Is it just a collective uprising, no leader, no plan, just an obvious response to an obvious problem? I have no idea, but it’s a tiny bit fascinating.
The other thing I’m thinking about is how to respond. It feels like extremely low-level persecution, but it’s not for our faith, so I don’t think we can claim any blessedness for it. I am wondering what the Christ-like response is. I suspect turning the other cheek is an appropriate verse to apply here, or going the extra mile. But how do we do that? I thought perhaps we could change our sign to “Please Give Us Your Junk Mail”, but that might seem snarky. Perhaps we could write a letter to everyone and ask them all to give us their mail, but that too might just seem passive aggressive. All I have concluded is that I need to gladly receive my neighbours’ junk mail, and joyfully recycle it. The community have decided to saddle us with their real world spam, we have the unique opportunity to carry their burdens all the way to the recycling room 5-meters away. It’s probably not the grandest embodiment of Christ’s sacrificial love, but it’s all we’ve got to work with right now, so I guess we’ll give it a shot.
Photo by Michael Coghlan
We made a video for church.
So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the church. Funny that. Now that I’m working for a church again, I’m thinking about how we do church well.
Most churches that I’ve been involved with want to help people know Jesus. They want people to know how good Jesus is, what he’s done for them, and the hope he provides for them. They want this because they love Jesus, they love their friends and family, they love their community, and they don’t want to see anyone they love miss out on Jesus. Which, I think, is excellent.
What seems to happen though is that helping people meet Jesus becomes an extremely convoluted process because Christians are so sure that their friends and family are not interested in Jesus. So the process tends to go like this:
Invite person to some kind of social event either church run or informal. The church run events are often things like trivia nights, band nights, gingerbread house making, steak cooking classes, etc. Usually at some point there is a (hopefully) non-threatening talk about Jesus. The idea is we give them something they want (an enjoyable evening) and they give us something we want (10 minutes of their time to hear about Jesus).
The informal events are a bunch of Christians hanging out, with a few non-Christians thrown into the mix. At these event there is generally no discussion of Jesus at all. But everyone is hoping that the non-Christians are enjoying being friends with the Christians so they might be intrigued and want to have more involvement with these Christians.
Once the person has been shown that Christians aren’t all bad and are able to have a good time, you can then invite them to church. This is a big step because church is freaking weird. If you haven’t been brought up in Christian culture then all the singing, Christian lingo, clean jokes and straight living can seem odd. So you need the people you invite to be immersed enough in Christianland that they won’t freak out.
Hopefully, they don’t mind church and are happy to keep coming back when they keep getting invited.
At some point the person will be so involved in coming to church, hanging around with Christians and doing Christian things that they’ll be totally comfortable with the idea of Jesus. Somewhere along the line they will express a desire to become a Christian, this may be because they are given a direct opportunity in church after a gospel message, or because they have just “got it” and so they ask someone how to become a Christian. Alternatively they just pick it all up by osmosis and just start identifying as Christian and living as a Christian.
Tadah. It’s as simple as that.
Yet it’s not that simple. Mainly because we try and get people through the door with one thing (friendship, gingerbread houses, steak cooking) and try get them to stay for another reason (Jesus). I see two problems with this. First, Jesus is our best asset. He is the best and only reason that the church should exist. The other issue is that we aren’t the best at pretty much anything else we do. We aren’t the best at tea parties, or child care, or good clean fun, or anything much really. We aren’t the best live music venue, even on a Sunday. It seems silly that we don’t put our best asset first.
We have this assumption that what we really want people to accept – Jesus – is not what people want, so we have to give them something else while we convince them that Jesus is worth checking out. But this assumes that most people are not spiritual, most people are not looking for what Jesus provides and most people are not interested in Jesus.
If we believe the gospel, that God created us to be in relationship with him and that the only way to relationship is through the saving work of Jesus, then people are going to feel a need for relationship with God even if the feeling is vague and distorted, and Jesus can meet this universal need. If that is true then Jesus is the best thing we’ve got to offer.
When people are looking for spiritual answers, the church has to show itself as a place worth going. Jesus has to be easily accessible, not hidden behind layers of events and jargon. If my car needs fixing, I go to a mechanic, if I need to get fit, I go to the gym, if I need spiritual guidance, where do I go?
I remember a time when I was working as a youth pastor in a previous church and there was a boy killed in a traffic accident in the suburb our church was in. The Sunday after that happened, friends and family of the boy flocked to our church. Word had got around that the church was the place where there would be in impromptu memorial for the boy, the church was a place to start working through the grief. It’s no accident that the church was where everyone ended up. It was just filling its role in the community.
So here’s what I’m saying. The church should do what it’s good at. That is presenting the hope given to us in Jesus. The church needs to make itself known as a place of deep, spiritual answers, where real people are finding real hope, so that when people are looking for these things, the church is the obvious answer.
The church should get good at making their services easy to navigate for those who have never been, and should make the process of meeting and understanding Jesus transparent and readily available. We can still sing, and preach, and pray, and eat food together, and make daggy jokes, but we should do it in a way that is accessible and relevant, not like a club for insiders.
When people want their friends to meet Jesus, they need to be able to say “Hey, listen, you should come to church with me. Following Jesus is the best thing that has ever happened to me. Maybe it could be the best thing that happens to you.” Or something like that which doesn’t make you sound insane. Of course this is about 1000 times more scary that inviting someone to a trivia night, but if you want people to meet Jesus, why are you inviting them to a trivia night?
Jesus never invited people to trivia nights, he never pulled the crafternoon bait-and-switch. In fact when Jesus healed people, he tended to try and keep it a secret because he didn’t want people following him for the healings, but for who he was and what he’d come to do. And when people wanted to make him King because of the free bread and fish, he deliberately spoke in ways to turn them away, because they were following him for the wrong reasons. We should probably take after Jesus and present people with Jesus and nothing less.
All that said I’ve got no problem with the church meeting needs in the community by providing mothers’ groups, counselling, financial assistance, marriage courses, community events, free coffees, car washes, trivia nights, or steak cooking classes if that’s what people want. In fact I think it’s great! But I think we need to provide these things not as an excuse to get people to give Jesus a bit of their time, but because we have been moved by the love of Jesus to give people a bit of our time.
Jesus offers forgiveness of sins, Jesus offers a new and unbroken body after our current one gives out, Jesus offers a way of life that is more meaningful and fulfilling than any other way of living. Jesus is the best we have to offer, why entice people with anything less?
Photo by Stephen Depolo