November 7, 2008
Urban Exile: Re-discovering Justice?
For many evangelicals, justice ministry is nothing new.
We evangelical folk love conferences. We'll attend one across the country or host one in our spiffy new sanctuary--er, auditorium. Shoot, we'll even blog about a conference for those who couldn't make it. I've attended my fair share of these get-togethers, from California to Michigan, and blogged about them along the way. Perhaps that early American phenomenon--the frontier camp meeting--lingers in our memory and has found new expression at mega-churches and sports arenas around the country.
During my suburban ministry years, many of the conferences I attended were of the how-to variety. Think "This Old House" with Bob Villa, but substitute house with "small group," "sermon," or "assimilation plan" and Villa with (mostly) white pastors and theologians who write books.
This conference-going tendency must run in our evangelical genes, because the folks at my urban church also make these events a priority. Here's the difference: instead of learning how to improve their church, these city-dwellers are interested in improving their neighborhoods and city. The half-dozen people from our congregation who just returned from the Christian Community Development Association conference in Miami attended workshops that focused on bridging racial divides, homelessness prevention, and immigration issues.
To be fair, this focus on justice has recently made an appearance on the wider conference circuit. I remember my surprise at Bono's video appearance at a Willow Creek conference a couple of years ago. His appeal for American churches to get involved in combating global poverty was warmly received. Leadership journal's managing editor, Skye Jethani, has noticed the arrival of all-things-justice at recent conferences and wonders about the origins of this development.
We've successfully reintroduced justice to a new generation of evangelicals, but is it being rooted in a fuller, wider, more Christ-centered gospel? Are we seeing justice ministries at conferences?because our view of the world, God, and the gospel has really matured? Or are we seeing justice ministries at events?because wider global awareness has simply awakened our affluent Western Christian guilt?
So, why the emphasis on justice at evangelical churches and conferences of late? As Skye points out, perhaps the American church feels guilty as we recognize the extent of our power and affluence. Knowing that churches in India are being burned down can make it hard to enjoy a latte from the church coffee bar.
This awareness of the global church may also lead to a higher emphasis on community. While our country sometimes operates unilaterally, the American church generally appreciates our place within the wider Christian community. More recently, we are coming to value the diverse theological perspective of our global family, much of which challenges our individualist and spiritual understanding of the gospel.
It's also possible that this justice discovery relates to a generation of leaders who haven't been shaped by the Protestant battles of yesteryear that pitted mainline justice-oriented churches against conservative evangelism-oriented churches. Having avoided debates about the social gospel's slippery slope, these younger evangelical leaders are confused by the neglect for ministries of justice and mercy.
Whether it's a theological discovery, sociological development or the latest pendulum swing, justice ministry has arrived in a big way. Suburban churches are supporting AIDS orphans through Compassion International and development efforts through Samaritan's Purse. Many congregations have begun partnering with other churches for a day of service to local public schools and park districts. As more immigrants bypass cities to settle in suburbia, churches are offering language and citizenship classes.
This development among suburban churches should be commended, even as we question the motivation and staying power. However, as we notice the arrival of suburban justice ministries, we should also remember that many urban churches never had the luxury of laying aside this essential component of our faith.
Take my adopted city, Chicago, for example. Since 1950, people across America have tuned in to Unshackled, that conversion-centered radio drama with the spooky organ music. Lesser known than the show is its host, The Pacific Garden Mission, which has been ministering to the homeless, imprisoned, and hungry since 1877. Or consider the great migration of the early 20th century when thousands of African Americans fled the south's Jim Crow laws for a new life in Chicago. Hundreds of gospel-centered churches sprung up on the city's south side to minister to the spiritual and physical needs of these newcomers. One of these south side pastors, James Meeks, now serves in the state senate and recently made headlines for his impassioned call for equal funding for Illinois' public schools.
Two of the oldest ministries at the seven-year-old church I serve are to the city's homeless and those in need of legal counsel. Members of the congregation provide a safe place for homeless men and women to gather during the day, meet their homeless friends at Burger King for Sunday lunch, and often walk the underpasses at night providing food and blankets for those sleeping outside. Our congregation's lawyers team up with Spanish interpreters to offer legal counsel to Hispanic folks in our immigrant-rich neighborhood. This is a church of gospel proclamation, expectation of spiritual new birth, and the occasional altar call. In other words, we're quite evangelical. Like many other urban churches, ours cannot separate gospel proclamation from the pursuit of justice.
While God's care for the poor and oppressed may be a new discovery for some, others have known it to be at the heart of gospel ministry for a very long time. There will come a time when justice looses its sexy veneer. We are, after all, a latest and greatest kind of people and another fad will undoubtedly come along to fill conference exhibits and book tables. That is, of course, unless we recall what urban Christians have always known: the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes a difference in our lives today, and the needs of today are great indeed.