A few weeks back, I happened to be browsing the religious website Patheos and came accross a blog post by Greg Garrett called “God Commands Compassion, Not Evangelism.” The title fascinated me and the excerpt was even more interesting: “Christianity is not about praying in a certain way, or believing a certain thing, or making converts, or building a nice cabin at church camp.” The excerpt spells out what this post is about but here is a part:
In my book The Other Jesus, I talk about how Christians are called to do more than praise God, although I believe we are called to do that. We are called to do more than tell people what God has done and is doing in our lives, although I believe we are called to do that. We are called to do more than invite other people to be in relationship with that loving God, although I believe we are called to do that.
The larger message of the Bible is about participating in the reality that God wants to bring into being to replace the sinful mess we have made, and a large part of that participation is about reaching out to those who are in need. God’s advocacy for the downtrodden against the powerful is clear throughout the Hebrew Testament. A wonderful way to read the Old Testament’s sections on the patriarchs, the subjection of their ancestors in Egypt, and their deliverance in Palestine is through the lens of God’s choice of the poor, the outcast, and the unexpected to be the recipients of His love and grace. Youngest children (not the oldest sons, expected to inherit everything), women (of no social value), and exiles (not even part of a society) are chosen by God for special roles.
I would agree with Garrett that our faith is about a lot more than making converts or getting people to heaven. I think that if we say we love Jesus, but don’t try to care for the poor or alien in our midst, well our actions speak a lot louder than our words.
Having said that, I do take pause with Garrett’s words. I get the feeling from him that all that faith is about is social justice. Again, working to help those who are homeless or making sure that all are welcomed at God’s table (the inclusion of GLBT folks) is important and valuable. But our faith in God is about more than that, or at least it should be. In his latest column, Frederick Schmidt writes about the “Issue-Driven Church.” This kind of church is one that is driven by the agendas of the day:
In many ways The Issue-Driven Church thrives at the denominational level, among judicatories, within church agencies, and Conventions, Conferences, and Synods. But local parishes are often drawn into the orbit of The Issue-Driven Church. And even when they aren’t, local congregations are forced to do their work in an environment that is often shaped by The Issue-Driven approach to doing church.
That’s part of the reason that an increasing number of churches are omitting any public indication that they are affiliated with a denomination. They simply can’t pay the price of owning an association that drives people away before they ever get acquainted with the community.
Now none of this is to say that the church doesn’t need to address issues. Anyone who has read the prophet Micah or heard the story of Jesus won’t think for a moment that you can take the Gospel seriously without finding yourself at odds with the world around you. The Christian life is not about hiding out with your rosary waiting for comforting moments of enlightenment while the world goes to hell in a hand basket. Speaking out against racism and sexism, the exploitation of the helpless—there’s a long list of issues that show up in what might be considered the contemporary business of doing justice and loving mercy. But there is a difference between speaking to issues and being issue-driven.
Schmidt then goes on to describe what is the big problem with issue driven churches or to put it more plainly, the logical result:
The problem, of course, is there is really no reason to be part of a church like that—apart from the opportunity to somehow engage the issues. And, if you reflect very deeply on it at all, you will eventually conclude that the church is a dispensable vehicle—even for engaging the issues.
In the meantime, as a result, life in the church has become like life everywhere in America, except for hymns and rituals: “Issues are Us.” Issues divide us and there is often little more that brings us together. The nation is facing the twilight of common dreams and the church is a house divided.
If a church is only about the issues, at some point people are going wake up and realize that the church isn’t needed. Why be part of a faith community in order to support your favorite cause?
I don’t begrudge those who feel called to speak out on issues. And while I lean more to the right, I have no problem with someone in a congregation who believes their faith calls them to urge for more government funding.
The problem is that churches and people can glom on to issues and make that the grounding of their faith rather than Christ. Justice is important, but it flows from the life, death and ressurection of Jesus. Christ has to be the unifying force in our community, not our stance on Social Security.
So much in our society is splintered and factured according to partisan lines. The church needs to be a place where people can see a different vision, one where people come together despite different opinions and views and seek to do justice-not because it’s an issue, but because they are called, gathered and sent by the living God.