One Thing Can Lead to Another
More than once in this blog I have written about the differences between the theological roots of older and younger evangelicals. The older have been the inheritors of the belief that our primary task is taking the Gospel to the whole world through evangelism. Once the Gospel had been heard by every nation and every tongue, the Great Commission would be complete and Christ’s return would follow.
In the last few decades the holistic message of the Gospel has been given more emphasis, opening up broader opportunities for medical missions, education, poverty relief, microfinance, business development and social justice. But, most of this work has been in areas outside the United States. I would not say we have been blissfully unaware of the issues in our own country, but they have been less compelling.
I am beginning to see signs of a shift.
Even while the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and others have been working steadily here in justice, racial reconciliation, economic reform, immigration and urban issues for many years, their work has too often been regarded only as minority-led, inner-city ministry. Our attitude has often been, “Yes, we know we have problems and, yes, someone should be doing something about them, but we are more energized by global challenges.”
Whether it was more glamorous or theologically driven in other ways, international ministry has had the upper hand. For instance, the Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board) has often been considered the stepchild to the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board) within the Southern Baptist Convention. Taking the Gospel – and even holistic ministry – to the world has always been the top priority.
It’s only conjecture on my part and I’ve not worked it out, but I am seeing a change. Yes, there is still commitment to global evangelism and, yes, there is still deep interest in global social justice, but some are beginning to turn their attention not only to this country in general but their local communities.
I think this new chapter began with a renewed interest in city-specific ministry driven by Tim Keller‘s extraordinary work at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. The “theology of place” has been around for years (read anything by Ray Bakke) but Tim became the spokesperson for a new generation – not throwing out the commitment to evangelism but rooting it in a place. At the same time, Andy Crouch, James Davison Hunter and Gabe Lyons started creating multiple conversations around shaping culture. Of course, there has been a surge of activity in what many would describe as “cultural issues,” such as the arts, literature, film and music. But many people are taking it a level deeper.
Culture is about where we live. Younger people are discovering Wendell Berry, Albert Raboteau and others on the importance of being grounded in a particular community with a genuine sense of commitment and obligation. Issues that are common to many communities have surfaced – jobs, affordable housing, incarceration, predatory lenders, immigration – and other voices outside the evangelical world began to be held in great esteem, such as David Brooks, the New York Times columnist. As well, books like Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids,” Yuval Levin’s “The Fractured Republic,” and Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” are being read and influencing this next generation. Throw in some classic Jane Jacobs, Joel Kotkin, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, even Bernie Sanders, and one thing can lead to another.
This is not another wave of minority ministry. If anything, it is drawing well-educated, upper-middle-class people into their cities. It’s not centrally coordinated or directed. No large (or small) organizations are pushing it, but I don’t believe I would be having conversations five or 10 years ago on how Christian funders can play a role in these messy, complicated areas. Until recently, evangelism meant Africa or India and social justice meant human trafficking in Cambodia or fair trade in Peru.
The Lord spoke through the prophet Micah when he said to the people of a particular city and nation: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah was not speaking about global justice and mercy but about issues of fairness, inequity, exploitation, deceit and greed where the people lived – in their own communities. God is not speaking here about setting the world right but about our obligation to care for what is right in our backyards.
We should not become isolationists with the Gospel. However, I do believe the vision of the founders of CCDA and others who have practiced a long and somewhat invisible obedience in the same direction are about to get an infusion of new interest and support.