The 20 minute bus ride home from school was a raucous affair. Toward the front of the bus were the Nixon supporters; at the back congregated those who preferred McGovern. Like opposing sides in a volleyball game, we’d chant back and forth:
“Nixon, Nixon, he’s our man. McGovern belongs in the garbage can!”
Of course, the erstwhile supporters of the Senator from South Dakota substituted the President’s name and rocketed the ball back to their 5th grade enemies at the front of the bus.
And so it went.
I soon learned that while the bus was an O.K. place for politics, the sacred halls of the church most definitely were not. If someone brought up the election at church, it was in hushed tones in the foyer, never publicly. On the few occasions where a brave soul ventured further, they were beaten back with an all-purpose proverbial stick, an elder gravely intoning:
“Religion and politics don’t mix.”
So when it came to deciding what our country would look like, venue was important. This 5th grader learned his lesson well. Bus? Good. Church? Bad.
Then 1979 happened. A group of preachers got together and decided that maybe religion and politics could mix after all. The Moral Majority was born and with it a broader 25 year chapter in American history where not only were conservative, so-called “Bible-believing” Christians permitted to be more vocal about politics. They were encouraged to do so. Evangelicals – those who long had persuaded people to be “born again” through faith in Jesus Christ – now believed that politics itself should get religion. Opposition to abortion became a rallying cry and later overt push-back against a growing movement in American society to extend greater legal rights to gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered citizens. Decades of cultural wars ensued, raising huge amounts of money for special interest groups.
Where does that leave us early in the 21st century?
Whatever the outcome of the cultural tug-of-war in the United States, it is apparent that something important has been lost in the process. The name of Christ in too many minds has become identified with political agendas. Because of this, it may be tempting for large sectors of the church to swing back into the “religion and politics don’t mix” mode. If this becomes shorthand for disengagement from the world and all its messiness, then the marginalization of the people of God will only accelerate. Is there a Third Way, a Jesus way that engages our world not in the shrill tone of partisan politics but – to use the imagery of John 13 – with the basin and the towel, serving others with a love that transforms?
It would be relatively easy to hammer out yet another “manifesto,” a strategy for the church going forward. Such strategies exist, such as David Gushee’s A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good (Chalice, 2012). While the book has merit, including its use of kingdom language, Gushee and company are looking only at the American context. Their vision does not embrace the cutting edge of Christianity, the so-called “Global South” where the growth of Christianity outpaces other areas of the world. Stories gleaned from our brothers and sisters in places like Zambia, Nigeria, Brazil and Columbia are welcome. We have much to learn from them about how to engage our world in ways that look like Christ.
A pastor friend of mine once asked: “So you get them saved — then what?” Some would answer: “Then you train them to get more people saved.” Others would add discipleship, that being “saved” is just a beginning, not an end, that we must intentionally show people how to go deeper with God, the work of sanctification. Still others quickly move to social questions, feeding the poor, helping the immigrant, promoting social justice. Yet each of these emphases grow out of a specific vision of what the church is, even if the average person attending those churches might be unable to articulate it.
What follows can be grouped as answers to three questions:
1) Who are the holy “People of God”?
2) What is our mission?
3) How shall we accomplish it?
The title of this book – Christlike Disciples, Christlike World: The Transformational Mission of the People of God – summarizes what the pages that follow hope to accomplish. It is my contention that we are rudderless in the storm because we have not taken the time to work out who we are in Christ as the community of Christian faith, the People of God. This is the question of ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, and let’s face it: Ours is impoverished. We sound uncertain trumpets in-part because basic biblical and theological concepts like “church,” “kingdom,” “salvation,” “holiness,” “sacraments” and “spiritual gifts” remain poorly defined and unknown by our people. In the face of incredible challenges in our world – from the cancer of government corruption to the despair of war, disease, and climate change – we are unsure what to do because we don’t know who we are together in Christ. Even if we sometimes catch a glimpse of the transformational mission on which God is sending His people, I wonder: Are we too weak to effect positive change because we have treated the Holy Spirit as an afterthought instead of the dynamo of the church’s mission? That must change before we can be used by God to change anything else.
In keeping with the title of my weblog, “Theology in Overalls” (www.gregorycrofford.com), I am a practical theologian. Theory will always be coupled with ministry implications. The chapters of this little book are short, each one concluding with several discussion questions.
May the prayer of our Lord – “Your kingdom come, you will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – become a reality in our world today.
Image credit: Dileepsri.com