My son's new school is 4.96 miles away. Door to door, it takes approximately 30 minutes to get there, and it is quite an interesting commute, to say the least. The economical and social disparity is palpable, as we drive from gentrified communities, to run-down neighborhoods, and back to suburban-like areas. The panoramic changes are overwhelming and drastic! There's a stretch of about ten blocks with prostitutes roaming at 6:45 AM; people struggling with substance abuse swaying heavily as they cross the street; many lying on the cold concrete in front of rows and rows of boarded-up and burned homes. The collapse of this neighborhood is so dramatic that it seems as if I'm driving through a movie set. In all honesty, my mind wishes to cover the eyes of my five year old and shelter him from these images. Instead, my heart pushes me to talk to him about saving grace and resurrection power – as best I can to a child his age. However, as an adult, deeper, more complicated questions linger. How can such a brutal setting exist when, shockingly, 18 Christian churches exist in this span of blocks? (I've counted several times to be sure that my eyes are not deceiving me.) Where and how does the socio-economic transformation begin? It begins with the Church; the Church that is engaged in social transformation and community development. In the words of Bonhoeffer, "The church is only the church when it exists for others."
Self-righteousness destroys the fibers of connectivity between us and the world around us. My grandmother was a devout woman, who prayed four hours every morning and spent her life attending three-hour church services every night of the week. While she loved the Lord with all of her heart, she was not highly mobilized to be a prophetic witness outside of the sanctuary walls. The Church must be careful to avoid the temptation of self-absorbed-piety. This all-about-me-getting-to-heaven type of piety keeps many of us focused exclusively on our own righteousness, and it disengages us from the transformational work, which we are called to do. While we are not of this world, God has anointed us to preach good news to the poor. He has sent us to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners (Isa. 61:1).
Super spirituality, or as I like to call it, snobby holiness, is damaging. The church must guard itself from doing top-down ministry. These approaches and attitudes which imply, 'we are better because of our faith," or, "we can do this because we've got it together" are harmful and give a bad name to the body of Christ. To serve from a mindset that we are helping social inferiors, goes against what Jesus was trying to convey in the parable in Luke 18. Spiritual snobbery is narcissistic and can segregate us from those we are trying to serve (Rom. 12:3).
Cookie-cutter evangelism does not work either. I commute on the train to to work, and I have observed, firsthand, the method in which someone rattles off biblical verses out of context, screams spiritual clichés and insults, forcing conversions; thus, shunning hearers entirely. The Gospel is not a message in which we spew verses, just to get it off our chests. The Gospel respects, and above all, loves. The Gospel calls us to sit with people and listen to their stories, to their life journeys. Love takes time to understand and walk with individuals, meet them where they are, serve them in love (Gal. 5:13).
The Church plays a significant role in societal change, and it must recognize the spiritual authority it has in aspects of leading sustainable human, social, and financial improvement in the communities around it. The Church cannot be complacent and comfortable with the status quo. Stagnant churches must shift to becoming engaged, transformational bodies. We are not here to make our budgets, buildings, and land grow. We are not here to show how many we had in attendance on Sunday. We are not here to stand in the periphery. We are here to labor arduously and close the breaches. We are the light of the world, the bearers of hope. We are here to make a difference in everyone, in everything around us. We are to speak boldly to the nobles, to the officials, and to the rest of the people who we are here to build and transform (Neh. 4). Where some may see hopelessness, the Church sees opportunities for God's grace and power. Our Gospel and our children demand no less!