by Jack Jezreel
Is it possible to truly worship God and not care about our vulnerable sisters and brothers and the gift of the earth we all share?
Is it possible to follow Jesus and not find ourselves linked and in the company of sisters and brothers who are hungry, homeless, hopeless, slaves, lepers, and prostitutes?
Is it possible to read the Bible carefully and not be convinced of God’s vision of human dignity, well-being, and wholeness?
All too often, the answer is yes. To the extent that God’s people are not reaching out to those who struggle, not advocating for justice, not seeking peace nor caring for creation is the extent to which congregations and parishes have yet to become Gospel-driven communities. The biblical vision of justice, Jesus’ proclamation of the Reign of God, his life journey of compassion and integrity outlined in the Gospels are absolutely central, critical ingredients of our mission, our purpose, our vision, indeed our humanity. If our churches are not forming, not even trying to form, compassionate human beings, real life saints, prophets, heroines/heroes and martyrs in Christ’s name, why not? And what needs to change?
Where Are We? A Church Disengaged from Mission
The role of social ministry within the life of a church can be evaluated in a number of ways, but usually it depends on our assumptions and expectations. If, on one hand, we think of outreach and justice work as an optional side dish to the real meal of church life, then we might admire church social ministry where it happens and shrug our shoulders where it doesn’t. If, on the other hand, we believe that caring for those who suffer the effects of economic injustice, inequality, and violence a “constitutive”—that is, necessary—part of Biblical/Christian faith, then it should be assumed that church life in every place ought to reflect this. Further, the way this commitment to social ministry would be reflected would include measurable evidence like: staffing priorities, particular kinds of church projects, the language of prayers, the content of sermons and homilies, bulletin space, the pastor’s calendar, and budgeting, just to name a few.
Over the years, I have met many extraordinary people committed to the work of justice who pray, worship, and work in church environments that are, more often than not, disinterested in their work. On the whole, pastors do not often preach on social issues. Religious educators and worship leaders exhibit little interest in social mission. Similarly, there is little evidence of social concern in church budgets, mission statements, bulletins or staffing patterns.
Christians who come to a passion for justice and social ministry often do so not because of their local churches but in spite of them. Throughout Christendom, persons are transformed through involvement with various Relief Services, Peace Fellowships, and Volunteer Corps, only to discover later that they have been birthed to a conviction that their parish does not support. Christians who are inspired to work and sacrifice on behalf of and in relationship with the poor often find themselves in a home church unsupported and eyed suspiciously. How many more times do we have to hear young adults who have returned from a year or two of voluntary service working in partnership with people who are poor, talk about how their local church is not interested in their experience and insights; and how alone and abandoned they feel?! What would it take for the Christian community to become an asset to God’s dream of healing and reconciliation, not a spectator or adversary?
What would it take to see the number of Christians committed to compassion and justice swell significantly? Dare we dream of a real surge of church commitment to a just world, characterized by human compassion, interconnectedness and justice? As we pray for justice to roll like a river, how do we encourage each other to jump in and be part of the current?
Gathering and Sending— Recovering Our Christian Identity
The root solution to the disconnect between church life and the work of compassion and justice does not lie in more documents, more statements, more campaigns, or more programs, even JustFaith Ministries programs (as shocking as that might be to my staff!). Rather, we need to examine the engrained patterns of the place where most Christians gather to celebrate and express their faith—that is, their local church. Are we organized in ways that are inimical to a robust engagement in social mission?
I would argue that the current set of assumptions about what constitutes membership at the local church will forever work against any sincere effort to engage a majority of Christians in the work of justice and compassion.
In the gospels there is an alternating pattern in Jesus’ ministry that provides a template for our lives, our work, and our churches. The narrative of the gospels follows a pattern that gets repeated over and over. We take it for granted perhaps because the gospels actually take it for granted—it’s the drama of gathering and sending. Gathering and sending. Jesus, a teacher, sometimes called “rabbi,” does what teachers and rabbis do: he gathers disciples, he forms them, he trains them, he challenges them, and he enlightens them.
And, then, he sends them.
Jesus gathers listeners and then he sends them. Jesus’ disciples, then, after Jesus has been crucified and raised from the dead, like their master, also gather listeners and believers and then the disciples send them. At its very best, the Church throughout history has embodied this alternation of gathering and sending. The Church gathers. The Church sends.
Gathering in the 21st century Church is the work of religious education, bible studies, seminary, and spiritual formation. Gathering is the work of liturgy or worship— that is, gathering the people of faith to prayer. It is the stuff of retreats and convenings. Gathering is the nurture, the preparation, the celebration, the education, the discernment. Most of the time gathering happens geographically, as you would expect, at the home base, the mother ship, at the church. At its best, “gathering” speaks to the sense of “getting ready,” perhaps getting ready for some particular event like baptism but, more generally, getting ready for the larger event called the work and commitments of our faith, the work and commitments of our lives. Gathering is what happens on Sunday morning or celebrations like marriages, ordinations, or confirmations. Gathering is the many social occasions to be together—potlucks and church festivals—we gather to have fun and be refreshed by the pleasure of each other’s company. Gathering is the Lenten retreat or the Advent mission or the revival. It’s about nourishing faith, nourishing the community, about remembering our story, sharing prayer, and being prepared for the second part of the drama calledsending.
Sending is about mission.
Sending includes helping resettle refugees in our hometowns, serving meals at a soup kitchen. It is advocating for immigrants, the poor, and the vulnerable. It is providing a safe place for battered women, educating boys and men on nonviolence, and advocating for laws that protect women. It is providing care for battered soldiers, and advocating for the end of war. It is caring for those battered by natural and human-made disasters. Sending is Lutheran Volunteer Corps and Jesuit Volunteer Corps. It is the work of community organizing and peacemaking. It’s about making a place for refugees, or single moms trying to get an education, or the newly released prisoner trying to start anew. It is the work outlined and given a vocabulary by language like solidarity, advocacy, compassion, and forgiveness in its many forms.
The most repeated phrase in the four gospels is “The Reign of God,” and that phrase provides a mission statement for our lives. And the touchstones of the Reign of God, of seeking justice and making peace include the common good, the dignity of every human life and the dignity of creation; it speaks to good and safe jobs, attention especially to the poor and vulnerable and a bias against violence of all kinds, including the violence of poverty, the violence of war, the violence of exclusion and violence against women. The proclamation of the Reign of God is to embrace the gift of life and the gift of creation that God has given and to relish it, to share it, protect it. The critical Christian insight, drawn from Matthew 25, is that this sending is a necessary part, a constitutive part of what it means to be in relationship to God. Whenever we tend to the poor, hungry and naked, we tend to Jesus. To know compassion for God’s poor is to know God. If we do not have compassion for those in need, we do not know God.
And here is the problem: churches, as they are currently and routinely configured are primarily, sometimes exclusively, places of gathering. If you look at the church bulletin, the church budget, the church staff, the pastor’s time, it’s all about gathering. It’s about gathering for worship, gathering for prayer, gathering for education, gathering for fun, gathering for worship planning. One telltale indicator of this is the fact that the most repeated church question is, “what time is worship, what time are we gathering?” So often, the church calendar is just one big list of gatherings.
This is not a criticism of gathering. As a teacher, I have dedicated my life to it. Gathering, as we all know, is absolutely critical. Gathering as the nurture of faith is essential. The human hunger for God, for meaning, for faith and understanding, the appetite for vision and spirituality, the desire for encounter with the sacred and holy are all real and all absolutely precious. We need a faith community, so we gather. We need to learn and be formed in the likeness of Christ, so we gather. We need to be mentored to holiness, so we gather. We need to pray and learn how to pray, so we gather. We need to celebrate, so we gather.
However, gathering disconnected from sending ultimately mutates into something less than the Gospel and something less than what is so very compelling about Jesus and the church he inspired. That churches are structured for gathering and not structured for sending has at least two serious consequences.
First, churches that emphasize gathering and not sending become static because they have lost their mission. Gathering is for the Church, but the Church is for the world. Local churches that do not structure themselves for mission, outreach, justice, compassion, charity, advocacy, solidarity, and peacemaking are churches that have been reduced to puny expressions of the Gospel. The critical question for churches to answer is not, “What time is Sunday worship?” The question for churches to answer is “What heroic, healing things does this church do for the world and how can I be involved?”
Second, churches that emphasize gathering and not sending, no longer even do gathering well, for we lose a sense of what we are gathering for, what we’re preparing for, what we’re praying for, what we’re learning for, what we’re being formed for. Spiritual formation, for example, in the absence of sending, mutates into some pious version of selfpreoccupation. Worship gets turned in on itself. While at the end of worship we may say something like, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” what we mean is, “Go in peace and make sure you come back next week.” It’s time that we religious educators and worship planners understand that we can’t do our job without a focus on compassion and justice, without an eye toward mission.
Churches lose members, not because they are wrong, but because they are not compelling, not heroic, not relevant, not courageous. Our children need and want a church that is heroic—like Jesus, like Francis of Assisi, like Desmond Tutu, like Dorothy Day, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Our children want to be challenged to their bones. Our children want to be invited to something that will ask a lot of them. And so do we.
Wonderfully, the Christian tradition has a robust history of sending, expressed in literally thousands of organizations, with all kinds of denominational expressions. The Church has spiritually birthed people, inspired by their faith, to work side by side with the poor, the abandoned, the dispossessed, the discarded, in nearly every country in the world. Just look at the clouds of witnesses, of agencies, of advocacy, the cloud of care and love and compassion which has been inspired, empowered, and set loose by the Holy Spirit in this world by this reality called Christian.
BUT—and here’s the point—what is so interesting is that historically almost all of these remarkable expressions of sending have been lodged outside of the local church. In most churches in most places, they are typically considered optional, peripheral, extracurricular, extra credit. Indeed, the challenge that many of these organizations have tried to address for years is how to get into the local church. A prior question is how did it happen that social mission ever got outside of what it meant to be a community inspired by Jesus Christ. In other words, why, when one of us wants to serve on behalf and in partnership with the poorest of the poor, do we have to lookoutside of our local faith community for a way to do this? Ask yourself: could a conference on poverty happen at your church? And, if it did, would your church members attend?
Where Do We Go From Here? A Compelling and Fruitful Future
I suggest that we Christians look at the broad horizon of our own tradition and see what structures, over time, most readily enabled the Church’s commitment to Jesus’ ministry to the poor and vulnerable. Notice the emphasis on structures, not personalities—this is very important. In other words, where has the soil been made fertile for growing compassion? Where have most of our saints, prophets, and martyrs come from?
For example, some of the most remarkable witnesses to the work of peacemaking and justice in the Catholic tradition (with which I am most familiar) have been women and men of religious communities. A lot of Catholic saints, prophets, and martyrs have been women and men with letters after their last name, like OSF, SJ, MM, and so on. This is no surprise. You see, the logic of most religious communities is that they had work to do, that they were called to serve the poor and vulnerable. There were schools to build for poor immigrant children; there were hospitals to build to serve the poor; there were people on the streets of Calcutta who needed love. Nobody joins Maryknoll, for example, because the mass times are convenient. People join Maryknoll to serve those who most need to be served. People join the Franciscans to serve. People join the Catholic Worker to serve. In other words, the terms of membership are service to those who suffer. Religious communities have been places where people were gathered well and formed well, because they were gathered for a purpose. The purpose is service in the name of Christ, especially to those who most need to be served.
The extrapolation I want to make is suggested by the examples of a couple of churches. A well-known example is the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., an ecumenical Christian church founded in the 1940s by Gordon and Mary Cosby. For decades, Church of the Savior’s “inward-outward journey” model of being church has inspired Christian communities across the country and beyond. The outward journey, the mission, is fundamental. You might be attracted by creative worship and a friendly congregation, but Church of the Savior membership entails an explicit commitment to mission involvement as well as to the community. As described in current Church of the Savior literature:
In small mission groups, members gather around a shared vision for embodying healing and hope—the outward journey—and the group then becomes accountable to one another for the inward journey, including ordered practices in the areas of prayer, study, money, health, work life and so on. In this way the mission group members, and all with whom they are in relationship on the outward journey, help each other find fullness of life.” [http://www.inwardoutward.org/page/who-church-saviour]
Gathering AND sending. Neither is optional.
There is an evangelical church in a Denver suburb with a pastor who is on fire about caring for the poor and vulnerable. This 3000-member church gathers for worship on the first and third Sundays of the month. On the second and fourth Sundays of the month, however, they go—all 3000— to a poor neighborhood park and rebuild the playground; two weeks later they rehab a block of houses owned by retired and lowincome elderly; two weeks later they serve a dinner for an entire neighborhood in distress and become friends. Gathering and sending on the calendar.
In Portland, Oregon, there is a Catholic church led by two Holy Cross priests. It is located in an area with a large homeless population, many of whom sleep every night by the doors of the Church. The church is located there on purpose. It is meant to be a place where all are welcome: where homeless men and women are welcome—welcome to take baths andwelcome to pray; where addicts are welcome to get something to eat and get access to rehab options and are welcome to liturgy; where the mentally ill can get counsel, practical and spiritual. It is a church defined by a critical social mission lodged verbatim in the Gospel. Gathering and sending—obvious, clear, critical and inspiring. Every year dozens of young people commit themselves to working full-time as volunteers at this church precisely because it gathers and sends. It feeds their faith by gathering and it feeds their faith by sending. It forms their lives by gathering and sending. It gives them a glimpse of Jesus’ life and mission by being gathered and sent.
The intention is not to propose these as viable or even fully satisfactory options for our home churches. They do, however, suggest that it is possible to define membership in a church by equal parts called “gathered” and“sent.”
Why not re-create our churches so that we ask everyone—EVERY ONE—to commit to serving the poor and seeking justice? Why not divide all members of our churches into teams of 12 and ask each team to commit itself to at least one refugee family? Or one neglected patient at a nursing home? Or one at-risk child who needs tutoring and a little cloud of friends? Then ask each of these teams of twelve to complement their face-to-face care with a face-to-face visit with their congressional representatives about the life-and-death issues related to those they care for. Why not teams of twelve who do advocacy work together, researching, learning and acting, and empowering rest of the community? Why not teams of 12—small faith communities— that pray together, study together, and reach out together? Why not organize 12 doctors (in larger churches) into a local version of Doctors without Borders who serve those in needy places and who also write letters on issues related to health care policy? Why not a team of 12 sent by the church to Haiti and then visit their senators on issues related to foreign aid and the recovery of that country? Why not a team of 12 to start a community garden in a local “food desert” and also become experts on the farm bill? Why not a team of 12 groomed for community organizing? Why not a team of 12 plumbers to rehab the houses of low-income and at-risk families, who are also trained in the most effective strategies for addressing poverty?
Consider this possibility: why not half the church budget for gathering and half the church budget for sending? Why not half the church staff dedicated to gathering and half the church staff dedicated to sending? Why not half the church’s buildings dedicated to gathering, like worship centers and classrooms, and half of the church’s buildings dedicated for sending, like hospitality houses and literacy centers. Why not every bit of half of the church energy for gathering and every bit of half the church energy for sending?
Does this sound in any way heretical or unfaithful? Conversely, it represents both a dramatic and lively version of Church that our children and the world would be inspired by. What does the world look like when more and more Christians are connected to another human being who needs a hand, a home, an advocate, or hope? What does the world look like when more and more Christians craft their lives around the logic of justice and the common good? What does the world look like when more and more Christians integrate their political activity around the logic of the religious bias that everyone is precious in God’s eyes? And, I believe, nothing would draw people to church, or faith, like a church that was always being sent to do heroic, visionary, and sacrificing work, and was engaged in an imaginative and promising political and religious vision. For those of us whose churches are losing members, is the problem the message of Jesus or that we have crafted our churches around a less compelling message?
A few years ago, I received a book that chronicled the difficult lives of those around the world living in violence. On the cover of the book was a picture of a young African girl, probably ten years old, who was wearing a sad smile. Where her arms used to be were healed over stumps—her arms had been macheted off by some war lord. The God I know, the loving God I know, is a God who would gather us, gather us in prayer, gather us in study, gather us in community, and after we had been formed and made ready, that God would send us, and we would want to be sent. And that God would send us to that little girl. And that God would form us in a way that we would not be satisfied until the world was a place where little girls, little boys and all people could laugh, grow, be safe, and know love.
The God I believe in wants a Church gathered and sent, to cherish and heal this wonderful and wounded world.
Jack Jezreel is founder and executive director of JustFaith Ministries. He holds an MDiv degree from Notre Dame and spent six years in an intentional community, providing basic and emergency services to homeless men and women in Colorado. He then directed his attention to transformative education, mostly focused on how to encourage churches to be engaged in outreach and social change. He is a popular national speaker and teacher.
Congregations Magazine, 2012-06-15
2012 Issue 2, Number 2