In order to keep this post brief I am using a few theological words to express my understanding of the root issue. Much like doctors conversing over a particular condition of a patient would use medical terms in discussing the issue with one another. To get a more sensible break out of my thought process without the theological back story (like a doctor talking to a patient) skip to the second gray block quote below…
Encounter God in the City: Onramps to Personal And Community Transformation by Randy White is the book I have been looking to read for over a year now. I didn’t know that this was the book I needed, but I am very grateful now that I have found it. Randy does an excellent job of carrying the balance of how to express the gospel through social action.
For far too long I’ve been reading authors who have heavily influenced by peculiar reading of the Sermon on the Mount. Not that such a reading is without warrant or precedent in Christian history, however many of the authors who are proposing a “Sermon on the Mount” hermeneutic are living in a reactionary state against a type of rigid premillennial fundamentalism that has taught that the world is getting worse, causing followers to withdraw influence from the market place and create a separatist movement complete with its own knock-off “Christian” music sub culture. In essence they claim that rather than engaging the world with the gospel, many churches have effectually created fortresses to protect the Christian sub-culture from the world. The allegation is that our churches have become islands in the community rather than a shaping force… I understand the problem and often agree with their assessment of where we are (or at least where we were headed). When we focus so exclusively on gospel content that we forget to express the gospel, there is a problem.
But where many of these authors and my friends who follow them go wrong is that they throw stones at the institution and forge a reactionary trail that is full of expression, but not always “gospel” expression.
In general its a juvenile reaction to finding out that you were taught a different position or way of thinking. Rather than cautiously moving forward assessing the new information in light of your current beliefs, you abandon your previously held beliefs and focus on the “new truth” with a nearly exclusive focus. Think of the young man who comes back from college a Calvinist. Suddenly Calvinism is all he knows and without guidance he is likely to become a hyper-Calvinist and forget evangelism because of his angst against a pastor or teacher who didn’t cover Romans 9 in Bible study. The same thing is now happening with the social aspect of the gospel. There is a social aspect to sharing the gospel. But we haven’t been teaching about it in many mainline churches and now the reaction is to jettison the doctrinal aspects of the gospel in favor of pure social action… Its a juvenile over-reaction to a faltering world view…
With “mission” emerging (no pun intended) as one of the predominant way to proclaim this new sense of expressing the gospel through social action this leads to the questions… What makes “mission” Christian? Essentially, at what point does social concern translate into gospel message?
Many have used words like “mission” and “incarnational” unfairly to mean work amongst the poor or less fortunate. Lets be clear the mission is to make disciples (Matthew 18). The incarnation was about God becoming man and walking among “sinners” many of whom were poor, many of whom were not. The ultimate goal is the glory of God (Philippians 2).
We miss the mark when we replace the word “poor” for “sin.” (Though poverty is an issue in its own right, it is not the central issue, but rather the expression of the root issue of sin.) I know that many times and in most places people are bound in poverty by oppression (the sins of others). I know the world groans under the curse and oppressive poverty can be understood as the mark of sin on the world, but the issue remains… removing poverty does not remove sin. Feeding a man or teaching a man to feed himself are worthwhile goals (and even maybe gospel oriented goals), but they are not the end. To be called mission or missional we must be reconciling men to God by pointing to the work of Jesus on the cross otherwise the faith we are trying so hard to evidence by our deeds is no faith at all (Matthew 7:22-23… and that’s in the Sermon on the Mount).
Randy White expresses an awesome way forward in reaching our cities with the gospel. He understands that incarnational isn’t just about getting your hands dirty, but sitting with sinners for the sake of demonstrating and authentically sharing the gospel. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in urban ministry. The retail price is $15.00 (Paperback), I got my copy for $10.20 at Amazon.com. I gave it five stars.
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