Saturday, March 25, 2023

Social Justice and Evangelism

In a recent issue of the Christian Century, there was a thought-provoking article by Mark Glanville, a professor at Regent College.  Glanville reflects critically on an old refrain often taken up by conservatives and evangelicals.  Whenever Christians turn their eyes towards a societal injustice, and begin preaching or moving against it, there are those who say it is a distraction.

Glanville had been troubled by the response of a Southern Baptist leader, who'd suggested that those passionate about rooting out sexual malfeasance in the church were part of a "satanic scheme to distract us from evangelism."  This is preposterous, of course.  Where pastors abuse their leadership status to prey on congregants, there's pretty much no grey area.  Such abuses are an offense to the Gospel.

Glanville goes on to press against the idea that justice advocacy is a distraction, noting that precisely that argument was made by pro-slavery churchmen to condemn the abolitionist movement.   He presses the idea that churches should be "advocating for survivors of sexual abuse and discerning where racism is at work."  

These are important things, and valid fruits of the Gospel.

But they are missing something.   The challenge facing the withering oldline denominations is not that justice work is a distraction.  It's that justice work isn't evangelism, and that our failure to evangelize renders advocacy work meaningless.

Why so? 

Let us take, as case in point, the earnest efforts of my own denomination towards justice.  We Presbyterians (USA) were in conclave this year.  We've been making statements about racial justice, and environmental justice, and gender justice, and reproductive justice, and justice for Queer Folk.  We've stated our righteous demands, as advocates and activists do.  We've called for the end of the war in Ukraine, and peace in the Congo.  We've called for justice in Israel and Palestine.  We've demanded the end of cash bail.  We've formed commissions, task forces, and study groups. 

But what does that do?  

In a democracy, you need to be able to back that proclamation with the mobilization of and transformation of human beings.  In a republic, you need to be a movement.  

We ain't that, unless you define the process of organizational senescence as a movement.

When the church was formed, the PC(USA) stood at four point six million members.  We were heard because we represented 2.3% of the US population.  Not a huge number, sure, but enough to make a difference.  In 2022, we are 0.3% of the population.  We're a rounding error.  Less than a rounding error.  

For fifty years, we've operated under the assumption that if we focus our energies on advocating for justice, they will come.  Evangelism is not necessary.  It's a little icky icky poo poo, a little demanding, a little inadequately interfaith.   We pour our energy into making statements and calling for studies and advocating policies and proclaiming justice, while the foundation underneath those proclamations cracks and fragments into sand.

That foundation is the local church.  It is the root and soil from which the Gospel is lived.  Countless congregations that are seeing their membership dwindle and fade, as the promised wave of souls drawn to our progressive policy proclamations and rainbow flags fails to materialize.

Why is this?  Honestly, it's simple.  Why be a member of a church that is indistinguishable from a political movement?  I mean, even if you agree with that movement, where's the value-added of doing that in a congregational context?

You do not need to be part of a church to advocate for progressive policy positions, or to find community around a justice issue.  You do not need the church if you are primarily interested in eliminating cash bail, or responding to the climate crisis, or being antiracist.  If I wanted to be part of a church that was nothing more than a transparent gloss over a political movement, I might as well be a guns'n'country evangelical.

The church is nothing more and nothing less than a group of human beings who have committed to following Jesus together.  When we forget that, we fail.