The Local Church is the Hope of the World

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]When I finished reading J. D. Vance’s New York Times bestselling book, Hillbilly Elegy, I had one thought: This book makes it so clear why the local church as God designed it is the hope of the world. Now, it might not be immediately obvious what a memoir of a young attorney describing what it was like to grow up in the poor, white communities of Ohio and Kentucky has to do with the local church. So let me show why, when I closed the book, I had that thought.

The subtitle of J. D.’s book is “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” In the book, J. D. wants to describe the lives and circumstances of his “people.” He writes:

…I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition—their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family. 

J.D. points out that these people are the most pessimistic of any group in America and are more socially isolated than ever. In the book, he wants to tell the story of “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south”. He wants to describe what this life of social, regional, and class decline “feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck”.

As J. D. tells his own story and describes the life of those living in the communities where he grew up, he makes a number of observations along the way about the nature of the struggle and its roots. While he notes that the causes are wide-ranging and complex, he repeatedly returns to several themes in particular throughout the book.

First, in these communities there is a deep lack of social capital—that vital network of relationships that connect people with resources, work, and education opportunities.  

Second, there is a dearth of character formation. The values of hard work and honesty, even church attendance, are given a great amount of lip service in these communities, but J. D. notes that there is little substance to them.

Third, there is a deep lack of hope which results in an attitude of deep pessimism and resignation to “the way things are.” People don’t believe that their lives will or can get better.

It was as I reflected on these themes that I was reminded anew how the local church as God designed it is uniquely able to be an incubator of human flourishing that addresses these deep needs within a community.

On the issue of social capital, the local church as God designed it is to be a place where people from radically different backgrounds and places in society—rich and poor, well-connected and not so well-connected—with a wide variety of occupational sectors and skill sets come together in a community centered around Jesus and His mission in the world. Local churches can be places where people who would not otherwise know one another, spend time with one another regularly, much less love and sacrifice for one another, regularly come together to care for, encourage, and serve one another.

A great picture of this in the New Testament is in Acts 16. In this chapter the author, Luke, records the apostle Paul bringing the good news of the gospel to the city of Philippi. The account opens with Paul leading a successful businesswoman named Lydia to Christ. Then he liberates a slave girl, bringing her into the community. Finally, the account concludes with Paul bringing a blue-collar jailer to Christ.

Now, in this one church community, there is a white-collar businesswoman, a former slave, and a blue-collar public employee. This kind of local church community teems with the sort of social capital that leads to human flourishing in multiple dimensions, not the least of which being economic flourishing. The local church as God designed it is the hope of the world.

However, social capital alone is not enough to produce human and economic flourishing. Character formation is also vital and, again, the local church is uniquely positioned to produce people of character who are able to practice delayed gratification, love for others, seeking the common good, and the pursuit of hard work—in school, at home, or in the workplace.

In his recent book, The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity, Tom Nelson points out the deep links between the local church, character formation, and economic flourishing:

Economic systems depend on virtuous people, because the systems themselves take on the moral aspect from their participants. Virtuous people make virtuous economies. The spiritual formation of a more virtuous people is an important task that the local church is uniquely empowered and positioned to accomplish. The local church, then, is not a neutral or even a parasitic actor within a symbiotic economic system, but rather a prime value-added contributor to flourishing economic and social life. (53-54)

Local churches, when they are carrying out what they are designed by God to do, bring people from spiritual death to spiritual life, setting them on a lifelong journey of deepening in Christlike character. Indeed, C.S. Lewis has noted that the whole goal of the local church is to produce “little Christs”:

Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ…We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy [Spirit] will arise in us…Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else. (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 200)

The kind of character that results when the Holy Spirit arises in us is marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Communities saturated with people marked by these kinds of character traits cannot help but flourish. The local church as God designed it is the hope of the world.

Finally, the local church is the place of hopeful realism. When it is operating according to God’s design, the local church is a place that does not simply ignore the problems of its community or preach an escapist gospel “that we just have to hang in there until Jesus comes back but, in the meantime, we can’t do anything meaningful to make things better.”

Rather, it is a group of people marked by an honest, unblinking assessment of the real problems that face their community while maintaining an unshakable belief that things can improve. This sort of hopeful realism takes seriously the role that God has designed human beings to play in the wise governing and ruling of His world. God intends to use us, His image bearers, to accomplish His will on earth. When this sense of responsibility is coupled with a deep dependence on God, hope, energy, and human flourishing are released into a community. The local church as God designed it is the hope of the world.

This is why Christ Community is passionate about multiplying healthy congregations here in Kansas City, across the nation, and around the world. When healthy local churches are planted, nurtured, and grown in a community, they provide a stable institutional presence for human and economic flourishing that is unmatched. The local church as God designed it is the hope of the world.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Why Economic Wisdom Matters for Followers of Jesus

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with Pastor Tom a few years ago when he made the case that pastors should learn more about economics. In Tom lingo, not only does work matter, economics matter too.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical

Did this mean pastors were supposed to dive into the particulars of macroeconomic theory with their congregations? The famous economist Adam Smith outlined the specialization of labor – didn’t Tom know that as pastors, we were specialists in the biblical text, not economic minutia? And isn’t it the case that talking about economic issues provides the shortest path to fueling partisan fires? Don’t all economic conversations necessarily devolve into debates about public policy? It seemed like a minefield I wanted to avoid.

In the years since that conversation, I’ve come to see that Tom was right. Though the Bible is not a technical manual for economics, it reveals economic wisdom from beginning to end. An understanding of economics is one of the most important foundations for discerning how we are to love our neighbor – helping those in need without hurting or robbing them of dignity.

In our sermon series With Us, (1 Kings 21; August 6), we explored economic themes in the story of Naboth’s vineyard and the wicked King Ahab. In a cultural context where many kings assumed a right to seize property from a landowner and were not accountable to the rule of law, God judged King Ahab for using his power to seize private property and kill Naboth.

Though these basic economic values might seem obvious to us since we live in a nation broadly shaped by Judeo-Christian ethics, it was neither obvious in biblical times, nor in many parts of the world today. These economic norms were rooted in God’s redemption of Israel out of slavery from Egypt. Christopher Wright explains,

The sharpest pain of the oppression [Israelites’ slavery in Egypt] was economic. Israelites were being exploited as slave-labour, on land not their own, for the economic benefit of the host nation, in its agricultural and construction projects (ex. 1:11-14). It was their outcry against this that precipitated the compassionate intervention of God as their go’el (Redeemer). But it was not enough just to get Israel out of Egypt into some kind of tenuous freedom in the wilderness. The objective of their redemption (also stated in Ex. 6:6-8) was to give them land of their own – along with an economic system that was intended to outlaw such oppression within Israel itself…it was particularly in the economic realm that the Israelites themselves were to live redemptively, in response to what God had done for them. Redemption was strongly economic in content.”

– Christopher Wright, The Mission of God’s People

We too are God’s people. And we too are to live redemptively in the economic realm. Living in a world with great needs requires great economic wisdom.

It is why the Common Good conference was created in 2013 as a way to engage in a conversation about the common good — a subject that is not often addressed directly, especially among Christians. We believe the local church as God designed it should promote economic wisdom, affirm the dignity of all value-creating work, and seek the common good of all. In this way, the church lives out Christ’s call to be salt and light in the world.

This year’s conference is on Friday, October 13, CG2017: Churches for the Common Good. We believe CG2017 will be an incredibly important conversation for all who care about the local church and the shalom of our city. Won’t you join us?


Jesus and the Poor

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Excerpt from Economics of Neighborly Love by Tom Nelson

In his death and resurrection, Jesus the Messiah provides the final solution for humanity’s greatest poverty. However, we must also remember that Jesus Himself demonstrated compassion and care for the materially poor throughout His earthly ministry. When Jesus spoke about his messianic mission, He often spoke of the poor.

In His hometown of Nazareth, as He read the Isaiah scroll, Jesus identified Himself as one bringing good news to the materially impoverished. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18). And as John the Baptist languished in prison, having second thoughts about Jesus and His messianic mission, Jesus reassures John by informing him that all kinds of healing has occurred, and that “the poor have the good news preached to them” (Mt 11:5). Jesus highlights the economic dimension of His messianic work alongside His physical healings. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus look on the multitudes with deep, heartfelt compassion, moved by those who were poor, weary, and sick. Our Lord told stories that gave dignity to the poor and elevated their status.

A poignant example is the story Jesus told of the rich man and the poor man, Lazarus, whose disparate temporal circumstances in this life are highlighted to a hyperbolic extreme.

Jesus heightens His listeners’ visceral response by portraying the rich man as indulging his opulent lifestyle with a cold and callous indifference to sick, hungry, and poor Lazarus, who sat by the rich man’s gate each day. The rich man sees Lazarus, but only with his eyes and not with his heart. Even the dogs that roam the streets have more compassion for the poor man than the rich man does; they lick Lazarus’s oozing sores to bring temporary relief. But the rich man remains indifferent. (Lk 16:19-31)

To heighten the intrinsic value of the poor man, Jesus gives a name to this poor beggar, which is very unique within His parabolic teaching. In the midst of his ongoing suffering, Lazarus exhibits a gentle and patient soul, while the rich man reflects a prideful, self-absorbed, unrepentant heart. With this heart-tugging story, Jesus attempts to get the attention of the cold-hearted pharisaical religious leaders, who have bought into false conclusions that material wealth signify God’s blessing and material impoverishment serves as a rightful punishment for sin.

New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey makes the compelling case that Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus teaches several heart-changing themes, including the corrupting potential of material wealth.

Wealth, be it little or much, is not condemned in Scripture. What is criticized is the failure to see that all material possessions belong to God. We are merely stewards of his treasures.

The parable reflects the corrupting, blinding potential of wealth and is critical of the socially irresponsible wealthy. The rich man used his resources for his own self-indulgent living. He cared nothing about his God, his staff or the needy in his community.

Jesus also highlighted sacrificial generosity toward the poor, showcasing the giving of a humble widow, who gave all the money she had to the work of the temple. Indeed, Jesus identifies so closely with the materially impoverished that He says when we care for the poor, it is as if we are caring for Him.

Following in Jesus’ footsteps, the New Testament writers continue to amplify God’s heart for the poor. One of the compelling evidences of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was how the gospel opened hearts and hands to those who were materially needy. Not out of coercion or forced distribution, but out of generous hearts of neighborly love, the early church met many material needs. “They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:45). The New Testament writer James captures the early church’s heart for the marginalized and vulnerable, emphasizing that true Christian faith has at its heart concern for the poor: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas 1:27).

The apostle Paul’s concern for the poor was consistently on his heart and often on his tongue. In his farewell address, Paul urged the Ephesian elders to work hard, stay generous, and be eager to help the economically vulnerable. Defending his apostolic gospel mission to the Gentile world, Paul affirms his eagerness to care for the poor. While Paul preached and planted churches, he also took up monetary offerings to care for the materially impoverished in the Jerusalem church (Rom 15:25-28). Paul’s earnest appeal for generous giving to those who are underresourced, particularly to members of other local churches, suggests the goodness of striving for economic equity for all.

Paul does not advocate a coercive ecclesiastical or government redistribution of income or wealth, but rather seems to suggest that people who have been transformed by the gospel should embrace wise efforts to encourage less economic disparity and more economic equality. Writing to a financially advantaged church at Corinth, Paul says, “I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness, your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness” (2 Cor 8:13-14). In a time of increasing wealth disparity, both within the church and outside the church, Paul’s words should be carefully pondered. How should the principle of equity or fairness inform our lifestyles, philanthropic efforts, and public policy? How does equity and fairness play a role in our free-market economy as we seek the flourishing of all people?

When we take a closer look at the extensive biblical teaching that calls for open hearts and hands toward the materially underresourced, we realize God’s heart for the poor is expressed not merely in acts of benevolent charity but also in providing opportunity for work and productive engagement in the economy. Whether the poor are part of a local faith community or not, in common grace we are called to empower, strengthen, and protect the vulnerable in society.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vcex_divider][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]CG2017Tom Nelson will be one of the featured speakers at the Made to Flourish CG2017 Conference on Friday, October 13. The conference will be live streamed to local sites throughout the United States. The theme for this year’s conference is churches for the common good, and features other speakers such as Andy Crouch and Amy Sherman.

To hear more from Tom, and find out about this upcoming conference, visit Made to Floursh.org.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]