Witness

Becoming a Just Church

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Would someone who only lived in your sanctuary know that there is a real world outside of it wracked with injustice?

Over a series of weeks, a zealous, justice-minded member of my church introduced me to several families she had invited. I was excited to see if they might find a home in our congregation, but none of the families ever returned. I followed up with our church member, and she said they all liked the gathering, but it was clear to them they didn’t belong. They felt, even though there were explicit messages of welcome, from me and others, that the implicit message of exclusion was being projected throughout our gatherings.

It probably doesn’t surprise you to learn that all these families were black and had experienced worship in our mainly white congregation as intimidating or marginalizing. We hadn’t done anything overtly antagonistic, but under the surface the message was clear that they would not find a home in our congregation. I suspect it came down to the fact that they experienced a fairly abstract worship gathering that matched the cultural sensibilities of white evangelicals but that had little to do with their lived experience.

A needed paradigm shift

Why this disconnect? Because many churches project the belief that social location is irrelevant; it belies the belief that our lived experience gets in the way of worshiping God. These churches might talk about our lives as obstacles to God or proclaim that God loves us in spite of our experience and circumstance. Contrast this with the worship traditions of people of color, where a person’s and a people’s lived experience is often the source and fuel for the worship of God. In these traditions, God does not love us in spite of our circumstances but rather in the midst of our experience.

This is a huge paradigm shift for mainly white evangelical churches. But it is a shift we must make if we are to disciple a people toward justice. We cannot engage meaningfully in the work of seeking God’s shalom in our way of life together if we de facto ignore the realities of injustice when we gather together for worship. To ignore the injustice of the world will make our vision of justice hazy as we demonstrate the kingdom.

Churches seriously committed to God’s shalom justice will naturally integrate the realities of the world within their corporate gatherings. Easily, the most natural place to begin doing this work is through prayer and preaching. If your gatherings have space for communal prayer, then there is already tilled soil for the prayerful consideration of the events of the day and the impact those events have on friends and neighbors and other members of the shalom community.

Preaching gives us a way to look at the events of the day through the lens of what it means to be the church and the vision of the kingdom of God. While I don’t consider preaching to be primarily didactic or educational, I do think that sustained and thoughtful, not just episodic and reactionary, preaching on the themes of shalom, justice, eschatology, and ecclesiology will hone our shared vision for the desires God might have for our life together in community and in a community.

Churches seriously committed to God’s shalom justice will naturally integrate the realities of the world within their corporate gatherings. Easily, the most natural place to begin doing this work is through prayer and preaching. Click To Tweet

When Sunday mornings look like Pleasantville…

While we seek to integrate the concrete realities of injustice in our corporate gatherings, we must also be committed to honoring the full range of human emotions within our life together. We are not always great at creating space in corporate worship for the wide spectrum of emotions that people experience in life. Many times, the best we can do is to acknowledge that it may have been a hard week, but we are here to praise the Lord! Of course, the implicit message is that we have to leave the pain or bitterness of our experience at the door in worship. Often, it seems like we prefer happiness over the experience of every other emotion. I can see why we do that and can affirm the reality of deep and abiding joy that marks the follower of Jesus.

I suspect, though, that it is not always that deep and abiding joy we are trying to draw out of people, but a reflection of our own sense of discomfort with the painful experiences of life. I’ve pastored countless Christians who simply don’t give pain and sadness room in their life, authentically offering it to God in the hope of redemption. Instead, folks often push those experiences down and attempt to conjure a sense of joy because that feels like what is expected of them when they walk in the doors. In this way, the manufacturing of corporate experience and the personal suppression of every expression save smiling work hand in hand. Sunday morning feels a little too much like Pleasantville to be truthful to the human experience.

While we seek to integrate the concrete realities of injustice in our corporate gatherings, we must also be committed to honoring the full range of human emotions within our life together. Click To Tweet

This is one of the primary ways we reinforce the message that our congregations are not safe for people who experience the daily trauma of poverty or folks who have tasted the bitter fruit of injustice in the world. If we hide behind a veneer of happy, we will struggle to cultivate a community where people experiencing the pain of injustice can authentically share their experience in community. On the other hand, when we find ways in our gatherings to regularly and explicitly create space to name and honor the full spectrum of our emotions and experience while giving God room to work in our midst, we actively resist the temptation to manufacture an experience that works to exclude folks at the margins. These are communities where each individual member finds the welcoming space needed to authentically bring their entire self into community and worship.

 

Taken from Becoming a Just Church by Adam L. Gustine. Copyright (c) 2019 by Adam L. Gustine. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

 

 

Interested in hearing more? Check out our Missio webinar with Adam Gustine, Discipling People Into Shalom Community

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