December 19, 2014 / Eric Paul

#ChurchTrending: The Church as Spiritual, Relief Agency, or Something Else?

As Missionary-Pastor on the Big Island of Hawai’I, I have become adept at asking the question: What does Good News look like for these people and for this community? In an effort to learn more about Kona, I attended a strategic planning meeting for the county to assess the accomplishes, needs, issues, and challenges revolving around homelessness on the island.  Care providers and social workers from a number of different non-profits and government agencies were in attendance, as well as representatives from three churches.  And, as I continue to meet with and get to know the community as a missionary-pastor, I am struck again and again by the ways people understand the role of the church in the community by the church’s own practice.  So, I thought I’d take some time to outline two such understandings, and then add my own critique as a third point.

1). The Church is a place to form the spiritual identity of Christians and would-be Christians who, once changed inwardly, will influence the wider community for good.  The goal of the church is first and foremost a message of salvation from sin preached to the individual.  Once saved, the person is ‘born again,’ which happens as a private transaction between the sinner and God.  The focus of the church rests on the individual as separate from the community and their social/historical place.  Spiritual transformation may lead to outward works of mercy and grace, and is indeed expected to do so. But the church that rests on the spiritual dimension of the soul places the church on the outside of social and political forces that have command over a person’s physical, mental, and economic relationships.

In other words, the church merely sits as an entity offering advice from within a field it doesn’t belong.  Other agencies have the experience and professional knowledge to get at the root causes of a particular issue.  The church, in such circumstances, abdicates its social role and allows others to take over the work of justice in the world.  This sentiment was put on full display at the planning meeting when I was asked if the church had anything to offer when it comes to affordable housing.  The question reflected an attitude that the church is out of its comfort zone when talking about such social issues.  Indeed, for most pastors within this understanding of church, the answer is simply no.

2). The Church acts similar to an agency of relief and development.  When a flood hits, the church mobilizes.  When we are told that the urban poor suffer from hunger, we open a food pantry.  When we learn about the 1100 people experiencing homelessness, we petition for more funds to be available for public housing.  Certainly scripture teaches us to care for the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant.  In other words, we are to extend ourselves on behalf of those on the bottom rung of society.  Indeed, the church acts within the social sphere of existence when it does such work.  But, recently it’s become just one voice in a sea of many relief and development agencies.  For these churches there is an imperative to remain relevant to insure the church’s social status in the community.  As Emmanuel Katongole critiques, “It must get involved lest it appear irrelevant. But for its contribution to be considered relevant, it must not require Christian convictions, stories, or beliefs. In other words, the more active and relevant the church might appear to be, the less distinctively Christian its contribution must be” (The Sacrifice of Africa, 46).  Relieving poverty, racial reconciliation, or peacemaking are not distinctively Christian, but rather reduced to a professional skill set with the goal of efficiency.

When I met with a community gardening group in town, they specifically talked of the need of transportation for their residents to get to and from work, tutoring, and other services provided for them.  The relief the church can offer is transportation within the framework of needs described by the other agencies.  The church is merely used as a tool to fill the gaps of someone else’s story.

Both of these understandings of church reflect a mindset that the church is either irrelevant or unnecessary in the world outside of its own walls.  Indeed, the structure created under the first point naturally leads to the creation of other relief and development agencies ‘outside’ the church, even if those who work within them are Christians.  Rather than being stuck with the moribund decision between working for spiritual transformation or physical well-being (or whatever dichotomy comes to the foray), the church ought to think of itself alternatively:

3). The Church is a social vision.  The church is a particular community in a local place that proclaims Christ’s Lordship in that place.  If Jesus is Lord, then he is certainly Lord over the spiritual, economic, political, and familial relationships of the community.  Those who find themselves lost in sin certainly need the reconciling work of Christ individually, but Christ’s work on the cross also put to death all powers and structures that separate humanity from God and humanity from one another.  So when the church proclaims Jesus is Lord, he is Lord over the powers that continue to isolate whole people groups from full dignity within the community.  This is why Hauerwas has been so adamant throughout his career that the task of the church is to be the church. The church as a social vision rests in the belief that Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom of God has come and is made visible by his followers- the church.  The world- its politics, economic forces, militarism, individualism, violence, and fear- do not set the church’s agenda.  By being the kind of community that offers life in the midst of death, the church reconciles broken and estranged relationships within itself.

Within the social makeup of our communities, a person’s felt needs, hurts, and pains are treated as isolated occurrences.  So when it comes to our homeless neighbors, they bounce around from social agency to social agency; one to prescribe medicine, one to fill medicine, one for counseling, one for food, one for laundry and shower, and another for shelter.  Detox facilities are viewed as an isolated need apart from the need of mental health or healed relationships.  Every solution is disconnected from the connected issues.  What’s missing in all of this is the deeper more innate need for belonging and vocation.  Our society treats people who experience homelessness as disposable people, which shapes their identity as disposable people.

If the church is a social vision; then it certainly envisions a community in which the least are welcomed, cared for, learned from.  I’ve seen the power of a welcoming and hospitable church community break through barriers of alcohol addiction, mental illness, and PTSD in ways that decades of isolated care could not.  That is not to say that detox facilities or certain medication is not necessary; but it is to say that we’ve missed the power of the resurrection that the church carries within herself as the visible Body of Christ by allowing others to prescribe alternative ‘solutions’ to grace lived in community.