‘Tis the Season… To help out — some… within finite boundaries… in non-polarizing projects

Today’s guest blogger is Tim Conder, the founding pastor of Emmaus Way in Durham, NC.  He is currently a PhD Candidate in “Culture, Curriculum, & Change” at the University of North Carolina. Tim is the author of Free for All:  Rediscovering the Bible in Community and The Church in Transition:  The Journey of Existing Churches into the Emerging Culture. He is a contributor to The Emergent Manifesto, Baptimergent, and an upcoming book on Eugene Peterson as well as currently editing a book on critical theory and mentoring programs.  He also partners in grass roots faith-based community organizing with IAF International, NC Power, and Durham CAN.

With Advent right around the corner, it’s time to decorate, cook, shop, be festive, eat and drink a little too much, and get ready for the inevitable ‘twenty-five days of James Bond’ marathon on one of the cable movie networks.  It is also time to care for others.  I see great evidence of these extra efforts in the church I lead, the ecclesial communities I network with, and among my colleagues at the University of North Carolina.  This is not a post bemoaning the lack of altruism in our culture or especially within the church.  Angel Tree gifts will be purchased.  Families will be adopted.  Community meals will be cooked and served with genuine joy.  Animals and agricultural support will be donated internationally though the Heifer project and like minded organizations.

But this is a post capitalizing on the season of doing more and caring more to reflect on the nature of our caring and the missional lives of our communities.  In 2001, the Bush Administration was made a significant policy change by establishing a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI).  This office continues in the Obama Administration under the name of The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  Given these impressively named bureaucracies, it is appropriate to ask how much are we (the church) helping and in what manner.  Number crunching sociologists, veteran faith-based community organizers, and many pastors answer this question positively and negatively.

Duke Sociologist Mark Chaves wrote in Congregations in America (2004) that only a very small percentage of American fellowships, despite the assumptions that helped launch the Bush initiative, actually participate in ongoing social services.  In this definiton of social services, I am generally speaking about services and ministries that address structural and systemic needs and inequities. In contrast, American congregations are constantly and effectively mobilized to work in short-term projects, programs with defined beginning and ending points, that provide essential needs like food, water, and clothing.

I am not disparaging the value of these short-term projects.  But this is an article about what we aren’t doing rather than what is being done.  Why is our focus on short-term compassion rather than structural issues?  Perhaps the answer to this question is obvious to you.  But I want to make a few conjectures.  The first is truly obvious, we all jam our missional lives into the parameters defined by immensely committed lives.  I am guilty as charged.  Though we should certainly heed a qualification to this charge before we grant universal absolution.  Generally, the more resources and leisure time that we have, the less we give and the more we let our lifestyle dictate our boundaries of our caring.

My second conjecture is that we let diversities of perspectives, politics, and experiences in our communities overdefine our acts of caring.  Sadly, the mere existance of structural inequities has been entirely politicized in our culture (though these inequites were assumed in the Bible!).  In short, because of the acrimony or magnitude of our differences, we take less risks, tend to avoid projects that focus on or assume systemic injustices, and choose projects with a consensus of good feelings.  Who could be against food, shelter, and clothing?  But, if one wants to provide more than the immediate relief to these deficits by raising questions regarding the source of the inequites, then our voices fall silent and our will dissapates.

In a recent book, Free for All, I wrote that dialogue in Christian communities suffers because we fear our differences.  The result is a shrinking public discourse on the lowest common denominator of our understanding of the gospel.  The gospel is tamed and trivialized in this fearful context.  Instead of struggling with our differences to juxtapose the gospel with society’s greatest challenges, we take safe paths within tightly conscribed constraints.  Our fearful demand for consensus in discourse and mission severely limits our not only our mission but also the prophetic vibrancy of the gospel.

As Advent approaches, I sincerely hope that we will all buy those extra gifts, prepare and serve the meals that the lonely and hungry desperately need, donate clothing and warm coats, reach out to prisoners and their families, and passionately continue our support for all of these traditions.  But I hope the season and the new year also awakens a passion in us to seek the roots of despair, injustice, and inequity.  We will not agree in this discovery.  But we can still dare greatly and relentlessly.  May the enemies of the gospel — greed, injustice, inequity, and all forms of prejudice — be our enemies as well.


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