The Church in Public Life: Pastoring for the Public Good of Your Community
The following is the talk I gave at Thriving Churches, Thriving Cities, Denver Institute’s annual gathering for pastors and ministry leaders. The topic: what does it mean for pastoral leaders and their churches to be involved in healing the public life of their communities?
Thank you again for coming today. I’d like to introduce our final set of conversations today by speaking to the topic of pastors and public engagement.
Today we’ve spoken about pastoral wholeness and integrity, and, in the breakouts, growing in pastoral excellence through navigating change and conflict. What might it mean, then, for pastors to lead churches working toward the healing of their cities?
Let me first tell you a personal story. My first pastorate after seminary was serving Iglesia Bautista Nueva Esperanza, a Spanish-speaking church in Brighton, Colorado. I preached in Spanish, led youth group in English, and, as the only white guy there, stuck out like a sore thumb.
I realized a year into my pastorate that about 80% of my congregation was related to each other. They were nearly all from Chihuahua, Mexico.
I also realized something important: that just holding church services and doing Bible studies would not be enough to serve my congregation and allow them to experience wholeness in Christ.
As immigrants, they were driven to leave their home because of economic factors. They were seeking good jobs. And many of the men were gone on Sundays working as painters and roofers. Education was also so important. They wanted their kids to get a good education, but they often struggled to navigate the system. And they were worried their kids would get caught up in gangs. Culture, too, was deeply formative. They were worried that America would instill in their families materialism over a love of family. Many were also aware of their Mexican culture and its tendency toward corruption.
As I pastor of my first congregation, I realized work, community, and culture were not abstract ideas. They were the fabric of real, daily lives.
Early in my life as a minister, I asked a question I want to now ask us today. Are we influencing culture, or are we being influenced by culture?
Or more pointedly, I recently started to ask about my own preaching: do I use culture to illustrate the gospel? Or does the gospel illustrate culture? That is, would I use the latest headline about business or government to illustrate a point from the book of Romans, or was I using the book of Romans to illustrate – shed light on – business and government?
What about us as pastors and ministry leaders in Denver, Colorado today? What does it mean to be the church in this place and time?
A generation about, pastor and missionary Leslie Newbigin wrote a slim book called The Other Side of 1984. He was addressing the world council of churches about what it meant to be “on mission” in the secular West. He wrote something about the nature of the church I’ve never forgotten.
In the book, he tells the story of early Christians in the Roman empire, and the debate of what to call themselves. He explains that in the Roman empire, there were many “private cults” that enjoyed protection from the Emperor. The opponents of Christianity used these words to refer to early Christians, but no Christian apparently ever did so. In other words, the Church did not regard itself as a society for the promotion of the personal salvation of its members.
The obvious choice for what to call a congregation of God’s people would have been sunagogos, or synagogue, which was already used to address Jewish minorities throughout the empire. But they didn’t use this either. Early Christians opted for the word ecclesia, which denoted the public assembly called by the civic authority, in which all citizens were summoned to discuss and settle the affairs of a city. By calling itself the ecclesia Theou, the Church made its own self-understanding clear: It was the public assembly by which all humanity was summoned, called by God himself.
The essential message of the early church was about Jesus’ kingship. Jesus was God incarnate, who died for our sin, was resurrected for our salvation, and now is Lord of all. All authority and heaven and earth has been given to Him.
That is, church has never only been about Sundays and souls; it’s about souls and cities. If something is going wrong in a city, it is the church’s responsibility to act. We are not only about defending our rights to worship as we please; we are about showing the invisible reign of Jesus through our words, lives, and actions.
In John Stott’s 1970s classic Christian Mission in the Modern World, he states,
“If we are to love our neighbor as God made him, we must inevitably be concerned for his total welfare, the good of his soul, his body and his community. When any community deteriorates, the blame should be attached where it belongs: not to the community which is going bad but to the church which is failing in its responsibility as salt to stop it from going bad.”
What does it mean to be a pastor who is publicly engaged and cares for souls as well as bodies, communities, companies, and cities?
Let me briefly suggest three things for the pastor’s role in public life.
- Publicly-engaged pastors commit to preaching a gospel for all of life.
Here’s Newbigin again: “The message of Jesus was about the kingship, the universal sovereignty of God. It was not a message about the interior life of the soul in abstraction from the public life of the world.” Christian discipleship therefore means that Jesus is Lord of all – not only of our religious life, but of all of creation, including communities, cities, companies, schools, hospitals and cultures. The good news transforms our souls as much as it does our businesses.
The good news is that by Jesus’ death and resurrection, the power of sin has been broken, and he’s healing all that has been fractured by the Fall. This is both individual and institutional. Pastors have the unique and often times offensive job of preaching that Jesus really is King of all, and all final allegiance belongs to Him.
Publicly engaged pastors read far outside of their field and humbly learn from people living and working in sectors far different from their own in order to explore what Jesus’ kingship might look like for those areas of human life.
- Publicly-engaged pastors commit to serving the vulnerable in their communities, both personally and through the volunteer efforts of their congregations.
Pastors who are publicly engaged commit to social justice and civic renewal in response to Jesus’ command to “love your neighbors as yourselves.”
Practically speaking, you can think about how to do this a few different ways. But one way is the think about your church and the volunteer capacities of your people, and decide together – what will be the one or two needs in our community that we will take responsibility for? It could be homelessness, loving immigrants, caring for pregnant teenagers, or mentoring. Sometimes it’s a program you’re doing; sometimes it partnering with a local nonprofit or civic imitative. But from what I’ve seen, this isn’t doing everything, but it is doing something. And doing it for a long time.
Another way is to become personally involved in the critical issues of your community. We’ll hear shortly from two pastors who’ve done this through sitting on local boards to investing in real estate projects. If you care, your people will care.
- Publicly-engaged pastors commit to vocational discipleship and forming men and women to be agents of restoration and reconciliation in their workplaces and communities.
Here’s a word of good news for you. You don’t have to do everything. God has people touching every part of our civilization. The pastor’s role is to shape the imaginations of your people for their lives and vocations.
Here’s how NT Wright puts it: “Your task is to find symbolic ways of doing things differently, planting flags in hostile soil, setting up signposts that say there is a different way to be human.” To be “raised with Christ” is a creative calling to find ways our daily work and lives to point beyond ourselves to Christ, the Light of the World.
Let me also briefly make the case for an institution like Denver Institute for Faith & Work. We exist to serve churches – both pastors and laity – as we explore the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection for our work, whether that be business, health care, retail, or transportation.
You, pastors, have the privilege of walking alongside of men and women and explore what it means to salt in society, yeast in our culture, and a city on a hill in a dark world. As your people scatter throughout society during the week, you can give them a vision for the redemptive angle of their work has on the public life of our society.
In summary, publicly-engaged pastors preach the breadth of our good news, show the depth of God’s love for the poor, and work to form God’s people in their vocations scattered throughout our cities during the week.
Pastors are critical to the health of churches, and churches are critical to the health of our cities. Thank you for your work.