Reflections After Traveling: Cautious Hope and Real Need

Spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of last week visiting some friends in my hometown of Memphis, TN and helping with a camp their ministry, Nations Church, was putting on.

The camp was a pretty awesome concept: they took a couple of youth groups totaling about 80 kids and sent them each day to different work projects in inner-city Memphis helping with things like restoring houses, working on a neighborhood garden, and teaching refugees English to help them get started in this country.

I feel like I contributed very little if any to this camp, but just the experience of observing what was happening there and of being privy to the many discussions of the church leaders surrounding the events of the camp and the vision of the church was a really fantastic experience! I am not kidding when I say that a part of me has seriously considered the last few days dropping everything I am doing to move back to Memphis and join this ministry.

Got to talk a lot with Duke, the lead pastor of Nations. Duke is a really cool guy. He has a Ph.D. in Old Testament, which is one of the things that I have thought about doing a doctorate in (my problem is I am interested in too much to narrow down the field…). So he is very knowledgeable of the academic side of Christianity. But he has also been very involved in ministry, specifically missions, and has a very practical point of view. He is, in a lot of ways, someone who is farther down the same path that I am traveling. So it was really great to talk with him and learn from him.

Another member of their staff that I talked with a good deal was Paul, with whom I share a disillusionment with many aspects of the Southern church culture and a heart for seeing the church really engage the serious issues that our world is facing. As we talked Paul asked a very interesting question: whether from my perspective I have hope for the church or am moving to the outside of things?

I think my answer is that I am cautiously hopeful.

In the academic world I live in I am seeing some shifts that I think are cause for cautious optimism.

In my view the things that cause my disillusionment with church culture are largely based on bad understandings of the relationship between the physical and the spiritual.

There are two ways to understand these realities: as parallel or as closely connected and intersecting.

If we take them to be parallel and separate from one another, then it becomes very easy for Christians to put all our emphasis on the spiritual reality to the neglect of the physical. This results in a religion that says that the sum total of Christianity is about what happens after we die, which is dependent on whether or not we have been saved. On this view, engaging the challenges of this life is something that might be nice to do but is not essential or necessary.

In its most extreme forms, this kind of over-spritualization of the gospel is little more than Gnostic heresy reemerging in our contemporary churches.

If we view the spiritual and physical as connected and intersecting then we will take a different approach in dealing with our world.

On this view, dealing with our world and the issues that face it is part of our duty as Christians as representatives of a spiritual kingdom that is breaking into the material world to give hope to the poor and downtrodden that one day justice will be restored and what is broken will be set straight again!

My studies of history lead me to believe that this view is the view of Orthodox Christianity: the view of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and many other major Christian leaders throughout history.

These are two very different philosophies/theologies.

The first is the source of my disillusionment with contemporary evangelicalism and the reason that churches like Nations may at times feel frustrated that the call to do the work of God goes unanswered in such a heavily churched culture as the one we live in.

However, in my opinion, the second more Orthodox view is making a comeback. It may take a while for this comeback to be fully realized to the extent that we would like, but seeing this at least makes me cautiously optimistic that things are getting better, that the church is trying to reconnect with the world in a meaningful way, that our communities are coming down out of the lofty clouds to deal with real life.

I am certainly in the same position as the team at Nations are in saying something in our thinking as Christians desperately needs to change.

There are challenges and problems that we desperately need to face, both in our own lives and in the larger world, in our neighborhoods and around the world.

There is a real need for change, but I think the tide is turning a little and the change is coming.

Part of what I want to be about (and this week I have been very convicted that I am not doing nearly enough to contribute to this) is fighting to ensure that the tide continues to move in this direction, change continues to happen and real engagement with our world becomes the norm for the Church, not an add-on or an anomaly.

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