By Shannon Youell
We don’t need to be at the centre of society in order to be Christ’s witness for a better way of living. John Pellowe
Pellowe, of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, reminds us that the church didn’t start out as the centre of society and nor is it there now. Many folk bemoan this fact, yet I lean towards thinking that God is pleased we are finding our rootedness back into how we can be contributing and positive voices in the things people and communities deem important for living life together as societies. Rather than being oppositional voices to the things we don’t agree with (the overall result of that is Christians are often perceived of by what they are against over and above what they are for), we should work at being voices of proposition into the issues that society is already struggling with.
Pellowe cites many of the accomplishments of John Wesley and his propositional ideas for the healing of the oppressed, for bringing justice to the marginalized, for serving the world around us rather than expecting the world around us to serve us. In our own Baptist history, Jeremy Bell often reminds us of faithful Baptist folk who brought reforms and policies for the betterment of society as a whole, not merely one polarized segment.
It reminds me of the Jewish value tikkun olam, which is the demonstrative action of shalom and means repairing or healing the world. This value carries with it the understanding that is the responsibility, the mission, of God’s people to bring the kind of justice that delivers from oppression and slavery and restores to community relationship (the Hebrew meaning of tsedaquah, or “justice”), human to human and human to God.
Here is a large section of Pellowe’s article. Let us know your thoughts on the opportunities he presents for us:
There are several benefits to being just one of many in a pluralistic culture, and they provide the church with opportunities.
When Christians were the dominant group in society, there wasn’t a lot of motivation for individuals to engage in mission because it appeared the mission was largely accomplished. It’s interesting that the cure of souls, from which we get the word curate (a priest or pastor), can be traced to the fourth century when Christianity became Rome’s state religion. There was a shift then from mission aimed at outsiders towards taking care of parishioners’ souls. In modern times, missionary zeal was largely channeled toward other parts of the world, rather than to our own neighbourhoods.
But in fact, the Christian mission wasn’t nearly as fulfilled in Canada as we thought.
Pastors, remember that God gave you to the church to equip its members to do good works.5 It is your responsibility to see that every member of your flock is productively engaged in mission, remembering that the early church’s success was mostly due to the witness of individuals working on their own. People only have so much time available, so be sure that every volunteer hour you ask for within the church is essential to the church’s mission. Otherwise, keep your parishioners free to be Christ’s witnesses elsewhere.
Individually, we need to permeate society and be excellent in whatever God has given us: our work, our relationships, our community involvement, and so on. Every Christian should be the best thing that ever happened in whatever context they find themselves.
Corporately, we need the boldness, vision, and radical tolerance for risk that led John Wesley to :
- hire a surgeon and a pharmacist to provide medical care for the poor in London
- open the first free pharmacy in London
- teach people to read
- start a bank which lent money to the newly literate poor to help them start businesses
What might the church do today that is just as creative, leading edge, and impactful?
We can use our voice
In a pluralist society, Christians are as much entitled as anyone else to contribute their ideas, which should be attractive based on their non-religious merits. The theological basis or religious motivation doesn’t matter to non-Christians. All that matters is that non-Christians can see the idea’s benefits. We can share good ideas for the environment, social justice, the economy, commerce, and so on.
Those who oppose religion are already trying to shut us down and keep us out of public debate. But history and research show that a minority can cause the majority to change its mind, although their strategy must be different from the majority’s.
- The majority usually relies on coercion to force public compliance with their programs. What people privately believe doesn’t matter as long as there is public compliance.
- Minorities can’t coerce. All they can do is convert people through persuasion. They do this by presenting new information or new ideas which cause the majority to re-evaluate their position. The most dramatic example of this conversion happening in recent history is the gay rights movement. An example from fifty years ago would be the 40 year campaign against smoking in public, and from a century ago, the women’s suffragette movement in the UK.
We want to persuade people that for society to flourish there must be a concern for community welfare. We want people to support policies and behaviours that:
- build strong families
- help people to redeem themselves from the messes they get in
- promote justice and equity
- care for the marginalized and integrates them into society
Leverage our inclusivity
The church is the most multicultural society on the planet. It was an incredible experience for me when I worshipped in churches in Australia, Thailand, India, Kenya, Malawi, England, and Scotland while on my round the world sabbatical trip. I felt right at home in all of them! Whatever ethnic group I was with, I knew I shared a common faith with them. Whether I understood the language or not, the worship was meaningful and very moving. I know what it is like to be in a foreign country and find a welcoming place.
Being such a multicultural, global body as we are, and living in as cosmopolitan a country as we do, we have a special capability of welcoming immigrants to Canada. We should excel at helping newcomers acclimate to their new home. Non-ethnic churches should support ethnic churches as much as they can so that in turn they can welcome their own ethnicities to Canada.
We have to be very wise regarding the forces that oppose religious participation in society, but even with their opposition, there is much that the church can do to advance its mission.