The Post-Covid World Wants Community Engagement and Social Justice—Not More Meetings
by Christopher C. Thompson | 13 August 2022 |
I spent the first part of this week at a conference with Adventist pastors who are committed to community engagement and social justice work. It was an invigorating time to be surrounded by like-minded leaders who are not satisfied with broken models and a semblance of effectiveness.
There were no pretenses in the room, no inflated baptismal reports, no empty tithe increases, just ministers committed to uplifting humanity. It was refreshing.
The gathering made me reflect on an experience that I had years ago.
My conference president had called me one day and said, “Chris, I want you to take a few days and go away. Get away from the hustle and bustle, clear your head, and dream. Ask God where He wants to take the ministry in your local church.”
I said, “Cool.” I chose to visit one of my closest friends who was living in a rural area. I spent a few days reading, relaxing, reflecting and praying. While I was there, I felt impressed to call a colleague of mine in Canada. I told him the situation and asked him what God was impressing on his heart for ministry. I was dumbfounded! It appeared that our visions for the work were perfectly aligned even though we hadn’t talked in a while and I had never discussed this particular subject before.
I felt that this was a type of confirmation. I wrote down my thoughts and returned to the city refreshed. I shared with the president what I believe God was impressing on my heart, and he surprised me with his reply: he liked it and wanted to help. He directed me to connect with a mutual friend and colleague who had considerable experience fundraising and writing grants. I did just that, and our friend was amazingly helpful.
We sent the flag up the (denominational) ladder and—surprise surprise—we got the grant! As a matter of fact, a little birdie who had close connections to the administration told me that at one point there was also a second check that came from the higher-ups in DC to provide additional support.
I don’t remember exactly how much the grant was—less than $20,000, but more than $10,000. We were so excited! Our little church had some resources and marching orders to impact our community in a very unique way. The program we started was called Adventist Advocate; we had a plan to support families who were in crisis, especially in response to housing issues. But the general idea was to be a sort of community resource liaison for families who were in need. We were off to the races. We were working! We were developing a reputation for helping families. We had several baptisms that year too; all of which were related (either directly or indirectly) to that initiative.
Then I got a phone call.
The conference office called to chide us because they said that the funding was to help us to run a meeting, and since we weren’t running a traditional evangelistic series, we would have to send the funds “back” (to the local conference).
Please note that the grant was written from a higher office to run the very program we were running. And it was working.
As for that mystery second check, we never even saw that one.
But we didn’t argue. We collected the balance from expenditures we had already made, wrote the conference a check, and washed our hands of the ordeal.
But it still burned.
The post-Covid church
Fast forward nearly fifteen years later, and here I am sitting in a room full of pastors who are all crafting creative plans for engaging their communities that are a lot like the grant we wrote for Adventist Advocate all those years ago.
It’s amazing how things come full circle. The fact is, I’ve maintained my commitment to community engagement over the years. Members, too, have become far less content with business as usual and maintaining the status quo.
I think that’s one of the hallmarks of the post-Covid church: Covid forced us to face human suffering unlike any other crisis has done in the last fifty years or more. As we come out of our quarantine quarters, believers aren’t interested in checking the boxes of the TV-dinner Adventist experience.
After all that we’ve experienced in the last two and half years we know now more than we’ve ever known that we should be the hands and feet of God. I believe with all my heart that Jesus is coming soon. I often reflect on the text that says, “Blessed is that servant whom the master finds doing his job when he comes” (Mt. 24:46 CSB). And then in the very next chapter is the classic parable wherein Jesus makes the profound pronouncement:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’”(Mt. 25:34-40 NIV).
Grace doesn’t excuse us from goodness
I want to reiterate that we all know that we are not saved by keeping the law, and we are not saved by our good deeds. Nevertheless, we are saved by grace through faith, and it is our relationship with God that compels our love for the suffering and fallen humanity to lighten the burden of hardship instead of Christ. We are not excused from this work until the Master himself puts an eternal end to suffering. As representatives of the Savior we too have been sent “to proclaim good news to the poor…to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free…” (Lk. 4:18 NIV).
But also notice what the text does not say.
The Lord’s final determination of who will be saved and lost is not based upon the recitation of or careful adherence to special doctrines and special commandments. They are not even mentioned. What is mentioned is how we advocated for those who were destitute.
And so who would have thought: we need Adventist Advocate after all. I’m still convinced, all these years later, that we’ve got to do this work whether the church lets us keep the grant money or not. I want to be found among those whom the Lord finds working when He comes.
Christopher C. Thompson writes about culture and communication at thinkinwrite.com. He’s the author of Choose to Dream. When not writing, he’s jogging or binge-watching Designated Survivor. He’s married to Tracy, who teaches at Oakwood University.