Undermining the Church

I had the good fortune of working for and studying with the late Timothy L. Smith, Professor of Religious History at The Johns Hopkins University. I was his Associate Pastor when he was Pastor of the Wollaston Church of the Nazarene in Boston and I was his doctoral student in American Religious History at Hopkins. Smith was the author of Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War. This book is still the single most influential book on why the Church must and will always find itself at the heart of social transformation. An admonition (advice with warning) he often shared: “Never underestimate the capacity of religious organizations or religious leaders, despite their understanding of the obvious, to operate in a manner that will completely undermine their mission and purpose.” The admonition is a harsh truth but a truth that often defines the modern religious institution.

Recently I facilitated a Summit on youth empowerment and employment for government, business, education and community and faith-based organizations in Kenya. Africa Nazarene University, a faith-based institution in Nairobi, Kenya was the host. A religious leader pulled me aside and asked – could you please explain to me what this has to do with the mission of the Church. As I have worked in the areas of Compassion and Justice throughout my career – this was not the first time I have heard this question. It is a question, however, that clearly reflects the Smith admonition cited above.

Kenya has 14 million young people and only 25% of them will find work. Joblessness and the lack of hope to find meaningful employment leads to despair, anger and in many cases – violence. The Church has often taken the easy route of simply providing the proverbial cup of cold water or food bank for the homeless or unemployed. That is important work and vital to the survival of individuals who find themselves on the outside looking in on the house of economic security. Yet, historically, the Church has also found itself taking on the systemic and organized forces that contribute to poverty, homelessness, and hunger. Such action requires the use of power and influence that can result in turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple. It can be challenging and frustrating but it is no less a part of the mission of the Church.

I have often said that while the mission of the Church, in the Christian tradition, is to make Christ-like disciples of the nations – a mission I affirm, but a mission that needs to acknowledge that it is better to have your disciples alive than dying or begging for the crumbs from the table of the rich. We must rise from the alters of prayer where individuals may find salvation and then assure them that the community of faith will now work with them to secure employment, education and develop the capacity to provide for their families. We cannot do less! The etymological origins of the word salvation point to a meaning that emphasizes health – spiritual and physical.

The community of faith that organized the Kenya Youth Empowerment and Employment Initiative and the leadership of Africa Nazarene University understand that the mission of the Church must be holistic and must act when they see injustice, ignorance and lack of equal access. It is unfortunate that while they engage in this serious and critical mission they must also explain to some religious leaders why this is the Mission of the Kingdom. Smith was right – we just can’t help ourselves – there are those who will always find themselves undermining their own mission and purpose. Scandalous humanity we are – seeking Gods grace and the forgiveness of others. May that grace abound!

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