The Common Good

Walking the Walk

Date: January 26, 2008

Ninety-two percent of American Christians hear their clergy speak out about hunger and poverty from the pulpit, a 2006 Pew Research Center survey revealed.

And in an election year in which hunger and poverty -- along with social issues such as health care, immigration, war and the environment -- are on the front burner for both Democratic and Republican candidates, those observing America's religious landscape say they are noticing a broadening of the evangelical church's agenda beyond one or two hot-button issues and saving souls.

Aaron Graham, national field organizer and justice revival coordinator for the Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Sojourners/Call to Renewal, spends his days speaking with church leaders across the United States about being agents of social change in their communities and the world.

He says the much-reported shift over the last few years in what evangelical Christians define as their "values" -- the movement from single issues such as abortion or gay marriage to what Graham calls a more broadened view of godly values -- is occurring, and it's fairly widespread.

"The gospel is bringing healing both on the personal level and the social level, and that's a wave that's happening everywhere," Graham said.

Abilene is no exception. Local churches, it seems, prefer to let their actions do the talking.

Beyond the traditional benevolence or mercy ministries, some Abilene congregations have added programs that address many of the root causes of poverty.

Pioneer Drive Baptist Church, fueled by the leadership of missions pastor Randy Perkins, began asking how it could begin helping poor people in Abilene to "live adequately." Perkins and Pioneer Drive have taken on projects serving immigrants in South Texas, rebuilding after natural disasters, helping Abilene families escape the traps of poverty, and providing safe housing for troubled teenagers.

Perkins said that in the church world today, talk is cheap, and that the message of Christ requires action first.

"People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," he said. "That's a cliché, but it's true. Before you can help someone understand who Jesus is, you've got to be Jesus to that person."

In urban centers and smaller communities, churches are often the entities leading the way with solutions to the world's complex social problems. Organizations such as Sojourners and the Christian Community Development Association help to encourage what Sojourners founder and author Jim Wallis calls a "Great Awakening" in his upcoming book by the same title and what bloggers have labeled a "revolution."

Graham said he believes the main reason for the increased social voice of Christians is the church's perceived irrelevance in American culture, juxtaposed against the scope of suffering in the world.

"The fact is that a lot of people who are not even in the church are more active in their communities than the church is," said Graham, who, with his wife Amy, led a church in a depressed Boston neighborhood for more than three years before joining Sojourners in 2006. "The fact is that the gospel has become so much about 'me' and what God can do for only me that we've missed the broader implications of the gospel."

The broader implications being, Graham claims, complete societal transformation, including the government. In an election year, this may sound like partisan politics to some Christians. But Graham maintains that justice issues are nonpartisan and that Christians must resist the urge to apply secular political labels.

"God's politics don't fit neatly into the categories of left and right," Graham said. "God's more concerned with specific people and specific issues that are close to his heart. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party don't have a monopoly on God's agenda. God's politics challenge the agenda of both the left and the right."

In September 2006, Dr. Bill Tillman, the T.B. Maston Professor of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University's Logsdon School of Theology, signed his name to a letter sent to Baptist clergy urging them to support the Micah Challenge, which asks international leaders to work toward cutting extreme global poverty in half by 2015.

Tillman maintains that identifying with the suffering people of the world is a biblically mandated moral imperative stated in Scripture.

"The person who calls herself or himself a Christian should be involved with those who have less, primarily in poverty situations," Tillman said. "It's all through the Bible. This is part and parcel the work that I do as a Christian ethicist to put that out there -- that if you haven't noticed it, you haven't been reading the Bible."

For Perkins and Pioneer Drive, serving the poor means obeying what they see as their commission from Christ to go to the poor and hurting rather than asking them to come to a church building. This past holiday season, Pioneer Drive spearheaded its "White Christmas" Community Store, a food pantry where patrons paid as little as a nickel for common grocery items. Additionally, volunteers from the church have shown up in disaster-torn locations such as Stamford and New Orleans to rebuild homes and offer encouragement, and frequently renovate dilapidated homes in Abilene.

On a national level, however, groups that have espoused a broader social agenda have been met by critics.

The so-called Emergent Church -- a loosely connected and growing collection of individuals and churches operating largely outside of what would be considered institutional or traditional churches -- has come under fire in recent years for being liberal in theology and politics.

Many Emergent Christians, for example, play down or outright reject the view of Jesus' death on a cross as God acting out his wrath on his son in place of a depraved humanity. Instead, many Emergent Christians' dominant view of the cross is one of a loving God's conclusive and yet continual act of restoring the Earth to the way they say he created it to be, the basis for many Emergents' work in social causes.

Detractors insist that such churches are replacing the traditional gospel with what they call a "social gospel" that seeks only to cure social ills. But Tillman sees the activities of socially minded Christians as a healthy critique of some of the "sacred cow" beliefs and practices of the church.

"A lot of the students we work with at Logsdon are youth ministers," Tillman said. "They are finding that their young people are engaging church as a concept through the venues of addressing social justice issues. The environment, etcetera, are large concerns for these kids coming up now, and I think they are reflecting some different angles on life than their parents and grandparents. I see that all as pretty much a plus."

For Graham, stories like that of Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale keep him motivated and inspired in the work he does. When the members of the South Florida megachurch became distraught over the foster care crisis in their city, 120 congregants took action and completed training to become certified foster parents.

"They ended up spawning a whole nonprofit organization as a result of that, and it happened because they began to listen to the needs of their city," Graham said. "Get out of your comfort zones. Get out of your house, get out of the four walls of your church, and begin to engage."

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