Refugees: Personhood and Politics

Whatever your views on the subject of immigration, do you at least see migrants as human beings? Whenever you hear the word “refugee” what do you think of first? Do you permit the fact that each human being has been formed in the glory of the Imago Dei? Or do you sense judgment like Jonah toward the Ninevites or worse, disgust like Pharaoh toward the Israelites? As I contribute my thoughts and experiences on this vast subject, the undercurrent which daily sweeps over my soul is that the Gospel for the Christ-follower must be the basis, the conditioning “first-thought” which governs all other questions and solutions pertaining to other human beings.

refugee boat

It must be stressed that I am not advocating to throw open borders, ignore national sovereignties, and invite freeloaders and terrorists to enjoy consuming and destroying our cities. I do believe that a Christian’s witness is enhanced or it is hindered by how they treat civil law. On the other hand, I am not advocating that the many foreigners arriving in our land are only a political problem and are not worthy of welcome, care, and the Christian Gospel.

Rather, as I’ve outlined this series of articles, I think the call and the urgency of the Gospel compels believers to go deeper than the news and popular, cultural opinion which tends to rest solely in the political arena. At the outset, what we face is a regular, daily tension of whether we will put our politics aside for their personhood or their personhood aside for our political narratives.

It is much easier to remain in the socio-political arena; there, everyone believes they are entitled to an opinion without many consequences, if any at all. However, we have found when someone begins to work directly with people whose lives have been ravaged and traumatized by war, famine, poverty, slavery, and maltreatment their socio-political opinions are greatly challenged. So, what happens to people between the Facebook wall and the walls of the camps where large groups of human beings are sequestered? My answer is the impact of “personhood” is happening. People are sensing both the dignity of personhood in the Imago Dei and the significance of the pain of human need. It’s the simple practice of personal contact which changes everything.

The Great Samaritan

We can see this plainly applied in the parable of the Good Samaritan. When the Hebrew traveller is mugged and left to die, the two surprising aspects of those who pass by are who they are and the distance they keep. The fellow Jews (who would have had a moral and societal obligation to care) kept their distance and masked both their fears and their disdain for the man-in-need behind their societal robes and roles. In shocking contrast, the Samaritan comes close and personalizes the situation at his own expense. As Jesus recounts the parable, it seems as if proximity to the brokenness caused an immediate melting of any prejudice that the Samaritan could “rightly” claim.

good-samaritan-sculpture

Jesus told this parable to answer the question, “So who really is my neighbor?” At face value, we can discern that our neighbors are human, in need, people along our path, often different than we are, and can also be our socio-political opposites. The question came from an attorney, an interpreter of the law, and it was designed to force Jesus to reduce Heaven’s compassion to man’s comforts. Little did the attorney realize he was trapping himself by putting his politics before personhood — and it takes the invasion of Jesus himself to liberate the lawyer. Indeed, it takes Jesus himself to liberate our sacrifice from our opinions. I cannot overstate how challenging and uncomfortable this practice is for us. Nothing short of the resurrection power of Christ can bring us even close to what Jesus called us to in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

This is a good starting point to advocate for the challenge of our own hearts in how we view humanity — humans who are different than us, messier, and often more broken. It ought to grieve Christians first when another human is in difficulty or suffering before we quickly judge whether they deserve it or not. Ninevites can repent, and God looks forward to their repentance. Did we listen to Prophet Jonah in our Bible classes or did we only color the picture of the fish with a belly full of bitter prophet?  Imagine what the Gospel could do in the hands of energetic, young men who have risked their lives and faced death for much lower causes. Can you visualize how many missionaries and church planters could return to the shores of their homelands from today’s incoming waves? Just imagine how the Gospel could shine and show the upside-down and right-side up story of Jesus Christ among the nations. For this I advocate — the Gospel to humans first and foremost.

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Planting Ecclesiology as a way of life

Immediately apparent when commencing to plant ministries in Italy is that all people use the word church, but rarely anyone uses it biblically. The very idea of church here is something ‘private, cold, judgmental, obligatory, an event, passive, traditional, cultural, heavy, & Roman’. Therefore, we have a great crisis when it comes to the understanding of what actually constitutes a church.

Embedding Believersplanting ecclesiology

This is one of our major concerns, in that, if we enter a city and open a traditional church structure, it will be viewed through the cultural lens and automatically disregarded. Similar to the seasonal circus that comes to town, people in the general culture will ask, “What’s that?” And others will naturally respond, “Oh, I think that’s one of those foreign churches, evangelista or something…” Instantly, a perceived level of distance and safety is established.

However, if there are people who they know and have had experience with, the conversation might go a bit differently,

“Who are those people?” they might ask.
“Oh, that is the group that Daniele is a part of… you know Daniele, the mechanic that helps a lot of people with their cars over on Viale Venezia… His wife teaches some language classes and they run activities in the park with the kids.”
“Ya, that’s right — a classmate I went to school with works for him. It’s a bit surprising they opened a business in this crisis!”

We are not seeking to plant more institutions in post-catholic Europe, but rather, we emphasize planting people who are energized, holy, and evidentially part of the New City and the Christ culture. If the people of our Italian cities will find a refuge in Jesus, then, it will most likely come from people who have lived in their city with them through all of its positives, negatives, ups, and downs. These embedded believers do familiar-looking things, but they do them with an entirely different set of motives and attitudes.

“Church Work”

Embedded believers approach their lives and cities in an integral and theological way. Like an under-current that courses through their actions, they show gracious respect to local authorities but they reject that their sustenance comes from the state as their sovereign provider. Embedded believers are not getting all they can but giving all they can. In a suffocating economic market, demonstrating that you are not “on the take” but “living to serve” speaks loudly into people’s lives.

Furthermore, embedded believers are not demanding jobs, instead, they are developing them in the full realization that the “Earth is the Lord’s and all of its fullness.” With health, creativity, holy determination, persevering faith, and youth (life is said to begin at 40 in Italia) – their mission is pan-vocational because their theology is integral to all of life; impacting every aspect.

The Reformers of the 1500’s (especially Luther & Calvin) rediscovered this in their theology of work. One of their main emphasis was on the subject of consecration. They moved the emphasis off of the job or the talent and rested it upon the worker’s devotion to God. You could be a joyful, contented farmer or a deceptive, adulterous religious leader. The issue was not whether one was called as a religious leader versus called to farm. Rather, it was what kind of farmer or religious leader you actually were that made all the difference. To this day in Italia, the mindset lingers that work is unholyIt is a necessary evil and not a gift from God. Work should be avoided or oppressive and therefore, cheating others is rampant. Yet on the other hand, a person is more holy or powerful by the garments he wears or the buildings he enters. Life is divided into two categories: what to show (pride) and what to hide (pleasure).

“Home Work”

It is at this point where a marginalized, periphery church begins to touch the fabric of the city when she helps holy farmers, devoted teachers, and Christocentric entrepreneurs. Not only does the church assist these believers to establish their livelihoods, but she is also training them to grow up into the city through opening their homes for ministry as a regular rhythm of life. It is their gospel character on display throughout the city that makes them a community of light.

Embedded believers are not hidden behind their jobs where people cannot determine if they are truly kind or just trying to earn money through quality customer service. Their home is a refuge for seekers to come and find peace, and in turn, embedded believers are seekers who reach out to their cities in peace. I believe this balance of a ministering home coupled with a ministering business is critical to planting churches. It is a salty model because it does not stay confined to four walls of a comfortable structure. Integral home-life and work-life stimulate missional-life.

If you have read this far in the article, I am voicing some of our developing ministry philosophy as we face a church and market crisis here in southern Europe. I am not saying that this is a formula, but rather, an approach to life and work as missional theologians.

  • Have you experienced Life-work in this way? 
  • As you read this, would you have any helpful suggestions or comments?
  • How do you think an approach like this would impact where you live?

Evangelism in Scary Territory

conversationalist - not so muchWe have some middle-eastern brothers in our church. Listening to their stories and thinking about evangelizing where they are from is not stuff for the faint of heart. Recently, we’ve listened to eye-popping stories of evangelism with some dear friends and readers of this blog in Naples with mafia problems, in the UK with human trafficking & severe domestic abuse, and also in the Scotland projects (schemes) of Edinburgh with crime, laziness, and addiction — all scary. Listening to some of the same brothers pronounce Italian words — even scarier.

For most believers, however, it’s not the thought of having to move to any of the aforementioned places, but rather, the scariest territory to share the Good News is simply next door, down the street, at the park, and in the workplace.

So, we often assuage our fears and bottle-up the Bible’s wonderful truth into safe houses (aka. church buildings). But there’s an inherent problem we encounter, our safe-houses are only safe to us. Take a think about the following quote and see if it doesn’t ring true:

Church is where Christians feel safe and comfortable. Church is where non-Christians feel embarrassed and awkward. We offer people the gospel, but on our terms and on our turf. [Porterbrook Learning, FY-P1, Evangelism, Unit 3]

Small groups can become and often are safe, Bible clubs; huddles of the foto-copied.
What fear keeps us from being the neighbor that everybody wants to have? What fear keeps us from learning how to cook a different kind of food just to honor and kindly surprise the foreigners around our cities? What fear keeps us from humbly telling people how it was Jesus who has transformed our lives?

But can we reduce it to fear alone? My initial opinion is that fear does play a significant role (fear of man, rejection, awkwardness, disbelief etc.). However, I would also go a bit farther for Western believers and add what we have experienced in post-catholic, secular Italy. We are not in a Christian majority, people don’t generally know what we’re talking about, and we are terribly slow to realize that fact that we just say “God” and move on while wondering how come they don’t get it? One of the missing elements, therefore, is developing a whole new way to converse with “auto-contented” secularists that shows how the Story we live by has so radically transformed our lives that it’s worth sharing with others.

And that is both the rub and the fear, isn’t it?

Numerous “Christians” cannot talk about heart-rending transformation and life-supporting community because there just hasn’t been much of any to share. As Jesus put it, He who has been forgiven much, loves much. And in the very moment we get to the heart of that truth is when the Gospel isn’t scary at all.

If I Open My Window, You Open Your Door

It’s a nice church, but it’s not somewhere I feel that I could really bring my friends or colleagues. It’s over their heads, they’ll get bored, and they may even walk out. I don’t think I want to risk all the awkwardness.”A window from the local village of Polcenigo

What a frequently painful comment to hear about a church. And yet, it’s an accurate comment albeit a general one. I have heard this expression in numerous places that I have been, have you? (members of Serenissima are not permitted to answer that!)

How did we (the church in general) get to the place where our own people would not want their friends, colleagues, and neighbors to share in the joy that has transformed their lives? Jesus basically said the world will know that he is God and sent by the Father just by how we love one another, but many don’t even want others to meet their church family.

When a congregation arrives at that point, whose fault is it? Is it the pastors’ fault? Or the people’s fault for thinking like that? I think it’s both and I offer a start to reduce the emphasis on this over-emphasized clergy-laity divide where we should all be living missionally in our respective roles:

Pastors’ Fault!

I was listening to a pastor’s consultation held in England a few years ago. Tim Keller was speaking along with many others about how our preaching needs to be missional. In other words, is our teaching only for the faithful? He said something timely along these lines, “You should preach to your congregation as if your city is listening-in through the windows and one day they’ll be in the seats.” At the very least, this begins to evaporate an us vs. them language and mindset. The truth is that as we gather in our congregations, it’s an all-of-us before God reality.

One of my personal preaching questions is, “What if I were sharing this message with my entire province? — because I am. Is it clear, faithful, applicable, and grace-full? Will they be able to see & start to understand Christ in their current cultural ways of thinking?” Asking this question among others is me learning how to open the windows. And I live in Italia… hello, this is not an easy question to answer! However, we really must strive to speak both to our people and their friends. If we preach with closed windows (the “us”, the faithful), our people will simply not be missional and we’ll just stick them into “small groups” without ever mentioning that we even have small groups. What we as preachers are really communicating is that we hope our people will just magically understand and “get it.” Then, they will turn into sacrificial, missional Christians and we will be able to say, “See, we told you all along.”

People’s Fault!

And yet, Gospel-listeners must be diligent actors or the sum-total of their Christian maturity will be sermon-tasting. One of the greatest apologetics that we have to show the power and reality of King Jesus is the compassionate treatment of one-another in his name. Jesus said it this way, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35

So, there is our mandate, our new commandment. Be around one another in such a way that people who haven’t met Jesus yet can clearly see him. And the best place to do that is in the place where you are who you are the most — your home.

Frankly, people will taste more of what it means to be a Christian through our homes and how we live our lives than in a formal church meeting. Are our doors open? Do we allow our homes to be the church so that people can meet Jesus? If we live with closed doors, then the preaching we hear will turn into information-passing because people will never be able to experience the reality of the church as they can’t see it being lived before them.

Can you see the sad cycle? Pastors who preach with closed windows point the finger at the people with closed doors who have come to expect pastors to teach comfortable, closed-up messages — and thousands of people neither hear nor see the King of all while we blink at each other.

So, if I open my window, then you open your door.  Deal?

With love,  Portiere Rob

Edify and then Evangelize

Spiritual growth occurs best in a caring community…
The Holy Spirit ministers to us, in large measure, through each other…
I can edify myself only as I edify the community. This has immediate implications for the evangelistic task. The individual believer’s responsibility is first of all to the Christian community and to its head, Jesus Christ. The first task of every Christian is the edification of the community of believers…
The idea that every Christian’s first responsibility is to be a soul winner ignores the biblical teachings about spiritual gifts. Further, it puts all the emphasis at the one point of conversion and undervalues the upbuilding of the Church which is essential for effective evangelism and church growth. This leads us to affirm, secondly, the priority of community in relation to witness. Fellowship and community life are necessary in order to equip Christians for their various kinds of witness and service. In one way or another every Christian is a witness in the world and must share his faith. But he can be an effective witness only as he experiences the enabling common life of the Church.¹

Cover of "The Community of the King"

This is a short excerpt from H. Snyder’s helpful book, The Community of the KingIn this keen insight, Snyder is helping us to prioritize the life of the Church with the presentation of the Gospel, and rightly so.

We can then follow-on with one practical and important question about our ministry programs and priorities: If we emphasize evangelism out-ahead of edification, what demonstration of the Good News are we bringing people to when we call them to turn to Christ? 

In other words, if we declare the wonder of grace to a friend and then bring our friend into a place where we superficially know one-another and there is a scarcity of visible, devoted love for Jesus and brotherly affection for others, then our friend can get the same atmosphere at the local gym and the Good News is shown not to be so good after all. Therefore, edify first and then evangelize.

¹Snyder, Howard, The Community of the King, IVP Academic, pages 75-76