The Church's Mission: Faithful Presence and Extending God's Grace to Outsiders

One of my Top Ten books, at least over the last five years, is James Davison Hunter’s masterful social and theological critique: To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford, 2010). Jonathan Merritt begins his next to last chapter in A Faith of Our Own by quoting the central thesis of Hunter’s book: “If Christians cannot extend grace through faithful presence within the body of believers, they will not be able to extend grace to those outside” (155).

A growing number of millennials (20s and 30s) are no longer shopping for the right pastor, music or church program like bargain hunters in pursuit of the best sale ever” (155). Rather, they are questioning whether or not the church has overlooked its true mission and grown too devoted to “its own self-survival” (155).

Merritt writes passionately about the way his own father, once a leader in the kind of church that Merritt grew weary of, planted a new congregation whose mission was not to attract crowds but to faithfully be present with Christ and each other. He says the most surprising gift God may have given to this new church was cultural, political, racial and ethnic “diversity” (158). James Merritt, the father of author Jonathan, had once pastored a homogenous collection of conservative, lifelong Southern Baptists. Cross Pointe, the new church Merritt planted more than a decade ago, “is a kaleidoscope of races, political perspectives, and faith traditions” (158). Cross Pointe has a healthy mixture of Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians. Almost one-third of the new church is made up of people of color. Yet Cross Pointe is situated in Forsyth County, a place in suburban Atlanta was once known for its blatant racism. Cross Pointe has no voter’s guides and there no sermons preached that relate to America’s culture wars. Merritt, like me, believes these culture wars have fostered division and anxiety inside the church. He concludes, “When culture wars are fought, unity is almost always absent” (160). This explains why I am so openly opposed to this scorched-earth culture war mindset and practice. It destroys unity and mission!

Debates about candidates and elections do not build community in Christ and they do very little for people in a church’s actual neighborhood. What they do, quite clearly, is further divide the church. And they make Christians more comfortable with being right or left than they are with being faithful to Jesus and asking very hard questions that are not simplistically solved by telling people how to think or to vote. When we do not share our lives in the centrality of Christ we self-segregate into liberal and conservative churches, black and white congregations, etc. Americans have been doing this for a very long time. A new generation is tired of this and will make every effort to change it in the decades ahead. I applaud this effort and share in it in every possible way that I can. Quoting one of the prophetic voices of the post-World War II era of my childhood (A.W. Tozer) Merritt writes:

100 pianos all tuned to the same fork are thereby tuned to one another. They find unity to each other . . . by finding another standard to which each one must bow. Tozer saw in these theoretical pianos a powerful metaphor for the church: “So one hundred worshippers meeting together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become ‘unity’ conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship” (163).

ACT 3 is really a network of leaders, churches and missions who share in common this deep and growing commitment to unity in Christ’s mission, or what Hunter calls faithful presence in being the people of God so that we might do the mission that Jesus gave to his disciples. Jonathan Merritt understands this very clear, which makes A Faith of Our Own an extremely important book for all who care about the future of the church in America.

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