A CONVERSATION WITH ADAM GUSTINE, AUTHOR OF BECOMING A JUST CHURCH
Your first chapter, “Justice Isn’t an Outreach Strategy,” suggests some churches approach it that way. What has been your experience?
I think a lot of churches think about justice as a work of outreach and that justice works natural location is outside the church. So we might think about justice as an option for ways we might serve others and demonstrate the love of Jesus.
Practically one of the ways that I’ve seen this work then is that justice becomes optional for people depending on the issues or topics they are passionate about. That raises a key red flag in my mind. Justice often gets framed as issues that exist “out there” in the world and so the church goes out into the world to fight injustice. While that is certainly true, and certainly the case, I think there is something that we miss if we frame justice as outreach.
Throughout the Scriptures, it seems that God frames justice as an issue of faithfulness for the people of God. In other words, justice is about discipleship. There are countless examples of how God views the faithfulness of his people by virtue of their fidelity to justice. Being just is of primary concern for the people of God.
So it is not a problem if churches think about justice as something we deal with outside the walls of the church and if they try to understand how injustice impacts their neighbors (because it does and they should!), but I am concerned that we also learn to see justice as an issue of our discipleship. Because it is about the character of our life together that means that it implicates all of us whether or not we are passionate about particular issues that often get framed as justice oriented. It involves every person and it engages our entire way of life as the church.
What can pastors do to encourage their congregations to become a church that doesn’t distance themselves from their community?
I think this is one of the greatest challenges of pastoral leadership. It is so easy with all of the ways that we try to engage our communities to default to an us-vs.-them mentality. But the longer that I’ve been a part of the church and engaged in community development and justice related ministry I’ve become more and more convinced that this will ultimately keep us from developing meaningful relationships with our friends and neighbors.
I think one of the key ways that we deal with this issue is to begin with the language we use when we talk about our community. Our community is full of friends and neighbors, people with whom we share life and with whom our fortunes are bound up together. It makes me think about Jeremiah 29 and how the prophet says that if Babylon prospers Israel will prosper even when they are in exile. That is instructive to me because it indicates that the future prospects of Israel and Babylon are somehow tied together and that the work that God calls Israel to in Babylon of seeking peace doesn’t keep Babylon at a distance. In other words, it is not us-vs.-them, it is we. This idea is not new, but one of the key ways that we will start to bridge the divide between the congregation and the community is to see ourselves wrapped up together and to pursue authentic relationships with our neighbors that feel much more like family than some kind of missional target.
Practically, that might mean that we need to start engaging in the neighborhood where the neighborhood is already active. Rather than thinking that we need to start new programs, maybe we engage more proactively and intentionally in the work already happening in the neighborhood through local schools, community organizations, neighborhood associations and groups like this. One of the ways that we demonstrate that we care about our neighbors and the community that is possible is to care about the things that impact everyone and to participate in the things that others are leading.
Why was it important for you to write this book at this moment of time?
I am an idealist want to comes to the local church in that I believe that it is God’s primary instrument to give expression to the kingdom of God and to extend the shalom of God into the world. Sadly, many churches struggle to integrate justice and the pursuit of God’s shalom meaningfully into their vision for what it means to be the church. The work of being the church has to include the pursuit of shalom both in terms of how we live together as a body and also the way that our body participates in the world. Without that commitment to the pursuit of God shalom we will always fall short of what it means to be the church. Justice is a matter of becoming a particular type of people.
With all of the many ways in which injustice wracks our world with pain and brokenness, we are ever more in need of churches to double down on the commitment to both demonstrate God’s intentions and to extend God’s shalom into the world in tangible ways. I know that a lot of churches struggle to think through these issues, but who are incredibly passionate about God’s justice, so my hope for this book is that it provides a foundation for local congregations to think about how to meaningfully give expression to justice in and through their life together. At the same time I know a lot of justice oriented folks who perhaps feel marginalized in their churches because of those passions and who struggle with what it means to participate in the local congregational life. My sense is that there are ways to bring these groups together in local community life and my hope is that this book gives people a vision for a renewed commitment to justice at the congregational level.