Several years ago I had the privilege of helping to prepare the university I served then to host a visit from a group of young gay rights activists. We immersed ourselves in Biblical studies, read the relevant psychological and sociological literature, discussed the issue at length with colleagues, and listened to the many convictions and opinions offered by the members of our community.
The visit was not easy for us or for our visitors. They were visiting us, after all, expressly for the purpose of asking us to change our views and our policies.
But it was worth the effort. We had the chance for direct personal interaction with a group of committed young LGBT activists, many of whom identified themselves as fellow Christians. We did not come to agreement on many of the points they raised with us but did learn through the experience. I learned many lessons as I opened my mind and heart to hear the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and guidance on this divisive issue.
As we attempted to engage authentically, sensitively, and Biblically with these young people, I came to the conviction that two different kinds of ministries were needed.
On one hand, we needed to bring Biblical truth to bear on the issue of sexual identity. But on the other, we also needed to interact with our neighbors for whom this was not an issue but an experience.
Issues become depersonalized and abstract. We were being asked to answer serious Biblical, theological, and psychological questions as honestly and rigorously as we could, without dissembling because we were afraid of giving offense to our visitors. We were talking about an issue.
But when we were actually in conversation with our LGBT visitors, we were no longer just talking about an issue. We were talking to real people about their experience of life. Depersonalizing the conversation created a distance that became a barrier across which it was hard to communicate the message of Christ’s love and redemption.
Further, some members of our community believed that addressing the issue was the most important opportunity of the visit. Others believed that embracing our LGBT visitors with expressions of love and acceptance was the most important opportunity of the visit. When we said and did things that seemed to favor one of these two aspects, we raised the concerns and criticisms of those who believed the other was more important.
Now, there is a lot I don’t understand about this, but I do think this experience gave me an insight that applies to many of the difficult and divisive issues Christians are called to address in the public arena.
Different kinds of ministries are needed in order for the good news of Jesus Christ to permeate our society, and in order for Christians to make redemptive contributions.
We cannot allow our Christian imagination to be reduced to an overly simplistic dualism of ministries of conversion and ministries of social justice.
Whether we are engaging questions about sexual identity and the definition of marriage, immigration reform, abortion, sex trafficking, economic structures, or nuclear disarmament Christians must take up many different ways of bringing God’s wisdom to bear on these discussions.
This is particularly important for us at Indiana Wesleyan University since our specific mission is to make the world a better place by preparing our students in character, scholarship, and leadership. By mission, we are committed to preparing our students for ministries in the public square.
Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s typology of Christian activism may help us see the many ways that Christians can engage the public square. (The World Is Not Ours to Save)
Priestly Engagement. We practice priestly engagement when we address public needs “through corporate and individual prayer and fasting for the public good.” We serve in the role of priest for our nation when we “genuinely [search] for God’s will and requesting his intervention and strength” in the life of our nation. Priests minister for the public good by ministries of public and private, personal and corporate prayer.
Didactic Engagement. Didactic engagement takes place when the church faithfully exercises its “teaching role toward its membership.” Russell Moore says that pastors engage the public good when they “shape the theological imagination of their congregations, so that the people of God build instincts of natural delight at what God delights in.”
Architectural Engagement. Some of us are called to engage the public good by “building . . . institutions and ventures that contribute to the public good.” These can be churches, schools, single purpose non-profits, as well as business ventures and artistic work that contribute to the common good of communities.
Judicial Engagement. William Wilberforce might be an example of one who practiced judicial engagement for the public good. Judicial engagement is “participation in public discussion and debate, as a stakeholder whose bottom line is the moral good and human flourishing to the glory of God, rather than any particular partisan, military, or economic interest.” Christians who practice judicial engagement reject factionalism. Instead they seek common ground for the common good, guided by the moral imagination of Christ.
Prophetic Engagement. We seem to be most familiar with prophetic engagement. Prophetic engagement, according to Wigg-Stevenson, is “the sort of action and speech that seeks to reveal truth, indifferent to political calculus or efficacy.”
Pastoral Engagement. Some are called to pastoral care. Pastoral engagement is “caring for the lives and souls of people who exercise authority in public matters,” as well as for those who suffer from the effects of the issues under public debate.
Diplomatic Engagement. Diplomatic engagement is “the direct ambassadorial work of gospel peacemaking,” actively seeking to break down walls of hostility and animus.
Militant Engagement. Throughout history there have been times when Christians have practiced militant engagement, “employing the infrastructure and numbers of people in churches toward deliberate political ends.” Wigg-Stevenson argues that militant engagement “should be employed only in the face of undeniable injustice.” Militant engagement, it should be noted, is not political action to protect a privileged position that Christians may have gained within society. It is engagement on behalf of those who face injustice.
Sectarian (Dis)Engagement. When all else has failed, occasionally Christians must practice sectarian disengagement. This is “withdrawal . . . when confronted with evil so radical that it is beyond reform.” Sometimes, in extreme cases, the “most faithful testimony and powerful action [may be] to withdraw and refuse participation, because even to engage the opponent is to bestow legitimacy on it.”
None of us is called or gifted to perform all of these. I believe each of us may find our unique calling in one of these areas.
Most of the good each of us will do in this world will be done through the vehicle of our calling, the good and inventive work to which God calls us and for which God equips us.
We must not denigrate one of these ministries because it is not the one to which we are called. All have their place in bringing the good news of Christ to bear on this present world.
Perhaps these nine ways of making the world a better place will free us to imagine the new pathways to which God might be calling us.