We evangelical folk love conferences. We'll attend one across the country or host one in our spiffy new sanctuary–er, auditorium. Shoot, we'll even blog about a conference for those who couldn't make it. I've attended my fair share of these get-togethers, from California to Michigan, and blogged about them along the way. Perhaps that early American phenomenon–the frontier camp meeting–lingers in our memory and has found new expression at mega-churches and sports arenas around the country.
During my suburban ministry years, many of the conferences I attended were of the how-to variety. Think "This Old House" with Bob Villa, but substitute house with "small group," "sermon," or "assimilation plan" and Villa with (mostly) white pastors and theologians who write books.
This conference-going tendency must run in our evangelical genes, because the folks at my urban church also make these events a priority. Here's the difference: instead of learning how to improve their church, these city-dwellers are interested in improving their neighborhoods and city. The half-dozen people from our congregation who just returned from the Christian Community Development Association conference in Miami attended workshops that focused on bridging racial divides, homelessness prevention, and immigration issues.
To be fair, this focus on justice has recently made an appearance on the wider conference circuit. I remember my surprise at Bono's video appearance at a Willow Creek conference a couple of years ago. His appeal for American churches to get involved in combating global poverty was warmly received. Leadership journal's managing editor, Skye Jethani, has noticed the arrival of all-things-justice at recent conferences and wonders about the origins of this development.
We've successfully reintroduced justice to a new generation of evangelicals, but is it being rooted in a fuller, wider, more Christ-centered gospel? Are we seeing justice ministries at conferences?because our view of the world, God, and the gospel has really matured? Or are we seeing justice ministries at events?because wider global awareness has simply awakened our affluent Western Christian guilt?
So, why the emphasis on justice at evangelical churches and conferences of late? As Skye points out, perhaps the American church feels guilty as we recognize the extent of our power and affluence. Knowing that churches in India are being burned down can make it hard to enjoy a latte from the church coffee bar.
This awareness of the global church may also lead to a higher emphasis on community. While our country sometimes operates unilaterally, the American church generally appreciates our place within the wider Christian community. More recently, we are coming to value the diverse theological perspective of our global family, much of which challenges our individualist and spiritual understanding of the gospel.
It's also possible that this justice discovery relates to a generation of leaders who haven't been shaped by the Protestant battles of yesteryear that pitted mainline justice-oriented churches against conservative evangelism-oriented churches. Having avoided debates about the social gospel's slippery slope, these younger evangelical leaders are confused by the neglect for ministries of justice and mercy.
Whether it's a theological discovery, sociological development or the latest pendulum swing, justice ministry has arrived in a big way. Suburban churches are supporting AIDS orphans through Compassion International and development efforts through Samaritan's Purse. Many congregations have begun partnering with other churches for a day of service to local public schools and park districts. As more immigrants bypass cities to settle in suburbia, churches are offering language and citizenship classes.