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Missio Mondays
Written or edited by Jeff Christopherson (Christopherson3), Missio Mondays is a weekly examination of key missiological issues affecting church planting and evangelism within North America. Read more from this column.
August 3, 2020Missio Mondays

What I Can Learn from the Life and Death of John Lewis

With a gracious spirit and hopeful optimism, John Lewis cast a final vision for a future that should have long already been realized.
What I Can Learn from the Life and Death of John Lewis
Image: Biography.com

On Thursday morning I had chills, goosebumps and moist eyes as I listened to John Lewis’ inspiring last words as they were read aloud by a stammering and emotionally overcome reporter. It was a redemptive missal designed to be dispatched on the day of his homegoing celebration. These powerful words were penned from John Lewis’ hospital bed in his last days with us, as if to put an exclamation point to mark the end of a life of singular focus. Though many of his socio-political positions would be much different than mine, his last words powerfully summed up the life message of his remarkable eighty years which he dedicated to the nonviolent pursuit of the basic human right of equality. “Together, you can redeem the soul of our nation,”[1] was his call to all of us who remain.

It was a call to courage. It was a path to healing. And it was remarkable.

His last breaths on earth were re-invested and once again poured into the very cause that consumed his life’s energies. With a gracious spirit and hopeful optimism, John Lewis cast a final vision for a future that should have long already been realized. And as if to hand off the baton of his life-mission he wrote, “In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

Listening to the reporter stumbling through John Lewis’ posthumously published final words, I looked at my wife’s expression – I could see that she also had been deeply moved. It was if we both sensed that this was a moment of history. Something substantial just happened.

But when I heard Lewis’ correcting statement that, “Democracy is not a state, it is an act”, my mind instinctively and immediately shot to the beleaguered condition of evangelicalism in North America. For many of us, faith has become a state rather than an action. It has become a way to distinguish and divide rather than a catalyst for spiritual unity and gospel peace.

It has become barbed wire boundaries more than a welcoming front door to Jesus. And it has become partisan and self-interested more than transformative and missionary.

Faith, it seems, has become a code of cultural identity rather than the submissive and subversive, counter-cultural steps that reveal an eternal Kingdom. And now it appears that the soul of evangelicalism has been publicly exposed, and those peering from the other side of our tangled barbed wire partition find little that is compelling, Kingdom, or reminiscent of Jesus.

As I reread the title of John Lewis’ final message, “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of our Nation,” I wondered to myself, ‘can we redeem the soul of evangelicalism?’

It seems that when the descriptor of ‘evangelical’ (which once spoke of a people dedicated to announcing the good news of Christ) became the moniker for an alignment of cultural identity, the term became wholly counterproductive to its original intent. Ironically, it appears now that the closer our association is to ‘evangelicalism’ as a cultural identity, the farther we are from effectiveness with our divine commission.

Yet every day I speak with pastors and leaders who haven’t yielded their highest allegiance to a lesser realm; men and women who have chosen to prioritize their eternal commission over the temporal skirmishes of politics, preferences, and personal rights. For the sake of their commission, they are careful with their words and social media posts, knowing that a far greater battle is at stake. And their spirits, like mine, are grieved by the way we are perceived as a category – known not for our remarkable resemblance to Jesus, but for our partisanship.

It is here where John Lewis’ life may give some guidance to those who feel that we, as a movement, have begun to drift from our eternal purpose. There are some things so important that they demand “good trouble.” By their very nature, they require “necessary trouble” in order to keep our moorings in faith. They require a courageous disruption from a spiritually deceptive status quo that mouths many of the right words without their corresponding actions. They necessitate that many of us rise and boldly declare, “Sir, when you, as a Christian leader, belittle the marginalized around us, you do not speak for me. And you certainly do not speak for Jesus!” It compels us to publicly clarify how our spiritual allegiance to Christ leaves no room for ethno-nationalistic prejudices within His church.

So, practically, what is the ‘good trouble’ which faithful Christ followers must courageously seek in order to distinguish themselves from a political movement? When we look at the great breadth of Christian history, we can see that three battles occupied the efforts of those who sought fidelity to Christ above all else. These three were; 1)Contending for the Faith, 2)Proclaiming the Gospel, and 3)Revealing the Kingdom of God [2]as of faithful expression of that proclamation .

Contending for the Faith. Throughout Christian history, faithful leaders have sought to articulate and apply the unchanging Word of God to the constantly changing times that were specific to their eras. ‘Contending’ speaks of trouble; it suggests a battle – and it often was. Great energy was expended as Christian leaders wrestled with teachings that were culturally popular, but were heretical to an orthodox understanding of Scripture. Breakthrough came when a biblically and historically faithful understanding was applied to specific situations that were being faced in real time.

Today, we must contend for the faith in greater and more profound ways than in any era in living memory. The lazy demarcations of conservative or liberal fails to capture what is at stake, nor do they prepare God’s people with theologically faithful tools. A liberal position might be to accommodate God’s Word to culture’s shifting opinions in order to find social acceptance. A conservative approach can superficially create caricatures within the struggle and dismiss the conversation with a condescending and unsubstantial theological jingle. Neither approach helps a disciple apprehend the mind of Christ for the day in which they live.

So, ‘good trouble’ demands contending for biblically faithful applications to the culturally thorny issues that disciples face every day. And this becomes necessary trouble if we are to effectively transfer Jesus’ worldview to subsequent generations.

Proclaiming the Gospel. It appears that many in the evangelical camp have forgotten that the word ‘gospel’ literally means ‘good news.’ A quick scan through my social media feeds might more accurately describe some of our gospelling as ‘sarcastic news,’ or ‘ticked-off news,’ or even, ‘angry news.’ Many of us seem to have plenty of news to share, but rarely does it sound good to the hearer.

Throughout history, gospel proclamation was understood to be the assignment of church. The good news of Jesus is our answer to the bad news that is universally experienced without Jesus. Gospel proclamation redemptively points to the spiritual deficiency that is the wellspring of our brokenness, while simultaneously making a beeline toward our healing answer in Christ.

Engaging in good and necessary trouble means that our gospel proclamation must be sensitively tuned for the ears of a spiritually bewildered audience, not harshly rehearsed for the benefit of the evangelical ‘amen section’. When we must offend, we allow the offence to be the gospel itself, not the callousness with which we position it.

Revealing the Kingdom. Finally, as our theology is worked out in the complexity of life, and the central One of our faith is proclaimed as the answer to our brokenness, this healing naturally flows into every sphere of our lives. If the Kingdom of God is what things look like when Jesus gets His way [3], as Jesus’ reign increases throughout my life so does my ethical impact. The impulse that removes our social responsibility from our gospel proclamation only demonstrates an incomplete Christology that artificially separates the cross event from the entirety of the Incarnation. The atoning Gospel makes us right with God and prepares a church for a selfless ministry.

Throughout Christian history, Christ-followers understood the social implications of the gospel. Their good news clarified, and their good works verified the very faith that they professed. Like two strong wings on a passenger pigeon, good news and good works were both essential for their gospel message to take flight. And so, during seasons of pandemic like the one that we’re in, the church multiplied as the people of God gave themselves away as Kingdom-first patriots.

Our good and necessary trouble means that we boldly call out those who diminish our social responsibility in Christ as biblically deviant vestiges of a more self-serving era. Our worship of Christ can be seen, or not seen, by the way we engage social injustices.[4] And that ethical engagement validates the authenticity of our worship.

Can we redeem the soul of evangelicalism? Maybe that isn’t our question to answer. Time will answer that.

Maybe our question to answer is, “Am I willing to engage ‘good and necessary trouble’ in order to reveal the Kingdom of God?”

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/opinion/john-lewis-civil-rights-america.html

[2] My good friend and colleague, Dr. Michael Cooper, uses a variant form of this construct to demonstrate a historically and biblically faithful approach mission. If you’re not familiar with Michael’s work, see Ephesiology: A Study of the Ephesian Movement, or listen to The Ephesiology Podcast.

[3] My working definition from Kingdom First: Planting Churches that Shape Movements.

[4] See Matthew 25:31-46.

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What I Can Learn from the Life and Death of John Lewis