The following remarks were presented as a devotional for a March 2021 meeting of the Wheaton College Board of Visitors. It has been lightly edited for publication.
It is wonderful to be with you today. I would like to share some reflections from Matt 13:44-46: “‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.’”
In both these parables, there is an individual who discovers the kingdom of God and cannot believe what he has found. The first man hides the treasure back in the field so that no one can find it. He then sells all that he has, nervous and almost giddy, so that he can run back and purchase the field that no one else wants because they don’t know what it is hiding. The second man also does not think twice. He immediately recognizes what he’s discovered, so he also sells everything he has to purchase it.
There is no fear or reluctance in their reactions. They experience no uncertainty or hesitation. Nor do they consider themselves to be making a sacrifice or doing some hard, scary thing for Jesus. The treasure in the field and the pearl of great price are far more desirable than all that these individuals own. They each see the opportunity in front of them, they cannot believe their luck, and they make what seems to them an obvious decision.
This is a passage that comes to me again and again as I reflect on my present circumstances. As some of you may be aware, I live in the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago, which is a low-income African American community with which Wheaton has strong ties. Adonya Little, on this Board of Visitors, lives a few blocks away from me, and we worship together at Lawndale Christian Community Church, where our pastor is Wayne “Coach” Gordon, who was Wheaton Class of 1975 and has been living in our neighborhood since he graduated.
I have been in Lawndale for about a decade. Almost every Thursday morning throughout that time, I have participated in a men’s Bible study where 30-40% of our participants are former addicts or formerly incarcerated. Most of them have come through a ministry our church runs called Hope House, which is a nine-month residential prison reentry and addiction recovery program that hosts about 20-25 men at a time. These men have been a central source of my spiritual sustenance during my time at Wheaton, and they are in many ways the heart of our church.
The reason they are such a gift to our community is that they make so visible the dynamics of sin, grace, and redemption that we all experience but try to cover up. When they talk about how God changed their lives, they refer to very material realities. “I used to be on drugs, but now I’m clean. I used to be unemployed, but now I work. I used to be in a gang, but now I evangelize that population. I used to be a delinquent father, but now I am reconciling with my kids and getting involved with their lives. All of this is the work of Jesus Christ, whose Spirit sustains me as I daily cling to his Word.”
These men are not perfect, but there is something about their lives that testifies to God’s power to transform people which you don’t see as clearly in settings of wealth and power. These men, along with so many other men and women at our church, are for me the kingdom of God. They are the treasure in the field. They are the pearl of great price. The world does not see them because it is so attracted to the external trappings of status and privilege. But when you see where God is really at work, you don’t care as much about those things and you don’t want to be anywhere else.
Every day that I have lived in Lawndale has felt like a gift. There is so much spiritual vitality and joy in our community that others do not perceive. Our community feels almost like a secret, like a hidden treasure so attractive and delightful that you think everyone would want to live here if they knew what they were missing.
I share this reflection because I think it is an important reminder for the challenges we are facing today. On Thursday, I was co-teaching the last day of the Biblical and Theological Studies Senior Seminar with my colleague, Jordan Ryan. We were giving students a chance to share about their future plans and ask questions about vocation. One student, who will be starting seminary this fall, asked, “How are we supposed to serve the church when we feel so disappointed in it? How do we avoid becoming cynical when we see what Christianity in this country has become?” It was a very honest and painful question that resonated with the rest of the students, so Dr. Ryan and I spent quite a lot of time addressing it with them.
Our graduating seniors began Wheaton in the fall of 2017. All their college years have taken place in a time of extreme polarization, intense racial unrest, and of course this global pandemic, which has come to define so much of their college experience. Our students are diverse ideologically and politically, but many of our students—perhaps our center-of-gravity students—are feeling disappointed by what they have seen in American Christianity.
They have witnessed evangelicalism become a political term, and they don’t know how to put together the faith they grew up with and the partisanship and hypocrisy they have seen evangelicals supporting in the public square. Our students care about racial justice and other social issues but they don’t like the partisanship on the left, which is in so many ways the mirror image of partisanship from the right. They want to know what it means to be a gospel Christian and not just a partisan one. They have a sincere faith, and they want to follow Jesus’s calling on their life. But they’re confused and discouraged, and they’re not sure where to begin as they seek to serve the communities that nurtured their faith.
I suspect my students are not alone in their perplexities about evangelicalism. I am experiencing a similar sense of disorientation, and I imagine many of you are, too. So I would like to share with you the same encouragement I shared with my students, which is also meant for me: Recommit to the things Jesus cared about most. Double down on the gospel and the foundations of the faith, and trust that God can bring new life to God’s people.
Throughout the history of Christianity, the church has gone through seasons of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, times when our spiritual vitality has waxed and waned. The church has declined spiritually when it has pursued power and wealth and influence. It is in these times that the church becomes worldly, corrupt, disfigured, and spiritually fruitless.
But God also has mercy on God’s people, bringing about conviction of sin, repentance, and a fresh experience of grace. And these seasons have typically been connected with a renunciation of wealth and power and a renewed commitment to poor. It is at the margins of society where God is most visibly at work. These are the places where you see what matters, where you learn humility and faith and dependence, where you see how foolish it is to trust in status and prestige instead of the grace we have received in Christ.
Evangelicalism is taking a tough hit in the public square right now. I am not going anywhere. I’m not ready to abandon this community, or even the term itself. This is the context that birthed my faith, it is the context that has birthed so many people’s faith, and I do not believe in leaving communities just because they are going through a rough time.
But I also do not believe the way to “save” evangelicalism is by grasping onto it tighter. The appropriate question for us to ask right now is not, “How do we fix evangelicalism?” It is rather, “What does it mean for us as evangelicals to act as Christians? What does Jesus want from us?” And I think the answer lies in the basics: humility, repentance, and a childlike faith, all of which go together with a renewed commitment to the poor.
When we fall prostrate before God, we invite the Spirit to come upon us again and bring life to this valley of dry bones. As we see through Scripture and the history of the church, God responds to our repentance, though we fall away time and time again. God raises up new leaders, God pours out fresh grace, and God teaches the church to live by the Spirit again.
That’s my hope and my prayer for the times that we face today, and I encourage you to make that your hope and prayer, too, as you proceed with the business of the college.