So when I was in Arizona a few weeks ago, looking for a place to do some work I yelped a local coffee place. I like Starbucks, but sometimes I really enjoy a good local joint. So I found one close and gave it a shot. As I pulled into the driveway, I noticed a very conspicuous cross on the property and I realize this coffee joint is part of a church. Sounds good to me. Do my work and listen to Phil Wickham? I can do this.
Of course I’m curious as I enter. It’s a nice layout, kinda cool looking with hip furniture, a fireplace and an overall industrial metalic – just converted warehouse look. As I ordered, I struck up a conversation with the barista and asked her about the place. “We use only locally grown coffee as we believe it’s important to support local farmers” and then she added something about sustainability which is a cool word to use.
“Also,” she continued as she meticulously poured out my hand crafted beverage, “the proceeds from our business all go directly to missions.” That got my attention. “Really?” I replied, “That’s so cool! What kind of missions?” She then began to tell me about 4 or 5 locations they go – I think Haiti was one of them and how they think it’s really important not just to provide meals for people but to help them with sustainability (she used that word several times). But as she unpacked their philosophy of missions, it sure seemed to me like something was missing in the mission. I couldn’t resist asking, “So where is the gospel in your missions?” She admitted that if someone were to ask, they would gladly tell them about how Jesus has changed their lives. Ummmm…
Continually unable to resist, I replied, “It seems to me like that’s the most sustainable thing you can offer anyone. When a person responds to the gospel, the spirit of God himself enters that person and brings lasting change. And those guys don’t leave after a short time, they live there and speak the language and God builds his kingdom in their hearts and brings lasting change to that region. If you want sustainability, shouldn’t you be preaching the gospel? “
I know I may have been a little rude coming in to this business from out of town and immediately sizing up and find wanting their mission strategy, but really if missions is not about proclaiming the gospel, then what are we doing?
To be fair, I know the church has missed in the area of bringing social justice and there is a bit of a pendulum swing that may be taking place here. We need to care about the lost and the enslaved and we need to rescue orphans and help people find sustainable ways to eat healthy food and drink clean water. But the ultimate sustainable force is God building his kingdom in the hearts of individuals and transforming cultures by transforming lives.
When I was in India, I met a man named David. He told me his story about growing up in the lowest caste in India, the Dalit people.* Being a Dalit means being treated sub-humanly. They are denied basic rights and necessities. Dalit people had to ask permission, for example, just to drink water. And more often than not, they would be given toilet water to drink. Growing up with this narrative in your head will mess with you. And David shared about his suicidal thoughts and depression. As a college student, David heard and responded to the gospel. God entered into his life and it wasn’t long before the narrative in David’s head began to change. He began to see himself as David wrote in Psalm 139, “Fearfully and Wonderfully made.” Fully known, and fully loved – David was born again. And with his new life, God the Spirit began to make changes and build the kingdom in this man’s heart. He is now pastor David and he serves a congregation in and among the Dalit people in one of the poorest slums I had ever encountered. He is there every day bringing food, education and the good news that God loves these precious people.
Social justice? Yes, by all means. It is an outrage that these people are treated in this way. The church needs to speak up, step in and do something. But sustainability comes when the kingdom of God takes root in the midst of a people and men like Pastor David are transformed to bring and be the good news for years to come.