I remember hearing Renee Padilla, a powerful Latin American theologian, address a conference for Christian non-profits years ago. His theme? God’s kingdom and the centrality of the local church. He began at creation and walked through the biblical story, looking at Israel and the Church as the weak and fumbling people of God who point forward (amidst all our awkwardness and stumbling) as an embodied signpost of God’s coming kingdom.
His thesis: if a non-profit wants to call their work “kingdom” work, it must be oriented towards the local church, supportively empowering the church’s missional presence in the community. He qualified this by affirming the significance and validity of mainstream non-profit work, but saying if we want to slap the “kingdom” label on it, we’re misapplying terms if the local church isn’t in the picture.
What surprised me was the hostile knee-jerk reaction Padilla’s talk received in the Q&A that followed. . .
Wealth, Technology & Power
As Padilla wrapped up, hands shot up and the comments began flying:
- But the church is messy.
- But the church is ignorant.
- But the church is corrupt.
We are the international body of Christ, we know what we’re doing, and we don’t need the local church in order to bring about kingdom transformation.
Underlying this overwhelming wave of pushback seemed to be a sense of:
We are from the West, we have greater access to modern wealth, technology and power, and we are therefore better suited and equipped to produce redemptive kingdom transformation in their communities.
Now first let me say, I believe non-profits have a powerful role to play in society (as do government, education, healthcare, business and other sectors). What caught my attention, however, was the heightened level of disdain for our local brothers and sisters in Christ on the ground in communities where we work, and a sneaking suspicion that, perhaps for us American Christians, wealth, technology and power have become go-to idols in the Western Industrial Non-Profit Complex.
I’ve recently offered some thoughts on the centrality of the church to the kingdom (see my review of Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy here). In what follows, I’d simply like to make a few practical observations on ways the church might actually be strategically positioned in communities for holistic transformation (ways we might easily miss if too fixated on our Western idols).
Language, Culture, Context
In William Easterly’s classic treatise, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, the prominent global economist makes the case that Western attempts to alleviate poverty through top-down, bureaucratic, structural changes imposed from the outside-in have often had serious unintended consequences, whereas the strongest long-lasting, effective change has come from indigenous, grass-roots strategies arising from within local communities. Better to pour fuel on these fires.
If Easterly is correct, then churches are strategically positioned for this kind of dynamic change, embedded as they are in local communities. I’ve seen this time and time again:
- The Vietnamese doctor who donates his house to become the first Christian medical clinic in the city, serving the poor and growing as a church-based ministry to serve marginalized communities in the highlands.
- The Cambodian pastor whose family uses their life-savings to move into a slum, start a small school that serves as a church on Sunday, and lead the community’s development efforts involving housing, clean water, sanitation and more.
- The Vietnamese farmer with HIV who becomes the first Christian in her village, starts HIV-support groups alongside local churches that grow to 1500 women in the region, building community for ostracized women, reducing local discrimination and winning international grants to spearhead the local government’s HIV-work in the region.
Another favorite ministry partner is a network of around 1,000 churches in some of the most impoverished villages of Southeast Asia who are doing some of the most phenomenal community development work I’ve seen, using very little outside funding beyond staffing costs while relying on local resources and strong community ownership of the development process.
I could go on. These are more than stories, they are friends. Friends whose faith, courage and sacrificial love inspire me at astronomical levels. Leaders of local churches.
They know their language, their culture and context. Way better than I do. They care deeply for their community and want to reach out to serve with the love of Jesus in constructive ways. They know the internal dynamics of their neighborhood with an embedded relational presence that goes way deeper than an organization’s central office in the capital city.
And yet they are often overlooked, bypassed and dismissed, because they do not have the wealth, technology and power we assume is necessary for true community transformation.
To be honest, they’re fine with that. But are we?
Identifying “Kingdom Work” With “Western Development”
I’ve noticed an increasing tendency for Western Christians to identify “kingdom work” with Western development. For example, I once met with two Western businessmen who wanted to meet to explain how they were “bringing the kingdom of God to Cambodia.” Their plan? To open a Western style coffee shop in the heart of the city.
When I asked how this would “bring in the kingdom,” they explained: it would add international investment dollars, provide local jobs, contribute to the flourishing of the community, and create a space where they as Western Christians could interact with the local business community.
While these are not bad things per se, I found myself asking,
Have we really come to see opening a Starbucks in Phnom Penh as the coming of the kingdom of God?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of good coffee (I prefer Heart). But do we need to slap the “kingdom” label on it in order for it to be meaningful? Isn’t it significant enough that we pursue our vocation well as followers of Jesus before God?
And could there be unintended consequences?
- Will local business owners be pushed out of the market because they don’t have access to the money and power we have behind our initiatives?
- What cultural forms will be pushed out of these public spaces as we feed the craving for the “global” and “new”?
Perhaps that’s just the dynamic complexity of our globalizing world, but:
- Are we too quick to throw the “rubber Jesus stamp” down on our efforts to legitimize them and negate the ethical tensions?
And when does the line get crossed where such efforts become explicitly exploitative? I was a fly-on-the-wall for another initiative where Western Christians partnered with local development planners to build what I came to call an “indigenous Disneyland.” The local developers said,
Tourists come here and want to see indigenous people, but they have to travel hours outside the city up to the highlands, in more rural areas lacking Western conveniences. We want to bring that experience to them here in the city, with the comfort of not having to leave.
So they were developing a “theme park,” planned with rides and cultural exhibits that would employ indigenous people. When I was given the usual jargon by the Western Christians that this was a great “kingdom opportunity,” I asked “How?” and was given the same kind of rationale as the “Starbucks in Phnom Penh” example above.
To my ears, this “indigenous Disneyland” felt as exploitative as all get out, and an embarrassment to be associated with the name of Christ. I found myself wondering, will we look back at this someday as a new form of colonialism, similar to earlier unhealthy alliances between missions and invasive Western planners? Have we come to identify “building Babylon” with the coming of the kingdom of God?
I say this as someone passionately involved in international issues like clean water, HIV-support, anti-trafficking and more (these are certainly a far cry from the “indigenous Disneyland” example mentioned above), and I’ve seen international business do a lot of good. These are complex issues and this is a blog post, not a treatise, so I’ll wrap it up here. But in light of experiences like these, I have wanted to raise a few questions that have come increasingly to haunt me over the years:
- Is there a dangerous line we as American Christians have crossed where we have come to confuse the kingdom of God with Western models of development?
- Is there a cultural idolatry of wealth, technology and power that we’ve given primacy to framing what God’s redemptive transformation looks like in the world?
- Have we been so enamored with organizational prowess, bureaucratic efficiency and advertising sheen that we’ve shunned the (admittedly messy) local communities of our Crucified King embedded in their neighborhoods around the world?
I’ve become increasingly convinced over the years that God is dynamically present in the international body of Christ, gathered around word and sacrament in the power of his Spirit, redemptively embedded in local neighborhoods all around the world, sacrificially embodying the love of Jesus in their language, culture and context for the glory of our King.
To Dive Deeper: check out my friend Brian Fikkert's great 18-minute talk entitled "First World Poverty" delivered at Q Nashville earlier this year here.