A lot has been said about the emerging and emergent movements, contemporary calls for relevance, the debated value of cultural analysis, and the Pauline call to be “all things to all men” (1 Cor 9). These are the hot-button topics at the evangelical table (or behind the evangelical woodshed). They are important topics and these are important discussions. We have been particularly weak at reaching an increasingly distant culture.
But I do have a question for the emergers, relevanters, culture-analyzers, missional revolutionaries, and all those who relentlessly pursue being “all things to all men”:
Who’s emerging for the widows?
In all the rhetoric about emerging and evolving and engaging and tailoring ourselves to fit into the current cultural milieu, who’s emerging for the elderly? What about emerging toward the culture of the convalescent home? What about analyzing the windowless worldview of the shut-in? What about making your life and the life of your church revelant to the local widows? What about becoming all things to those with Parkinson’s, artificial hips, cataracts, failed retirement plans, and no family?
Many today are eager to get tattoos and dress hip and overemphasize technology to “relate” to the surrounding culture, to “connect,” and to “open doors.” But if the majority of these people are truly motivated by a compassionate heart, why aren’t any of our youth dressing like the precious elderly folks in the nursing home? Who’s learning to play bridge and chess? Who’s playing vinyl records and eating at the HomeTown Buffet for no other reason than to open doors?
To me, this betrays something very distressing about the current missional swing. We may be customizing our missionality to fit our own preferences; cloaking our selfishness in a full wardrobe of so-called outreach; crafting our ministry methodology with the tool of public consensus instead of the unwavering words of the prophets and the apostles. We might not be revolutionaries and radicals after all. We might just be bandwagoners.
This is not to diminish merciful acts like feeding the homeless, tutoring inner-city kids, or adopting orphans. It is certainly not to deemphasize evangelism or deny the complications of 21st-century American culture. Only to say that most of the proclamations about relevance seem to subtly limit that relevance to certain groups of people. It seems that we’re picking and choosing the groups to whom we want to be relevant.
Call it missional partiality.
Partiality chooses friends based on their relative rating on the social scale. Missional partiality chooses objects of ministry based on the cool ministry factor. Partiality engages in relationships based on potential repayment. Missional partiality engages in ministry based on its subcultural newsworthiness. Partiality attributes personal value based on personalities and fads and fashions. Missional partiality attributes personal value based on current compassion trends.
Is it hard to see (or unfair to say) that certain types of compassion are more popular today than others? I don’t lament mercy ministry trends just because they’re trends, and I must refuse the temptation to judge the motives of others who are engaged in these trends. But I do think we must be clear: It is possible to exercise faddish compassion simply because it’s the Christianly cool thing to do. And the quickest way to expose the fact that this is indeed happening is to point to the equally-biblical ministries that are not emphasized as often. Virtually all youth groups in Southern California take mission trips to Mexico. I’m guessing that fewer of these groups mobilize themselves to consistently mow the lawns of the elderly in their churches. And let’s just face it — orphans get more press than widows these days. As someone who’s adopted an orphan, I would never diminish the value of adoption or the myriad of other ways that you can help an orphan. But as someone who claims to follow Jesus, I also cannot diminish the value of the other needy object of Christian compassion in James 1:27. James said “and,” not “or.”
The self-proclaimed subcultural revolution happening all around evangelicalism has some good challenges to present. I have mentioned this before. We need to face up to many of the questions being asked (and I think that many churches are, which is exciting). But what we don’t need is this hot new genre of ministry called cool compassion. We don’t need the kind of short-lived, fairweather mentality that helps the homeless because it’s hip and also happens to be right. And we don’t need the kind of mercy ministry that gauges its validity and priority by the bouncing barometer of contemporary public consensus.
Woe to us if we think we’re “in” just because we can map Darfur, detail Joseph Kony, highlight child trafficking, and reference world hunger statistics without lifting a finger. And woe to us if we sit around playing conversational volleyball with the atrocities of our age while committing ministerial genocide against an entire generation by neglecting the widow and the elderly right around the corner.
A few months ago we went to a local Chinese restaurant after church. As we were sitting in our booth getting ready to order, a recent TMC grad from our dorm came around the corner and noticed us. He set his things down on his table and walked over to say hi. I asked him who he was having lunch with, and he said “a friend.” I smiled inside, assuming that he was trying to cover up the fact that he was basically on a post-church date with a female interest. Sure enough, after we talked for a bit, his date came around the corner and slid into his booth. Only she was about 85.
He introduced us to her and soon went back to sit down. From time to time I glanced over and saw them smiling, laughing, and conversing the way a sensitive young Christian man and a widow who’s ripened with age interact. He was a young single man taking a widow from his church out to lunch. There is much more to biblical compassion than this. But there is not less.
This isn’t really about widows. It’s not really about the elderly. It’s not really about nursing home visitation. It’s about the partiality that so easily creeps into even the best things that we seek to do. It’s about that missional lemming in all of us who’s afraid or unwilling to cut the path that Scripture says to cut and instead gravitates toward those smooth and well-traveled trends that are lined with admirers from the church and the culture alike. And most of all, it’s about the inescapable fact that missional partiality is still partiality.