Last week I spent two days on the south side of Chicago attending the justice summit at Progressive Baptist Church, pastored by the Rev. Dr. Charlie Dates. These are some general observations from my time there, though I expect that I will be reflecting on this event for some time to come, so these should be read as preliminary notes rather than anything more developed.
The Centrality of Scripture
One of the first things that stood out to me about my time there was how central Scripture was to the entire event. Dr. Dates opened the summit with a brief reflection on the theme of justice in the book of Isaiah. Later talks included Dr. Christina Edmondson, working from Acts 16 to talk about economic and structural challenges to justice, Dr. Russell Moore on Luke 3 on how following Christ informs our public lives, and Rev. Otis Moss III on Luke 8 and the healing of the bleeding woman.
The whole conference helped draw out in a new way for me why something like the Slave Bible came into existence. When you simply let Scripture speak, well… Scripture speaks. And it has a lot to say about justice, the debts we owe to neighbor, God’s hatred of injustice, and so on.
It likely isn’t a coincidence that so many theological innovations in American church history effectively created doctrines meant to contain and limit Scripture’s applicability to our lives. Whether it is Dispensational premillennialism which often banishes the Old Testament (save Proverbs 31, of course) from the life of the church or something like the old southern revisionist take on the two kingdoms, which insulated southern racism from the claims of the Gospel, American church history is replete with examples of us finding ways to explain why that verse in the Bible that seems to say x (which would be highly inconvenient for our pursuit of personal peace and affluence) doesn’t really mean x. After last week, I think I understand better why that is.
The Centrality of Prayer and the Church
Similarly, the conference opened with singing and, in particular, a song that doubled as a congregational prayer asking the Holy Spirit to be with us. Indeed, much of the conference had the feel of a church service. One of the striking things about the event, at least to the eyes of a white PCA dude, was how different the justice summit felt from any other conference I’ve attended. (For what it’s worth, I’ve been to Desiring God events, but never to TGC or T4G.) The white evangelical conferences I’ve attended have usually felt like A Coalition of the Online. That’s not necessarily meant as a criticism. Conference attendees will usually have overlapping affinities and one of the ways of finding those affinities is discovering likeminded communities online.
Yet the effect this has on conference audiences is often unfortunate: it creates a kind of shadow “community” mostly mediated through the internet with minimal on-the-ground reality in most places. What’s worse, the experience of this digital shadow community can often make us less useful and fruitful in our local, face-to-face communities because it causes those communities to feel less real to us due to the reduced overlap in interests that we find when encountering actual geographic neighbors.
In some sense, the problem might be the inverse of the challenge facing employers today: For employers, the reality most are facing is that if you won’t pay your employees to work remotely, someone else will. So you’re now competing in a far larger marketplace than you would have been 20, or even ten, years ago. In the workforce, this is in some ways a good thing because it can give workers greater power by giving them more places to which they can sell their labor. But when turned toward other settings, I think the effects are mostly harmful. Your pastor is now able to be compared to pastors all over the country, your church friends can be compared to online friends from all over the world. And when such comparisons are made, there is almost always only one winner.
What made the justice summit so striking to me is that it felt far less “online” than any other conference I’ve attended. In his essay from print #2, Malcolm talked about how the black church has never been able to treat questions about community life, faithfulness to neighbor, and so on as theoretical, abstract issues; often their churches have survived only because they saw these issues as being non-negotiable. And this is reflected in what little I’ve heard of black preaching: One of the speakers at the summit, I think it was Dr. Meeks from Salem Baptist, said that you have to “preach the announcements.”
What he meant is that if you have a need in the church community, you don’t just announce the need; you preach about the need to help people gain an understanding of why they should care.
Here’s an example: I was trying to increase our number of volunteers. I told the church ‘next week there will be no church volunteers. There’s no parking, no ushers, no choir’s gonna sing, no praise team, every volunteer is going on vacation.’
All right? But they need volunteers. So then I went on to preach a sermon called ‘Delivered People Serve.’ It was when Jesus went home with Peter. They got home and found out Peter’s mother-in-law was sick. Jesus touched her, healed her, and the Bible says immediately she rose up and ministered to them. I said that when people encounter Jesus and Jesus heals them then the next thing they do is get up and serve.
And I said ‘a lot of you here, you’ve been here forever and you’ve been healed and you’ve been delivered but you don’t serve anywhere so next week we need ushers, we need choir, we need this, and everybody who’s going to volunteer next Sunday, I need you to stay when I dismiss everybody else.
Hearing this while attending the summit hit differently for me. I think it was because I was attending a full two-day conference put on by a church in which that church fed 400 people lunch on both days, led several times of congregational singing each day, and also successfully managed the logistics for a conference on this scale, and they did it with an extremely diverse range of volunteers and with a large number of church members simply attending the conference. It was a degree of involvement and commitment from a church that I’ve not often seen. I was seeing that seriousness Malcolm talked about in action. It caused the conference to have a far more rooted and church-based feel than any other conference I’ve ever attended.
I think it probably also changes what happens when you leave the conference. When we were sent out, we weren’t sending out 95% of the attendees to a hundred different places, all with their own ideas of applying what they’d learned through extremely small groups back home.
Rather, they sent out around half the attendees to just go on doing what their churches are already doing in Chicago. And the other half now had an extremely concrete, specific picture of what we might attempt on our return home because, well, we’d already seen it.
One of the most moving times at the conference, I thought, came when Rev. K. Edward Copeland spoke on his experience with policing and justice work as both a lawyer and a pastor. That portion of his talk was great. But he had prefaced his remarks by saying, “I’m going to talk about what Charlie asked me to talk about and then I’m going to talk about what I think God wants me to talk about.” And after his discussion of justice, he went on to say that he was there because he loved Dr. Dates and he was there because he wanted to protect him and he called on everyone present to be praying for Dr. Dates and also their own pastors as they try to follow Jesus in such trying and difficult contexts.
In short, what I saw was a clear and obvious affection shared by virtually all the speakers. If we are going to weather the storms before us, it will be through friendships bound together by common objects of love. That doesn’t mean we should adopt an unthinking “friends-and-enemies” analysis in which “loyalty” trumps principle. Rather, it means finding the people who love the things outside of ourselves that we love (and that ought to be loved!) and standing by those people as we seek to love those good things together.
Much Felt Familiar
Finally, one of the most striking things was how familiar some of the arguments and examples set before us actually felt to me. I’ve long endorsed James Hunter’s principle of “faithful presence,” for example, even as that principle has fallen out of favor (like many other good ideas handed on to us by our elders) amongst younger, more foolish reformed people. And what I saw last week was a community that has been practicing faithful presence.
The work of Together Chicago, an organization founded by pastors and business owners in Chicago in 2016, is one example. Using the networks of relationships that their leaders already possessed, Together Chicago has helped bring together a variety of professionals, city and state employees, and pastors to try and address a variety of social problems currently affecting Chicago. By using well-positioned people in the political world, business world, and church, the organization has been able to make the city safer and create more opportunities for Chicagoans.
It wasn’t just faithful presence that I saw, however. My friends and I at Davenant have long been saying that a true recovery of the reformed idea of “two kingdoms,” is not going to create contrived differences between “church” and “state,” thereby neutralizing the Gospel’s power to transform society, but will actually empower us to understand the work each of us can do within the callings that God gives to each of us. The two kingdoms does not mean that there is a realm of our human societies that are “sacred” and cloistered off from the rest. Rather, it names the overlapping collegia, to use Althusius’s term, that each have a role to play in helping promote justice within a polity.
Well, I saw this teaching in action in Chicago too. I saw businessmen speaking about how they were working to create good-paying local jobs and to empower local minority-owned businesses to provide similar jobs. I heard about work being done with the mayor’s office and local police to help bring justice to the city. I saw pastors faithfully preaching the Gospel and calling people to the life of Christian discipleship. (One of the themes on the first day was the failure of discipleship seen so commonly in the American church.)
To be sure, the terms “faithful presence” or “two kingdoms” came up not once. But in terms of the practical goals that those teachings help us realize, I saw all of that.
There is still much that I’m thinking about and seeking to unpack in my own mind. But this much I know already: I hope the American church’s future looks like what I saw in Chicago. Indeed, if the American church is to have a future at all, I think we will have to start looking more like what I saw in Chicago.