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In the presence of the cross there are no innocent parties and no innocent classes. And there is no body which can make this witness except the church, defined as it is simply by its acknowledgement of the supreme Lordship of the crucified and risen Jesus. We are all together found guilty and all together forgiven. The church is called to be the place where that is actually happening.”

– Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History

All together guilty, all together forgiven

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Earlier this month I heard a talk by Chris Wright, an Old Testament scholar who serves as International Director of Langham Partnership and has written a number of books including The Mission of God, which is cosmic in scope (the book, that is, as well as the mission). He lives in London but was in town speaking at an event for the Surge Network. Two years ago he spoke in the same venue on faith in the marketplace, and at that time I summarized his main points.

This time around he was speaking on preaching missionally from the Old Testament—a topic clearly suited to the many church planters in the room, and not so much for those of us (like me) who are not pastors. But I’m enough of an armchair theologian to care about the topic, and I loved what he did with Jeremiah 29, his chosen passage for the day. Here’s a salient (and familiar) excerpt from the chapter:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (vv. 4-7).

Wright encouraged us to read Jeremiah 29 in light of Psalms 122 and 137, two passages of scripture that would have been quite familiar to the prophet’s original audience. In Psalm 122—as in Jeremiah 29—we’re exhorted to pray for the peace of a city, with the psalmist adding, “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good” (v. 9). Unlike Jeremiah’s exhortation, however, this has to do with the city belonging to “us” rather than “them.” In Psalm 137, the poet is homesick and in exile, wondering, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (v.4).

The people of God knew they were to pray for the flourishing of their own city and to seek its good. It made sense. What didn’t make sense was seeking the flourishing of a foreign city—a context in which they found themselves desperately homesick, and worse, in exile.

So when Jeremiah urges them to seek the shalom—the “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight”—of that foreign city, he wasn’t saying something predictable. He wasn’t saying something safe. He wasn’t saying something that made everyone feel warm and fuzzy inside. He was saying something that went against the grain of their natural inclinations. He was trying to cultivate in them a new set of virtues.

On the other hand, he wasn’t saying anything new. If anything, as Wright pointed out, Jeremiah was simply reminding the people of God of the mandate found in Genesis 12, when God commanded Abram:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (vv. 1-3).

Jeremiah was reiterating the ancient truth that when God blesses his people, their neighbors are to benefit as well—and that God delights in this. It’s part of his plan.

But Jeremiah also seems to be anticipating the New Testament command of Jesus to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. In Wright’s observation, this is as close as we come in the Old Testament to that command. Granted, Jeremiah doesn’t actually say anything about loving the neighbors in the city to which we have been sent into exile. But as Wright put it, “It’s hard to hate someone when you’re praying for them.”

In Jeremiah 29, Wright says, we discover a surprising new perspective, a surprising new mission, and a surprising new hope. But at the same time, we find nothing but a reiteration of an ancient perspective, an long-standing mission, and an unchanged and unchanging hope. It’s that ancient-future perspective, that ancient-future mission, and that ancient-future hope we’re called to embrace today, wherever God has led us.

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Across the street from our house stands a big building, and on that big building is emblazoned a single letter: Y.

I thought about that building and that big solitary letter quite a bit as I read Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches, the new book from Peter Greer and Chris Horst of HOPE International, two leaders I’m grateful to also consider friends. Greer is the co-author of The Poor Will Be Glad, an introduction to microfinance, as well as The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, which I reviewed last fall.

The book addresses a troubling trajectory that faith-based organizations all too often take, slowly but surely drifting away from the mission, vision, and values of their founders. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s rarely the result of a concerted attempt by militant secularists to eradicate any and all religious influences, but its effects are real and sobering nonetheless. “The pressures of Mission Drift are guaranteed,” they write, citing financial, social, and other pressures. “It is the default, the auto-fill. It will happen unless we are focused and actively preventing it.”

The Y—formerly the Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA for short—serves a poignant case in point. For all the good that local Ys continue to offer families and communities, it may come as a surprise to some of us that before being known for treadmills and Zumba classes, as local Ys now are, the YMCA offered Bible studies as part of its stated objective to facilitate “Christian discipleship developed through a program of religious, educational, social and physical activities.”

Greer and Horst write with humility and grace, well aware that mission drift can happen to any organization, and that even their own is not exempt. They don’t evaluate current faith-based organizations on their varying degrees of mission drift (or at least not by name), which is to say they are careful not to name and shame other organizations. I really appreciate that. But helpfully, they do name what they consider to be the causes of mission drift, and they examine by way of case study a number of organizations—Harvard, Yale, and ChildFund to name just three—which have drifted over time and whose leaders have publicly acknowledged (without apology, it seems) the departure from their respective institutions’ faith-based roots.

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To an intended audience of Christian leaders, donors, and board members, Greer and Horst write, “We want to help you clarify the missions of the organizations you most love. And we want to equip you with the safeguards to reinforce and protect them.”

Leaders of faith-based organizations will find this book to be a helpful tool as they seek to protect and advance the mission they are entrusted to serve. Those who serve on boards of directors will find in these pages good questions to ask about the overall direction their organizations may be heading, and to safeguard against drift. And those of us who lend our voices and resources to organizations on the basis of their compellingly articulated way of serving the common good will find a reliable set of criteria for evaluating which organizations are truly worthy of our continued support.

As Greer and Horst remind us, the temptation to mission drift is inevitable, but giving into the pressure is not. For a variety of stakeholders who together want to see good organizations stay the course, Mission Drift is an invaluable resource and I commend it highly.

The best theology begins and ends in silence. It begins in silence as we stop our idle chattering and listen to what God has to say. We start by listening for the quiet, strong, deep voice of God speaking to us through the pages of Scripture, through the words of those who have come to know him best through the centuries. It also ends in silence, as when we begin to glimpse the greatness, the mercy, the wisdom of God, there is not much we can say in return, apart from to wonder and worship. In between there may be many words… There is conversation to be had, questions to ask and ideas to explore, but all the while expecting to be quietened by the presence of God before whom all voices fall silent.”

– Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross

Theology begins and ends in silence