SPU's Vision Statement - "Engaging the Culture, Changing the World"

The University I attend held a vision clarifying contest. Students could submit their ideas for how to interpret the school's vision statement. Here is my submission - submitted hastily (sorry the flow is not obvious). This essay was awarded somewhere in the top 8 - but not 1st, 2nd, or 3rd :)

It has been long believed that engaging the culture and changing the world meant taking on power and influence. This has been recently labeled "the captains of industry" model and it suggests that if only enough Christians were equipped to leadership positions in the realm of politics and business, Christians would be able to leverage enough pull for the kingdom of God to shape the culture.

The allure of this idea is that it is at least partially true. If Christians become the majority deciders and main policy makers, the world will be changed. The goal, then, is to have followers of Christ become CEO’s, legislators, school board members, governors, mayors, teachers, and administrators. This model has been used throughout the centuries, from the Moral Majority to Constantine’s conversion of the empire.

But SPU’s theological tradition does not believe that such a model is the best way to foster the Kingdom of God. John Wesley writes:
“I have been long convinced, from the whole tenor of ancient history, that this very event, Constantine’s calling himself a Christian, and pouring in that flood of wealth and honour on the Christian Church… was productive of more evil to the Church than all the ten persecutions put together. From the time that power, riches, and honour of all kinds were heaped upon the Christians, vice of all kinds came in like a flood, both on the Clergy and laity. From the time that the Church and State, the kingdoms of Christ and of the world, were so strangely and unnaturally blended together, Christianity and Heathenism were so thoroughly incorporated with each other, that they will hardly ever be divided till Christ comes to reign upon earth.”[1]
A church or institution that seeks after power, wealth, and honor, no matter how noble the cause or pure the intentions, will grow lukewarm and only hold to the outward form of godliness but lose its power.

No, the Kingdom of God comes without being observed.[2] It is an undiscovered valuable pearl. It is a secret treasure buried in a field.[3] And the whole counsel of God’s word reveals this too us. God takes on the flesh of a baby. The prophet hears the voice in a whisper. The barren woman becomes the mother of promise. The judge conquers thousands with an army of 300.

In Acts 17 St. Paul stands over the city of Athens looking at its need for Christ and lamenting its idolatry. Through his normal routine he is shockingly invited to speak at the Areopagus. This council represents the epitome of conventional wisdom, religious truth, and culture. And Paul preaches the sermon of his life, being culturally sensitive, appealing to his audience, quoting relevant poetry, and laying out the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection and ascension. This sermon is so good it is often pointed to as a “how to” guide in engaging the culture. What is often missed is that Paul utterly fails. The council is not converted. Their idolatry is not removed. Christ is not accepted.

But are we really surprised? The prophets almost always fail to bring about repentance. Christ stands over Jerusalem weeping and wishing that she would gather to him. But she won’t. The world never does. The conventional powers are never converted. Christ and the prophets are killed. No, we aren’t surprised because Acts 17 foreshadows this very outcome. Paul’s enemies rally a mob and some thugs in Thessalonica to fabricate a charge against him. This lie becomes one of the greatest professions of faith and truth in the whole of scripture, “These people… have been turning the world upside down… saying that there is another king named Jesus.”

The Kingdom of God is upside down. It is antithesis to the world. It resists power, and honor, and wealth. Presented here is a two-fold way of engaging the culture and changing the world that comports better with the call of Christ: a citizen of the Kingdom engages the culture and changes the world by dying to self, denouncing wealth, and resisting the powers.[4]

So how does a Christian university prepare its faithful students to engage the culture and change the world?

First, that university would have to recognize the age-old paradox that it finds itself in. Among the expected outcomes of a university degree coupled with a Christian ethic is that the recipients are able to succeed and excel in their field of study and business. If a degree is unable to help do this, it has betrayed its exact purpose. But it is precisely this function of the combination of Christianity and education that raises the greatest issue. The paradox presents itself in that the success derived from these two are inversely proportional to a Christian’s growth in grace. Wesley laments this exact paradox when he writes, “For wherever true Christianity spreads, it must cause diligence and frugality, which, in the natural course of things, must beget riches! And riches naturally beget pride, love of the world, and every temper that is destructive of Christianity.”[5] And even though this sermon is primarily about the giving up of as much money as possible, it also carries with it the audacious ideal to take Christ’s command of daily dying to our selves very seriously. This, for Wesley, is the only solution to the paradox. Where Christianity and education lead to wealth, power and honor, which ultimately lead to spiritual decay, true discipleship leads to the death of one’s self.

And if spiritual decay were not the result of wealth, honor and power in the life of the Church and individuals ninety-nine times out of a hundred, or even nine times out of ten, then mortification of the flesh would not be the only cure. But we need only look into the lives of the successful by the world’s standard and see that her prayer closet is dusty, the wife of his youth preferred the poorer version of her husband, and the appointment book used to be full of doing good, but now it can only reflect doing well. And Jesus told us this would happen when he described wealth, honor and power as seeds sown among thorns, saying, “but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.”[6]

So it would seem, that the first way for the university to engage the culture and change the world would be to train its students to embrace the call of Christ seriously, in the measure of costly grace and not that of cheap. This would call us to a life of sacrifice, in all areas of life, which would counteract any besetting sin of avarice that might entangle us. Bonhoeffer confronts the matter this way, “We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation unasked and without condition... We poured forth unending streams of grace. But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard... Was there ever a more terrible or disastrous instance of the Christianizing the world than this? ...Cheap grace has turned out to be utterly merciless to our Evangelical Church.”[7]

Ultimately, this first step would help the individual negotiate the trajectory of their lives. Instead of trying to climb the latter of success and figure out where Jesus fits in, the cross of discipleship helps us have “…the same mind …that was in Christ Jesus” when he modeled downward mobility from Heaven to the servant of all, even to death, still more, death on a cross. After all, it is the slave of all who is the greatest in the Kingdom of God.

Secondly, the university must emphasize and encourage the student to embrace the larger community of faith working for the realization of the Kingdom of God. Placing an emphasis on the community and the kingdom will train students to navigate the murky waters of individualism and call. Whatever our call in life, from business, to arts, education and ministry, grounding our work in Kingdom purposes will keep our lives on track for Christian success. John Mott, the well-known advocate for Missions and Ecumenism, taught similarly when advocating for medical missionaries, “This is true where the pervading and controlling aim in all the work is, as it should be, evangelistic.”[8] Training students to see their work with a Kingdom directive and perspective will, without a doubt, change the culture and maybe even the entire world in this generation, as Mott was fond of saying.

But the Kingdom, as we know, resists temptations to worldly power, not least because Christ’s kingdom is not from or of the Empires of this world.[9] The Kingdom reinforces the lessons of individual discipleship, and calls both Church and person to pursue downward mobility. This may be most demonstrated in Christ’s parable of the Kingdom as a mustard seed.

Jesus says, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade." Jesus would have been a very popular preacher if he had preached that the Kingdom of God was one of the great Cedars of Lebanon or some other victorious, conquering symbol, but instead, as Chris Shaw and Shane Claiborne point out, Jesus describes the Kingdom as a wild bush – a weed.[10]

No one expects Jesus to compare the ultimate work of God to a weed. And though mustard seeds are very small - they grow into a menace very quickly. In Canada, the world’s top supplier of mustard seed,[11] the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture warns farmers of this dangerous plant by writing[12]:

  • “Wild Mustard is an aggressive weed… and now occurs throughout all Canadian provinces.”
  • “Wild mustard can represent a serious weed problem…”
  • “Wild mustard is common in cultivated fields, gardens, pastures, riverbanks, roadsides and waste places.”
  • When asked how to control this weed, the government of Canada says that getting control of “infested land is often impossible”
The Kingdom that Jesus ushers in is like a weed that is so aggressive it is all over the place from ordinary gardens and farmlands to roadsides and even waste places.  It represents a serious problem because it is so pervasive. Our Kingdom is a weed, small and unassuming from a small and unassuming seed, but it finds its way into the toughest cracks, breaking the toughest concrete foundation, through darkest places and isn’t uprooted. It stands forever impossible to control. And Jesus calls his people to live into that Kingdom wherever it goes, whether in common gardens or waste places, with ordinary people and with the disenfranchised.

But even more surprising is that the birds of the air, sometimes associated with being unclean, make their home in this kingdom tree. This Kingdom of God does not grow like the empire does, and it certainly does not contain the same economy. Rather, this Kingdom spreads everywhere and thrives in the waste places, the unclean, the marginalized, and the poor. After all, the founder of Free Methodism and SPU believed ardently in a Kingdom of God that was a mustard seed. It was vital for the Free Methodists to associate themselves with the poor and marginalized and this idea even became the official guiding vision for the church where, in her discipline, these goals were written, “to maintain the Bible standard of Christianity, and to preach the Gospel to the poor.”[13] It is this very phenomenon that led Jesus to exclaim, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”[14]

It should be noted that I love Seattle Pacific University and Seminary. I chose it over the myriad of other schools because of its tradition, pedagogy, and ethos. Not only did I want to come here, I perceived it to be God’s will for my family and I through prayer and even a dream. The Lord is doing an amazing work in and through this school and I am glad to be involved. The above is not a criticism of the current vision or direction of the school, but hopefully it can lend itself as one theological voice along side the university’s other perspectives.

Ultimately, the best and most lasting way to engage the culture and change the world needs to be done at the lowest level. Students, faculty and staff need training to embrace the sacrificial call of discipleship as embodied in Kingdom ethics and lived out in the Church. Any model that involves worldly concepts of power and wealth, betrays both the ethic of a disciple and the model of the Christ. Any model that emphasizes Christ’s sacrifice and proclaims, “that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich” gets to boast in suffering as the Apostle did, saying that “as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships… in honor and dishonor… unknown, and yet are well known… as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” This is the way to engage the culture. Surely this is the way to change the world.

[1] Wesley, John. “Of Former Times” in Sermons on Several Occasions.   
[2] Luke 17.
[3] Matthew 13.
[4] Luke 14.
[5] Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity, para. 17.
[6] Matthew 13.
[7] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. (New York: Macmillan, 1979), 58. Bottom of Form
[8] Mott, John R. The Evangelization of the World in This Generation. (New York: Student Volunteer Movement for 
      Foreign Missions, 1905), .
[9] John 18:36
[10] Claiborne, Shane, and Chris Haw. Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. (Grand Rapids, Mich:     
         Zondervan, 2008), 103.
[11]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mustard_seed#Production
[12] http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/03-043.htm
[13] The Doctrines and Discipline of the Free Methodist Church (Rochester, N.Y.: General Conference, 1870), p. ix.
[14] Matthew 21.

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