Justice Issues Should Not Be Separated from the Gospel-mission of the Church
A refugee couple sparked a church-wide desire to pursue justice in very practical ways.
Andrew Gardener is the Senior Pastor of The Vine Church in Hong Kong. He co-founded of The Justice Conference Asia in 2013.
Why did your church feel the need to bring the Justice Conference to Hong Kong? Why did you think this was necessary?
We grew a heart for justice in an organic way, and God led us to consider issues of justice in the very early stages of our church’s development. It started when one refugee couple literally showed up on our doorstep and said, “Can you help us? We’re in need.” They were sleeping on the streets at the time.
We had never even thought about the refugee issue, and didn’t know anything about it. But from this one couple, God really opened up our hearts. We began to minister to refugees and asylum seekers.
“What is God’s heart behind the bigger story of injustice in the world?'”
When you’re called to minister to a group of people that are desperately in need, you always start out by meeting their felt needs. They were hungry, so we fed them. They had nowhere to sleep. So we found a place for them to stay. But eventually, after you’ve settled the immediate felt needs, you’re faced with a dilemma. Are you going to stop there? Or are you going to ask the next question – why were they in this situation in the first place? What happened to land them in this state?
We started asking some of these bigger questions. At this point, we had grown from this one couple to a group of about 100 refugees. This showed us the realities of the injustice that this community was facing.
We started thinking, “We know what God’s heart is. He wants us to feed the poor, take care of orphans, and look after others in need. But what is God’s heart behind the bigger story of injustice in the world?” That took the church to a place where we began to think, pray, and study.
We came to the realization that the Evangelical Church has already understood the truth that God wants us to love our neighbor. We’ve translated this into a traditional missions model. There’s nothing wrong with traditional missions models. We still use those here at The Vine.
But the problem is that we’ve come to interpret this model as the only way to love our neighbor. We’ve made the Gospel specifically about salvation of the soul. But we began to see in Scripture, that the Gospel is actually much broader than that.
Salvation is never just personal. It’s never just solely individual. It’s always taught in Scripture in a communal way. You are individually saved, but it’s done within a framework of community. So the gospel is much broader than just my own ticket to heaven. It is also about the restoration of all of the broken things in the world.
Not only am I broken, the very fabric of creation has also been marred by the reality of sin and justice. Thus, the message of the Gospel is not just about going to heaven when I die but it’s about seeking the “shalom”, or peace, of God’s creation in the here and now. In the end, God doesn’t make all new things. Rather, He makes all things new (Revelation 21-22)! All the things that are currently created are going to be renewed and restored. That’s the work of the Gospel.
The restoration of all things sits in the very heart of what Jesus came to do, at the very heart of His message. We had a gap in our theology regarding the purpose of the Gospel.
All of that is to say that the impetus that birthed the Justice Conference was theology. We wanted to bring the heart of justice back into the language and the culture of the local church. That was really the starting point of what the Justice Conference is all about.
Why do you think the Church is not active in the aspect of justice?
I understand why churches are a little nervous in areas of justice.
First of all, this work and these issues touch on many social and political areas. It doesn’t just involve your spiritual salvation, but it also deals with policies and politics. You have to discuss how the government is treating certain groups of people.
So, the church is quite right to be nervous at times, because there is a desire in the roots of evangelical Christianity to keep the church and the state separate.
There’s a tension there that we don’t want to navigate. We certainly don’t want to suddenly turn the church into a political entity. We’ve all seen some of the dangers that can take place when the church becomes too political, so it’s a very real concern.
But I think this concern has caused people to swing the pendulum too far the other way. They decide we’re just going to leave justice up to the NGOs. They can say all the things that churches can’t say.
But we have to move beyond extreme positions and labels if we are to embrace a justice heart. We have to accept that the work of justice always brings us to a place of engaging in politics, it does get us engaged in social economics. These things are structural, and if you’re really going to stand for the whole Gospel, you’re going to get involved in broken structures and systems of society. You cannot avoid them, and you cannot ignore them. That’s part of walking on a justice journey as a Christian.
You mentioned the church leaving justice up to the NGOs. Instead of simply doing this, how do you feel the church and NGOs can actually work together? What would it practically look like?
Traditionally, the way that it’s worked is that NGO’s have looked to the church for funding, while the church has looked to NGOs as a way to “check” their Missions box. They say, “Look, we gave money to this organization, so therefore we’re helping widows, orphans, or the poor.”
I think NGOs have much to teach the local church about what it means to care for people. The church needs to open its ears and listen to what the NGO community has to say about how we can truly love people. We need to hear from them on how difficult and messy it is. They’ve got years and years of experience in being involved in people’s lives at a level that churches often don’t get involved in. The church can learn so much from NGOs about good practice.
So just on a practical level, I think churches should be inviting NGOs to come in and to teach and train their pastors, so that the pastors can teach and train their congregations. They can teach us how to love our neighbor, how to do things in a sustainable, long-term way. They can help us avoid the “savior” complex, and show us how to be sacrificially involved in a community.
How can churches help NGOs? Obviously, churches can help mobilize people. Churches often have influence that is broader than the specific demographic the NGO is already connected with. Churches can really help to mobilize and utilize their people to serve the NGO community. It’s more than just giving them money, but resources in terms of human capital and other things.
Another practical way the church can help the NGOs is prayer. I think that a church could prayerfully get behind an NGO in a very serious way, and really help support their work in a spiritual context. We can do intercession, and stand on behalf of the vulnerable, hurting, and broken. We can be a spiritual gateway for the work that they do. This is more than just praying for them every once in a while, but standing in the gap and being a beachhead in a city on behalf of a community.
When NGOs and churches come together in unity, I think you will see the greatest representation of what it is to love your neighbor.
Andrew Gardener is the Senior Pastor of The Vine Church in Hong Kong. He co-founded of The Justice Conference Asia in 2013. Andrew was born in the UK, moving to Hong Kong when he was 12, where he later met and married his wife Christine. They have a beautiful adopted daughter, Mia.
Come back next week as Andrew shares about the areas of justice that are closest to his heart – adoption and caring for refugees.