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Practicing Justice in a Culture of Self-sufficiency: Andrew Gardener

Bringing justice to the vulnerable includes an aspect of faith-filled risk that we cannot ignore

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It’s been inspiring to hear your heart for justice. Can you let us know your backstory? How did you end up pastoring in Hong Kong?

I’m British, born in the United Kingdom. My father worked for an international bank. So we left the UK when I was 7 and traveled quite a bit, before settling in Hong Kong when I was 11. That’s been my home ever since. I’ve lived in Hong Kong for more than 30 years, so it’s very much my home.

I didn’t set out to be a pastor. I studied philosophy and psychology at university, which has actually helped me in ministry. It’s ironic, because I had not thought of being in ministry when I was studying these subjects.

I actually came to real faith while I was in university, and became a part of The Vine right at its inception. In 1996, I was part of a team of about 40 people that started the church. I was there from day one, and because it was a church plant everyone needed to volunteer and help in some way. I was 21 years old, and became very involved with the youth ministry. After several years, I became an elder in the church. This was all while we had no full-time staff, just volunteers.

“It’s a lot harder to actually roll your sleeves up and do justice as a church.”

Alongside of my work in church, I had a career in the corporate world. I was a headhunter that did a lot of recruitment for investment banks, before working at an investment bank myself. I was in the corporate world for more than 10 years

I really enjoyed my corporate life, but I was so involved in church that it felt like I had two full-time jobs. I was busy Monday to Friday at the bank, and then from Friday night to Sunday night at the church.

How did you resolve this tension?

Eventually, I realized that one of these two things had to give. Otherwise, I was just going to run myself into the ground. I was kind of praying, doing that typical prayer, “Should I be a pastor? Should I be a banker?” The thought was, “Is working in church better than working in a bank?”

I felt God speak to me, “I don’t really care which you choose, as long as you maximize your gifts for my kingdom.” So to God, the issue is not that working in a church is more holy or better or more sacred than working in the marketplace. Absolutely not. Every one of us is uniquely gifted by God to maximize His kingdom growth with the gifts He has given us.

I did a very practical exercise, writing down on a piece of paper all of the gifts that I have. I wrote my spiritual gifts, physical gifts, everything. After that, I wrote Morgan Stanley (the bank I was with at the time) on one piece of paper, and The Vine on another. I then transferred all of my gifts and skills to one or the other.

While I had quite a few gifts that were on the banking side, I had many more on the church side. So this part of my journey was very practical. If God has called me to maximize my gifts for his kingdom, then with my particular makeup and gift set, it was clear that I should shift to working in a church.

I went to New Zealand to study for seminary, and came back and started working for The Vine full-time in 2010. I was a pastor in charge of various areas, until November of 2013 when I became the Senior Pastor. That’s still the job that they allow me to do today.

It must have been a step of faith to transition from banking to seminary. Aside from that, what would you say are three of the biggest risks you’ve taken in the kingdom?

First would be our church building project, which we embarked on about 10 years ago. We strongly felt that God was calling us to plant ourselves in this new community, to take over this old rundown cinema. The project was going to cost 10 million dollars, and we had very little money in our bank account.

It was a massive risk when we took the lease on this new building and chose to renovate it. We had a community of followers that we were responsible for. Taking on this huge lease and hiring all these contractors could potentially crush our church, if we weren’t able to pay them all.

Worship at The Vine Centre, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, 2018

 

We were really walking a financial tightrope in those days. But God provided miraculously for us over a three-year period, and we were able to complete the project. That’s still the home that we’re operating out of now, some 10 years later. It’s an amazing thing that God did.

The second risk would be the way we have begun to express ourselves in justice issues. In Hong Kong, the biggest justice issues on our doorstep are political issues. That’s a risky place to be in as a church, because of what we talked about earlier, wanting to ensure that there is a decent amount of separation between church and politics.

“There’s a big difference between a theory of justice and a practice of justice.”

Yet we can’t bury our heads in the sand. We’re a church in Hong Kong that loves Hong Kong and her people. There’s stuff that’s happening that’s impacting the people of Hong Kong and impacting society here. We’ve done a number of things in the last 12 months that I would say were very risky for us to do.

In doing so, we lost some people in our church, which is never what you want. There’s always going to be a cost to risks and sacrifice.

There have been some things that we’ve done that I think were the right things for us to do. Maybe there were some things that we did, that on retrospect, we wouldn’t do again. That’s part of the justice journey. You don’t always get everything right, you don’t always make the right call. You have to go with a lot of prayer and with a lot of thinking and strategy.

I’m deeply proud of the way in which we’ve been able to say some things when we felt like we needed to say them, even though it does come with a big risk at this moment in Hong Kong. I believe that as we listen to the Holy Spirit and respond as a church to the movement of the Holy Spirit, we will take the right risks in this arena.

The third risk would be the depth of the ministry to refugees that we’ve done. It’s very easy to outsource missions, and it’s very easy to outsource justice as a church. It’s a lot harder to actually roll your sleeves up and do justice as a church.

There’s a big difference between a theory of justice and a practice of justice. With our refugee and asylum seeker community, I can say that The Vine has practiced justice. It’s come at a real cost of emotions and finances, and it comes with a weight of responsibility. There is also a spiritual cost, carrying a spiritual responsibility for this group of people.

We’ve really had to make a lot of changes as a church and we’ve had to adapt. But that community has made The Vine what it is today. The men and women from the refugee community have turned our church upside down and blessed us way more than we’ve ever blessed them.

Was it a risk? Yes.

Is that risk ongoing? Yes.

But is it the right thing to do? Absolutely.

And have they blessed us more than we’ve blessed them? Yes.

Let’s say a young believer came to you and said, “I know God has called me to work for justice, but I’m scared of what may happen. How can I handle the risk?” What would you tell them?

I think we have a little problem in the global church at the moment. This is not just for the young generation, but for all generations. I think we’ve become very comfortable in the church.

The church has become an escape from the world. Certainly, there is a beauty of church in this way – it is a place to come and gather together and receive from the Lord. But the church was never designed to be a monastery on the hill, it was always designed to be embedded in the local community, serving and caring for those around us.

Andrew speaking at Vision Sunday at The Vine Centre, Hong Kong, 2019

 

Taking risk involves a lot of thick skin. One of the things that we’ve lost in our generation is the call and willingness to sacrifice. So first I would tell them to pick up their cross and be willing to sacrifice.

The second thing I would tell them is “Know who you are.” When you want to speak up for the marginalized or oppressed, you’re always going to come up against power. You have to know yourself, because you’re going to come under a lot of criticism. At times that criticism will be personal and painful.

It’s not easy to be criticized. It’s not easy to be called names. It’s not easy to have people actively fight against you.

That’s why you have to know who you are. So that when people put labels on you – “You’re a disrupter,” “You’re too liberal,” “You’re not a real Christian,” – you can tell them, “No, actually I know who I am. I know where my heart is, and I know what my theology is. I know what God thinks about me.”

The third thing I would do is remind them of the importance of prayer. I think we’ve lost the urgency for prayer in this generation. We are surrounded by so much information, that I think we’ve lost something of the wonder in the mystery of God.

The beauty of our faith is the wonder and the mystery of God. It’s looking at His power, which we cannot quantify. We can’t google it. The only way we access it is through prayer.

More than ever, prayer is an act of humility. When we pray, we’re basically saying that we don’t have the answers. We don’t know it all. We need someone other than ourselves.

Our generation is very self-sufficient. Prayer is the counterculture to independence, prayer is the way of saying, “Actually, I need to be on my knees. I need God.”

I think we need a bit of a revival in prayer if we’re going to be justice-seekers. The role of prayer and justice is something that is not talked about a lot. But I think it is incredibly important.

Those would be the three things. Pick up your cross. Know yourself. Pray.

Andrew Gardener is the Senior Pastor of The Vine Church in Hong Kong and in 2013 became the co-founder of The Justice Conference Asia. He was originally 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.

Read parts one and two of our discussion with Andrew below:

Justice Issues Should Not Be Separated from the Gospel-mission of the Church

The Core of the Gospel Involves Caring for Orphans and Refugees

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