by Eddie Pipkin
Last week I wrote about using the iconic biblical passage from Micah 6:8 as a guide for best management practices for leaders. This week we’ll expand on that idea by using the same Spirit-inspired directive to think about the influential community impact a local church can have if it pursues those inspiring values: “Do justice; love mercy; walk humbly.” Living with those goals as a day-to-day guide can change a life, a church, or a neighborhood.
The “doing” of justice means not just that we are saying all the right things (although that, in itself, is an important first step and would be notable progress for some congregations). It means we are thoughtfully pursuing justice-oriented initiatives, both responding to events as they happen and creating long-term engagement with stubborn social issues.
For instance, there was a lot of emphasis on issues of racial reconciliation a couple of summers ago when protests erupted over the killing of George Floyd, but many of these have petered out over time. It is the difference between a one-off response to a highly visible news event, which can mean prayer vigils and ‘days of remembrance,’ and the hard work and persistence required of initiatives that build lasting change. As demonstrated by this past week’s horrific racially provoked shooting in Buffalo, racial injustice is alive and well, and moving beyond a ‘thoughts and prayers’ response to an active engagement in ministries of racial reconciliation and healing would be one of the roles of a Micah 6:8 church.
The need for justice in any individual community (as defined by zip code) is uniquely dependent upon context. Issues from economic insecurity to crumbling infrastructure to the opioid crisis to the mental health crisis present themselves with dramatic clarity within the lives of those who worship and pray with us. The question, whatever the issue is – there are no shortage of crises from which to choose – but the question is how we will respond? Will we respond with platitudes and empty gestures, or will we respond with resources and hard work and a commitment to long-term engagement?
And while I wrote of the need to move beyond ‘mere words’ where social justice is concerned, the first step for any congregation is making sure that our words are consistently promoting our commitment to God’s vision for the value of all humans. This should be forefront of all published communications and digital platforms. There should never be any doubt about where we stand on issues of human dignity.
The expression of mercy within our local church communities is all about establishing that ALL people are welcome.
We should communicate that welcome in as many forums as possible, as loudly as possible, and we should share stories of what that welcome / citizenship looks like for the people who are an active part of church families. This is critically true of people from marginalized communities, and it’s doubly critically true for people who have historically been marginalized by the church itself. Give people a chance to share their own witness about how they have found welcome and experienced purpose by becoming a part of your fellowship.
Practicing mercy also means that we create a culture of forgiveness among our people. We should be actively training folks in reconciliation techniques, living out the power of forgiveness in our dealings with all, and equipping our people to go out into their homes, workplaces, and schools and be agents of forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation.
Mercy is also expressed through simple kindness, and this is one area in which local congregations have shown a flair for inspiring people to action. It is a concept that can be easily grasped, and it lends itself to endless personal variation and creative expression. It most often manifests in the mantra of “paying it forward,” and while there is useful positivity in sharing stories of paying a stranger’s bill in the Starbucks drive-through, churches can help people consider far deeper expressions of living radical lives of kindness and selfless service.
Walking humbly may seem, of the three Micah 6:8 values, to be most oriented towards individuals rather than institutions, but institutional humility is a powerful force. It is perhaps most viscerally understood by using the little trick of perspective that we used in last week’s blog: thinking about what the opposite value looks like. You might find it hard to articulate exactly what a humble institution looks like, but you’ll have little trouble thinking of an example of an arrogant institution. Arrogant institutions run roughshod over the needs of the community (and they often run roughshod even over the needs of their own members).
- Arrogant institutions are selfish. They look out for their own interests first. That means they set their priorities around the preservation of the institution and are averse to any change that would mean sacrifice or giving up long-established habits. You’ll note that, sadly, this is the condition that marks many local church congregations that are floundering in the face of demographic and cultural change. Arrogant institutions lose sight of the greater biblical vision and become focused on preserving their internal culture and traditions at all costs (even the withering away of the institution itself).
- Arrogant institutions don’t listen. They are not interested in hearing voices beyond their own doors. They are fine-tuned to prioritize the complaints and concerns of their own members, particularly those members with status and power, and they do not seek out expressions of the needs and desires or the hopes and dreams of the people who make up the community in the surrounding streets and neighborhoods. (They often assume that their own needs and dreams are synonymous with those of the surrounding neighborhoods, since this was once true, but may no longer be true. Sometimes the gap is patently wide. Sometimes the boundaries of what constitutes a ’neighborhood’ or ‘community’ need to be expanded if we are to find and aid people who need our help and support.)
- Arrogant institutions are bullies. (Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should do it.) Such institutions seek to have their own way and can be vocal and even confrontational about that way having. Beyond ignoring the needs of the surrounding community, such institutions sometimes actively work against community priorities, rebuffing partnerships with other community organizations, taking stands against civic initiatives that would benefit the greater community, and allowing their campuses to sit idle for most of the week when that space could be used for good by other community organizations.
- Arrogant institutions don’t have good manners. This is an extension or variation of the point about ‘bullies,’ but its expression can be more subtle, more passive-aggressive in execution. Our signage can send signals that we are looking down our nose at the community (from ‘keep out’ signage to ‘get right with God’ signage). Our leadership can be dismissive of people when participating in public governance sessions or economic forums. We can create an unfortunate ‘club member’ vibe if we aren’t careful. It is always best to be polite and, when possible, deferential, just like mama taught us, even when we are disagreeing with someone.
“Don’t be an arrogant church” is a great first principle when considering ways to be a humble church. The principles of humility and community presence are straightforward, although they can be difficult to consistently practice:
- Humble churches don’t think they know everything or have all the answers.
- Humble churches are collaborative and partnering churches.
- Humble churches are willing to ‘take one for the team’ and sacrifice a little if that sacrifice is for the greater good of the community.
- Humble churches are not insistent in getting all the credit (or else refusing to participate in a community project). They like to step back and let other institutions shine!
- Humble churches are generous. They actively support and invest in causes beyond their own campus beautification and staff engorgement.
- Humble churches support other projects and community initiatives that align with their vision (even if – take a deep breath – those initiatives are led by other churches). If people are being fed, housed, kept safe, empowered to earn their own way, experiencing recovery from addiction, or finding spiritual enlightenment, humble churches are more interested in giving support to those initiatives than they are in promoting their own homegrown programs and events.
Be humble, churches. Institutional humility grows from leadership that is humble. It grows from the repetition and exploration of the biblical principle of humility in all facets of your congregation’s worship and preaching.
How is your church doing at living out the Micah 6:8 principles of pursuing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly? Can you point to clear institutional initiatives for each of those categories? What is your church’s reputation in the community? Do people automatically think of your congregation as committed to fighting for justice? As a beacon of welcome, safety, healing, and creative expressions of kindness and care? Would your nearby neighbors automatically think of your congregation as arrogant or humble? As an isolated island of Bible thumpers or as an engaged and inspiring, beloved community partner?