Middle East Consultation 2021 Recap Series: “The Church’s Engagement with Society”

Middle East Consultation 2021 Recap Series: Leadership Development
November 4, 2021
Responding to Political Crises: A Gospel-Centered Framework
November 18, 2021

By Martin Accad

From September 30 to October 2, ABTS hosted the Middle East Consultation 2021 entitled Towards a Dynamic Church: Making Disciples, Developing Leaders, and Engaging Society in Lebanon and Beyond.” During the three-day online event, we invited local, regional, and global voices to consider urgent matters of faith and witness for churches. Two weeks ago, we published a blog post by Warrick Farah, where he reflected on day one of the consultation, Disciple Making. Last week’s blog post was a reflection by Elie Haddad on day two of the consultation, Developing Leaders. This week’s blog post is a reflection by Martin Accad on day three of the consultation, Engaging Society.

 

My reflection on the church’s engagement with society builds on an interview carried out by my faculty colleague, Emad Botros, with Alia Abboud and Maher el Hajj, two leaders of two Christian organizations whose ministries have evolved, particularly since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, into active engagement in mercy works. A regional perspective was provided by Samira Luka sharing from her Egyptian context and the work of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services. We also heard that day from Greg Okesson, a theologian at Asbury Seminary in the US, who provided a helpful framework to think about the church’s engagement in a “Public Missiology.” Okesson’s contribution is worthy of a blog post in and of itself.

It was striking to hear that both the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (Alia’s ministry), and Youth for Christ-Lebanon (Maher’s ministry), had been very intentional in engaging in mercy ministries in response to the Syrian crisis. Their decision to do so always through local churches was aligned with their core missions, which had always consisted in the strengthening and empowerment of the local church, rather than in carrying out development and relief work with beneficiaries directly. By doing so, both organizations acted as bodies that believe they are part of the church rather than marginal and parallel to it – a healthy challenge to an old and unhealthy dichotomy. Through them, scores of churches in Lebanon and Syria saw their capacities built for more effective educational, health, and relief ministries.

My theological contribution consists of a two-part reflection on the relationship between the church and Christian organizations. Following my initial presentation at the MEC’s third day, I further discussed its contents with a couple of pastors who helped me moderate and nuance my perspective and do better justice to the diversity that has always existed in the church.

The dichotomy between “spiritual ministry” and “social action” was a dilemma within the evangelical church that was identified and seriously addressed by the Lausanne Movement in its early days, as reflected in the Lausanne Covenant of 1974:

We express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive (Article 5. “Christian Social Responsibility”)

But the evangelical church in the MENA region has not always taken these words to heart, and with some notable exceptions, the dichotomy has continued to dominate our region particularly among the more conservative segments of our tradition.

The Tension between Holism and “All-ism”

The church is called to serve persons and society holistically. This is what Jesus’s ministry to society looked like. We do not see any hierarchy between his various activities of healing, feeding, teaching, restoring hope, forgiveness of sins, and liberation from evil powers. Jesus gathered all these acts of service under the mandate of proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19).

But how can the church take on such a diverse ministry? Is it called to become all in all? Should it open schools and hospitals? Should churches transform into relief and development organizations, into NGOs? Christians are certainly called to serve in such ministries, just as they are called to live out the ethics of the kingdom of God in the marketplace, as cashiers in a supermarket, salespersons in a retail store, tellers at a bank, builders in a construction company, workers at a car dealership, or civil servants in government. This is “incarnational ministry.” But should the church open supermarkets and retail stores, banks and construction companies, and car dealerships? Should it take over the government of a country and form security forces for law enforcement and border protection?

There certainly are churches who feel called to such ministries, and mission endeavors have always engaged in education and health ministries. This would be referred to as “invitational ministry” rather than “incarnational.” Some pastors feel strongly about the need for the church to address every need in society directly. It is true that there is some precedent in the Bible for such a view, when one thinks of the early church in the book of Acts, but such activities seem to have addressed very specific direct needs for food and care of widows and orphans. I personally favor a vision of the church that engages in pastoral care in the community, certainly showing concern for the whole person and the diversity of their needs, but also willing to engage in partnership with specialized sectors in society, such as educational and health professionals, as they seek to fulfill their vision for holistic service.

Both churches and Christian organizations who choose to engage directly in such services must reckon with risks and seek ways to mitigate them. First, they must resist the risk of megalomania – the belief that everything should happen “through us.”

Second, as individual believers in the body of Christ, we must resist the tendency to become “patrons” of service ministries to society. Some churches will set up a specialized branch in the church, whose mandate is to distribute food, to care for the sick, or reach out to the broken. Remaining church members (the majority) will be involved only through tithing, as they otherwise go back to “life as usual” on Monday morning. The motivation of the church to do this is commendable as it faces overwhelming human need, but might it also rob other church members, and the faith community as a whole, from the blessing of serving the whole human person in their neighbors and families in need around them through direct ministry?

A third danger is to start relying almost exclusively on outside money (usually from the West) in order to provide relief to our neighbors, instead of relying on our own resources as a faith community. Extreme situations, such as the ones our region is facing, make a high degree of external reliance necessary at times. But we must be careful that this does not become the dominant culture of our faith community.

Fourth, the church’s heavy engagement in relief work may provoke confusion in the motivations of those in need – a confusion between material and spiritual need. The risk of people coming to church with the primary purpose of obtaining aid will increase dramatically. And churches may struggle to preserve their reputation for good stewardship in financial matters and human care, as they come under great scrutiny and may be subjected to unfair criticism by those who might feel resentful and entitled to more than they have received.

What could be an alternative?

I dream of a church that, as a community, focuses on holistic care for entire persons. Church families who learn to live humbly so that they can share with others from their own resources. A “twinning” of each church family with another struggling with poverty. Church families that accompany this ministry with prayer and a search for comprehensive social and economic solutions. Believers who journey with poorer families as they seek to come out of their condition in the longer term through sustainable approaches that preserve their human dignity.

I dream of a community of believers who are so reconciled with positive forces in society that they are willing to partner with specialized ministries, organizations, and companies in the community. Just as we use a referral system to health professionals for physical and psychological illnesses, and just as we take our car to a specialized mechanic, we have the possibility of referring extreme social and relief cases to specialized organizations with whom we can partner in the service of society.

The Tension between the Kingdom of God and the “kingdoms” of Local Churches

When Protestant missions crossed the seas into our region in the nineteenth century, they adopted a comprehensive approach to social transformation, particularly in the sectors of education and health. They established schools, universities, and hospitals. In normal times, it may be sufficient for local churches to reach out to marginal pockets in the community with limited and focused initiatives of literacy, primary health care, and basic social services. But there are times, I would argue, when common social good should prevail over the private interests of local churches.

What good is it to develop small educational programs for 60–100 children, for the most part not recognized or certified by the state, while hundreds of thousands of children in Lebanon today remain without access to primary education? It is good and commendable when a local church sees a need in the community and decides to respond practically. But have we stopped for a moment and imagined the grave consequences of allowing an entire generation or more to remain without primary education? Do our small church-based clinics really cover the massive health needs of the local as well as refugee communities of Lebanon today?

Right now, we stand before a forgotten generation. The danger is that the local church could become complacent, comforted by the thought that it runs its own informal educational program and its own dispensary that offers primary healthcare. But absent is a comprehensive vision for rescuing society from the imminent danger of total fragmentation.

Many local churches have been collaborating more than they ever have in the past, but is it time for a broader collective vision? Infrastructures for comprehensive solutions are there, both in the educational and health sectors. There is an entire network of Evangelical schools, another of Catholic schools, and another of Orthodox schools. Similarly, we have prestigious health institutions rooted in the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions. However, many of these institutions that began as missions of the church gradually adopted a business model and have become accustomed to operating on at least break-even basis, if not often also on profit-making basis.

If local church institutions were to partner with the global church community, these infrastructures could be used to respond to the needs of the entire society in these utterly disorienting times. I want to propose that these institutions may need to seek international assistance so that they can offer quasi-free services to the poorest families for a limited period – 3 to 5 years – in these exceptional times. As the society gradually returns to normalcy, this extreme assistance may return incrementally to a more sustainable model.

In conclusion, Lebanon is going through nearly unprecedented historical circumstances. These should be confronted by taking courageous positions and by adopting an unprecedented vision for collaboration both locally and internationally, so that the local church may act compassionately and redemptively toward society in these exceptional times. With such an approach, we may be able to fight collective depression, poverty, and emigration. We may be able to recover the biblical understanding of “disciple-making” through comprehensive witness of the church in society. This is how we would plow the field and plant the seeds that future generations of the church will harvest: social peace, spiritual thirst, and a solid reputation for the church as a body that stands in solidarity with those who hurt in tough times, for the service of God and society.

Martin is an associate professor of Islamic Studies at ABTS and directs the research group Action Research Associates.

1 Comment

  1. Mike Kuhn says:

    Helpful thoughts Martin. Your comments spur us on to aspire to a larger impact in our societies. You point in the direction of the collective potential of the church working collaboratively across denominations. Thanks for that.

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