Service and Love: Paths to Change

By LeRoy Lawson

Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults Over 50
Amy Hanson
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010

Tea with Hezbollah: Sitting at the Enemies’ Table; Our Journey Through the Middle East
Ted Dekker and Carl Medearis
New York: Doubleday Religion, 2009

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
James Davison Hunter
New York: Oxford University Press, 2010

Imagine my surprise when I heard the seniors’ minister at the dynamic Central Christian Church in Las Vegas, Nevada, was a 23-year-old woman. The seniors’ minister.

Then I met her. My informant hadn’t been joking. Amy Hanson turned out to be a vivacious young woman with a love for God and for people two generations ahead of her. She was an exemplary leader, a model for others who work with this chronologically advanced group. Her passion hasn’t cooled in the years since, either. When she left Central with her husband for ministry elsewhere, she had already decided to pursue a doctoral degree. She got it. In gerontology.

Today she lectures on the subject. She also consults with and prepares churches for the tidal wave of baby boomers now joining America’s geriatric generation. In Baby Boomers and Beyond she writes out her prescriptions. It’s good medicine.

She reminds us of the obvious, that not all older people are alike. There are the frail elderly (85-plus), and the seniors (70 or 75 to 84), and the “new old” (50 to 70, most of them baby boomers). Categorizing by chronology obviously doesn’t tell the whole story, but it serves to remind that when it comes to seniors and seniors’ programs, one size does not fit all.

Hanson urges churches not to ignore today’s changing demographics, not to cling to outdated stereotypes of the elderly, and not to overlook their potential for ministry. As she puts it, what could happen “if we started recognizing the potential for kingdom impact lying dormant among older adults . . . if we reshaped our churches to be more intergenerational?” And as for self-indulgent seniors, what if the church could “call people out of a self-focused retirement lifestyle and into something much greater?”

Hers is a welcome voice. It has grieved me to observe some young leaders ignoring, even rebuffing, longtime members who then feel frozen out of their own congregations. This ought not to be so, Hanson insists. More than that, she offers practical suggestions for making the family of God a real family with an honored place for the grandparents.

And since I am one . . .

Seeking to Love

Jesus said we should love our neighbors as ourselves. He also said we are to love our enemies. To make himself clear, he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. But does anybody get it?

To find out, in 2008 novelist Ted Dekker and Middle East expert Carl Medearis (Tea with Hezbollah) packed their duds and tape recorder and headed out to have tea (that is, to have serious conversations) with some of America’s purported enemies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and finally Israel, disputed home of Christians (a few), Jews, and Muslims. They talked with muftis, sheiks, ayatollahs, rabbis, terrorists, cabbies, and even some bin Laden brothers. They hoped to find somewhere in these treacherous territories a modern-day Good Samaritan. Does anybody anywhere take Jesus seriously? They had already concluded American Christians don’t. Does anyone over there?

As the book follows this daring duo deeper into peril (taking tea with terrorists after scary late-night border crossings and in backroom huddles is not for the timid), it serially divulges the letters of American-born Nicole, whose search to find her real Middle-Eastern father turns into a latter-day parable of the Good Samaritan. It is as gripping a story as the men’s real-life adventures.

If you can read only one book on Muslim-
Jew-Christian relations, or just one on the ever-boiling tensions in the Middle East, this isn’t your book. But if you’re willing to face your own prejudice and deal with our (yours and mine) pathetic dismissal of Jesus’ most important moral teaching, you should take Tea with Hezbollah.

What, finally, did the authors learn? Just this: “Love is the only solution, and nobody does it well. Not Christians, not Muslims, not Jews, not me.”

We already know that. But if we stop trying, what’s the alternative? Bombing each other to death?

The Strategy of Service

As if to prove Dekker’s and Medearis’s point, James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World argues that for Christianity to set out to change the world is precisely the wrong approach to culture. This strategy simply doesn’t work. Besides, that’s not our job. We are not called to change the world, but to serve it.

The University of Virginia professor of religion, culture, and social theory identifies three strategies the church has taken, all of them doomed. They fail because of their elitism: We are superior to you; thus we must try to convert you to be like, think like, and behave like us. “Speaking as a Christian myself,” Hunter writes, “contemporary Christian understandings of power and politics are a very large part of what has made contemporary Christianity in America appalling, irrelevant, and ineffective—part and parcel of the worst elements of our late-modern culture today, rather than a healthy alternative to it.”

Hunter is especially critical of American Christians on the right and left who think that controlling the vote (playing power politics) is a way to change the culture, not because he would have us forsake voting, but because it’s too easy: “It is, after all, much easier to vote for a politician who champions child welfare than to adopt a baby born in poverty, to vote for a referendum that would expand health care benefits for seniors than to care for an elderly and infirmed parent, and to rally for racial harmony than to get to know someone of a different race than yours. True responsibility invariably costs. Political participation, then, can and often does amount to an avoidance of responsibility.”

That’s his point: not the avoidance but the voluntary acceptance of responsibility for serving others—to this we are called.

Christians have traditionally opted for one of three ways to relate to their culture: be relevant to the world, defensive against the world, or pure from the world. But each of these exacts a price. To be relevant costs distinctiveness, as Christians and their institutions look just like everyone else. To take a defensive stance leads to aggressiveness and confrontation on the one hand and to becoming culturally trivial and inconsequential on the other. To be pure results in disengagement and withdrawal.

Over against these failed strategies, Hunter argues for what he calls being a “presence within.” We tend to interpret the Great Commission geographically: get to every area of the planet and make disciples. Hunter thinks “in terms of social structure. The church is to go into all realms of social life: in volunteer and paid labor—skilled and unskilled labor, the crafts, engineering, commerce, art, law, architecture, teaching, health care, and service. Indeed, the church should be sending people out in these realms.”

As one who resists strong-armed tactics to be a world changer, but who has also resisted a prescribed piety that basically retreats from duty, I find Hunter’s thesis a welcome—and doable—challenge. I know I can’t change the world, but in Christ’s name I can serve it. So can my church.

Now it’s time to serve the tea—and not just to Hezbollah.

LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a Christian Standard contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.

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