I am not a fan of Christian conferences.
As a rule, they all tend to be dominated by the same speakers talking about the same things to an audience of more or less the same people. On top of that, they both depend on the Christian celebrity culture to succeed and reinforce that same Christian celebrity culture by their very existence.
Yet when I heard that The Front Porch were going to put on a conference called Just Gospel I registered immediately. While I wasn't sure exactly what to expect, I knew that it would be utterly unique.
I was right. Its uniqueness made the trip from Mexico to Atlanta well worth it (should I mention that the hotel where it was located was two blocks from Bobby Brown Parkway, which I like to believe was named after the King of R&B himself?).
For those who didn't have the opportunity to attend, I'd like to share a few post-conference reflections in hopes that perhaps you might decide to make the trip in 2018.
1. We Don't Have to Choose Between Justice and the Gospel
There are a variety of "gospel" conferences that treat justice as a distraction to, rather than the fruit of, faithfulness to the gospel. There are also a number of "justice" conferences that treat the gospel as either irrelevant to, or an obstacle to, true justice, instead of both the motivation and the means to it. The Just Gospel Conference avoided both errors by wisely introducing us to dozens of real-life men and women who are unquestionably committed to the gospel and who are moved to actively pursue justice because of, not in spite of, their gospel commitment.
Hearing from real people who are doing real work (instead of just celebrity spokespersons) allowed us to move beyond the realm of theoretical discussions about the connection between gospel and justice and into the realm of reality where we could see, feel, taste and touch the intimate relationship between the two. Of course I knew that "justice" and "gospel" were not mutually exclusive terms long before attending the conference. But knowing it and seeing it are two different things.
2. We Don't All Agree on How or Why.
While it was incredibly encouraging to be with a large community of people who are committed to both the gospel and the justice that should flow from it, it was also clear that even within our community there is disagreement on precisely how the relationship should function in practice. It was helpful to hear from these various perspectives, which was possible because the conference organizers chose not to fill the schedule with keynote speakers and instead chose to follow a "front porch" format (most sessions consisted of conversations between 2-6 people seated on stage).
The front porch format permitted open dialogue between people with important disagreements. This was wonderful as it allowed the participants to model grace, listening and empathy and it allowed us, the observers, to learn more broadly than we could have had everyone been on precisely the same page. It also revealed that our community needs theologians and practitioners to continue thinking together and working together that we might grow to increased unity and understanding on these issues.
3. Not one of us can do it all. We need each other.
Even those of us who are most committed to following out the gospel's many implications for justice cannot but scratch the surface. Because of sin, there is simply too much brokenness and injustice in the world for any one of us to be able to make an impact in more than a very small percentage of the areas that need it. Yet, at the same time, because of the gospel, there is not a single injustice that Christians can ignore.
How can we live in the tension between the two?
Much as a baseball team (side note: I have no doubt that baseball is God's favorite sport) consists of a roster of 25 different people working toward a common goal, with each member responsible for his unique role in that mission, so the Church consists of countless brothers and sisters playing their unique role in our shared mission of bringing God's justice to the world. As members of the Church, we can both play our role by passionately fighting against as many specific injustices as our human limitations allow, while also being confident that the other members of our team are playing their role in bringing justice to bear in areas where we cannot.
This allows us at least four benefits.
- It frees us from the guilt and defeatism that one can feel when overwhelmed by the needs of the broken world and our inability to address them all. A pitcher doesn't feel guilty for not being able to contribute with big offensive numbers as long as he is doing his job on the mound and giving his team the best chance to win with what he does offer, knowing that other team members are contributing in the areas he cannot.
- It frees us from the pride that leads us to shame our brothers and sisters who don't play as active of a role in the specific areas that most concern us. A third basemen does not shame the designated hitter for not playing defense, he rejoices that his teammate contributes in the way that best suits his talents in order to help the team reach its goals.
- It frees us from the pride of thinking that the advancement of Jesus' kingdom depends on us. One of the reasons I think baseball is God's favorite sport (blog forthcoming) is because, unlike basketball and football, one superstar player cannot singlehandedly control a game or carry a team. Each player, no matter how talented, only gets to step to the plate around 4 times a game. Which means even the most gifted player has to rely on the other 32 plate appearances made by his teammates. As members of the Church, we are in the same position. We may be putting in work on various justice issues, and seeing fruit, but we will not even see a noteworthy percentage of the justice in the world that Jesus desires if we do not depend on our brothers and sisters to put in work where we are not or cannot. As we do so, we are reminded that Jesus' kingdom does not depend on us and us alone. It depends on his entire team spread out in every country, culture and sub-culture, fighting for justice in every corner of darkness.
- Perhaps the most exciting benefit of seeing the Church as a whole, and not just ourselves and our friends, as Jesus' instrument of justice is that it also frees us to celebrate victories that we played no role in winning. When the star first basemen gets the game-winning hit in the bottom of the 9th he is not the only one on the field celebrating. Every member of the team rushes to the field to celebrate with him. Why? Because that's how teams work. The whole team shares the benefits and successes of each individual's efforts. So it is with the Church. As our brothers and sisters work for justice in their spheres of influence we celebrate their victories as our own for the simple fact that they advance the cause of Christ. And his cause is our only cause.
This is what excited me so much about the Just Gospel conference. I was able to celebrate victories that I played no role in winning as if they were my own. My brothers and sisters are making progress for our team as they fight for justice in issues of gender, race, politics, policing, prison, education, sex trafficking, orphans and more. This was a welcome reminder that I cannot do it all, that I need the Church, and that I have reason to celebrate outside of my own work. It's also a call to actively pray for my team members as they play their role.
These are just some of the things I've been reflecting on since leaving Atlanta. If any of this has in some way piqued your interest, I'd encourage you to watch this wrap-up video in which the hosts evaluate the conference and their own responses to it. Whether in a conference, a church or our own community, we would all do well to imitate their honesty, humility, and awareness of the "other" in the room as we pursue gospel justice.
Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He has over ten years of trans-cultural church planting experience and currently serves as a missionary helping plant & strengthen churches in Mexico City, Mexico. His book, Daddy Issues: How the Gospel Heals Wounds Caused By Absent, Abusive & Aloof Fathers, is now available. Connect with him on twitter or facebook.