Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Growing Up Well: Reconciling Piety and Engagement

The May/June 2008 issue of Relevant Magazine features key thinkers in the Christian community answering questions about “burning issues” like war, consumerism and homosexuality. Question number one is, “Is our focus on social justice out of balance?” A theme in the responses, particularly in comments made by Jim Wallis and Shane Claiborne, is that social justice and evangelism should not be considered separate things that Christians need to attempt to “balance;” rather, they’re both part of an all-things, wholly encompassing faith in Jesus. Talking about balance assumes that one without the other can be complete. Wallis explains, “If we’re not calling people into deeper levels of personal relationship with God, we’re not taking the Gospel seriously. If we’re not engaging the world, bringing empowerment to the marginalized and addressing the specific injustices of our time, we’re also not taking the Gospel seriously. It’s that simple.”

For me, related to the question of balancing things that shouldn’t be separate in the first place is the false dichotomy of personal piety and cultural engagement. In my work with students at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I’ve met many Christian students who want to take personal piety and leave cultural engagement. These students, the Devotees, are kind and diligent and thoughtful. They attend chapel regularly and they strive toward daily disciplines like prayer and devotions. They are leaders in their dorm communities who readily head up mission trips and start Bible studies. I’ve also met many Christian students who want to take cultural engagement and leave piety. These students, the Engagers, tend to be well-read intellectuals with broad artistic taste. They like to do wonderfully nerdy things like discuss films and go to museums.

While both types of students are passionately living into a vision of Christian faithfulness, they’re both lacking a particular type of rootedness that threatens the fullness of their identity as followers of Christ. The Devotees have grown a deep taproot through scriptural study, service and spiritual disciplines, but lack the nutrients that can be gained by sending roots out into the soil around them, which eventually starves the whole tree. The Engagers, on the other hand, continue to send horizontal roots further and further out into their cultural context, but risk being blown over by a strong gust of wind because they have weak centering rituals reinforcing their primary story of faith.

Do you identify yourself with one of these types of believers? Most of us tend to have a bias one way or another, but a healthy, mature tree has both a strong tap root and diverse, widely spreading horizontal roots that help it flourish, different kinds of roots that all feed the same healthy organism. Mature believers, that is those who see the interconnectedness of all things in the Kingdom of God, contribute together toward a healthy, diverse forest of believers that serves the whole world as a manifestation of the Creator.

So how do we become such mature believers? Praying unceasingly might be a good place to start. And by unceasing prayer, I don’t mean only on our knees in the chapel where the Devotees might gravitate, or through exclusively intellectual exercise that is the specialty of the Engagers (though both activities have their places). Rather, unceasing prayer is a communal orienting of all of our branches and growth toward the Light. Eugene Peterson offers some clues about how to do this in The Message: “So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering” (from Romans 12:1). What would it look like if our choice of transportation to work were an offering to God? How could a meal itself—the shopping, the preparation, the eating—communicate our love for Jesus, in addition to a prayer of gratitude before we eat? What rituals can help us turn off some of the noise from both inside and outside of ourselves to discern the voice of the Spirit?

We all have unique callings in the Kingdom. However, what we all have in common is the call to devote our whole selves—heart, soul, mind and strength—to the God whose Kingdom has implications for every square inch of life. Personal piety and cultural engagement, social justice and evangelism are all aspects of, as Wallis puts it, “taking the Gospel seriously.”

--Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma and her husband Rob share the Research and Program Coordination position in the Student Activities Office at Calvin College.

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