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Agents of Transformation: NACSW’s Potential to Bridge a Longstanding Theological Divide

The mission statement of our church is a bit unusual.  After months of prayer and soul searching, this is what emerged: Level Ground Community Church seeks to be a thriving example of the power of God; agents of Jesus Christ fostering transformation in people, places, and systems.  As we unveiled it to the small body of congregants gathered for a business meeting, there was confusion. People understood transforming people, but places and systems?

Level Ground Community Church (LGCC) is an inner city church plant that meets in the common room of an apartment building in the Hollygrove neighborhood of New Orleans. We are unusual. Our pastoral team is comprised of three co-equal pastors, two African American and one white.  Worship is a hodgepodge of music and preaching styles. The congregation is a mixture of races, economic levels, age, and educational attainment.  The leadership team is a combination of races, gender, laypeople and clergy. This unique church required an uncommon mission statement.

Oh, by the way, it is a Southern Baptist Church (SBC). With historical roots in fundamentalist theology, the SBC has focused significant effort in personal, spiritual transformation. One makes a personal commitment, to a personal Lord and Savior, engages in a personal walk with Christ, through spiritual disciplines like personal devotions and personal quiet time. The focus is on the person and the theological approach is highly individualistic. This is why our members had difficulty understanding the more corporate aspects of the mission statement, the focus on place and systems.

The North American church has experienced a personal evangelism versus social justice divide for approximately the last 100 years. More conservative theological views stress the importance of individual transformation, the relationship between an individual and Jesus that leads to abundant and eternal life. Less conservative views support the primacy of the social elements of the Gospel, stressing the importance of God’s shalom as manifested in areas like power, gender, race, money, etc. Most Christians identify themselves somewhere along this spectrum.

Christians in social work, however, diligently seek to bridge such micro-macro divisions. The social work perspective enables us to contextualize an individual in a milieu comprised of social forces acting to shape thoughts and behavior. As Christians we read scripture with an ability to join the elements of individual transformation and those of social transformation in novel ways. Our professional and spiritual identities inform each other and have potential to offer the church a way of re-envisioning what has long divided us.

This is exactly what happened at LGCC. Our newly minted SBC-trained pastors had a passion for personal evangelism and individual discipleship. The social forces impacting the community where they wished to plant their church did not factor into their view of the mission of the Gospel, it was not part of their theological training.  Their theological perspective, however, was challenged by several seasoned community activists and one macro social worker who were invited to serve on the church leadership team.

Together we combed the Bible to understand God’s heart for places, such as Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44), Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-2), and Babylon (Daniel 3:28-29). We worked to grasp how God’s shalom was enacted to counter systemic evils, including the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-55), Jesus clearing the Temple (John 2:13-17), and the early church’s approach to ministry equity (Acts 6:1-4). Eventually we arrived at a mission statement that described a more holistic approach to doing the ministry of the Gospel, one that encompassed the elements of personal, spiritual transformation but also embraced the importance of neighborhood and systemic transformation.

Like most SBC churches, LGCC has evangelistic outreach events, routine altar calls, weekly Bible studies, and frequent prayer meetings. We also clear vacant lots, build backyard water retention ponds, serve on the boards of a local school and neighborhood association, and are founding members of Together New Orleans, a faith-based community organizing group that challenges political and social injustice. Our congregants still struggle to understand the mission statement, especially those from traditional SBC backgrounds. At times, we continue to disagree about the appropriate amount of effort we need to expend in each of the missional areas. But we are actively seeking personal, spiritual transformation while simultaneously working to challenge and address the social forces that impact our neighborhood and city.

One of the distinct pleasures of my membership in NACSW has been the willingness of Christ’s people to explore the difficult terrain that often divides the church. Our professional training helps us understand the inter-connectedness of the individual and the social. Our common faith leads us to seek God’s shalom in difficult places (including, sometimes, NACSW itself). We have a unique ability to bridge the theological gulf that has divided those who stress the primacy of the personal gospel and those who stress the social gospel.

There is a small SBC church plant in the Hollygrove neighborhood of New Orleans that has been influenced by you as well.

Kevin Brown has been teaching Christian community development ministries in at-risk, urban communities in North America and beyond for a number of years at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He is currently vice president of NACSW’s Board of Directors, and has been a member of NACSW since 2009.

8 thoughts on “Agents of Transformation: NACSW’s Potential to Bridge a Longstanding Theological Divide

  1. I found this post so encouraging. I grew up in the SBC tradition, and after college I moved to an urban area, became acutely aware of social needs, and became a social worker. For the first time, I began to understand systemic injustice and to see how the theology of my past was solely focused on individual piety. This paradigm shift in my own life wasn’t met by confusion and skepticism from my previous church community, who seemed to believe that my new concern for social justice was simply me becoming a “liberal”. It hurt to be misunderstood in this way. By God’s grace we found a church’s in our city that is in the PCA tradition but is otherwise very similar to what’s yoive described in your article. It hasn’t been a place of healing and growth for us all!

    1. Thanks for the encouraging reply. I can relate to your struggles.

      To be an evangelical once meant walking the razor's edge between individual piety with an evangelistic focus and social action. We don't think of George Mueller as a "liberal" and yet he built orphanages to help children displaced during the industrial revolution. We don't think of D.L. Moody as a "liberal" and yet his Sunday School movement was designed to to teach reading to children who could not attend school because they were working full time jobs. It was assumed that Christ's great work in the lives of the redeemed would manifest in social action. Somewhere in the last 100 years we have lost the understanding that Christ's redemptive work is enacted both in the here-and-now as well as the yet-to-come.

  2. “We have a unique ability to bridge the theological gulf that has divided those who stress the primacy of the personal gospel and those who stress the social gospel.” Yes, easier said than done. Thanks for your thoughtful blog!

  3. Kim, thanks for the encouraging words. I pray that NACSW would become the place where those on the left and those on the right can forge a new paradigm that will positively impact the work of the Kingdom.

    1. Kevin. I may have that paradigm in my forthcoming book – Being Becoming: Integrative Paradigms. It is designed to reform all healthcare professions. It is of the caliber to change Systems theory and how it is assembled in standard social work pedagogy. I also have a 5.5 hour multimedia course already complete. I am considering offering the first unit through NACSW for their treasury… if you or anyone wants to review the entire course for free, let me know.

      1. Sounds awesome, Richard. I love it when a paradigm shifts! Keep me posted about new developments.

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