For the last 12 years I've travelled to several parts of the world and seen some of the worst poverty and cultural decay imaginable. The one principle that I've come away with after being on the ground, and reading thousands of pages of Christian social teaching, is that church planting and preaching the gospel alone do not create the conditions for human flourishing. Many contemporary evangelicals seem to have developed a myopic view of God redeeming the whole creation that reduces human flourishing as a church-based activity--especially the hearing of sermons. The reduction follows this way: if only community X had more gospel centered-churches then the community X would flourish. Historically in the West, there has never been human flourishing without flourishing institutions other than the church like businesses, for example. After all, "work constitutes a foundation for the formation of family life, which is a natural right and something that man is called to," as one tradition teaches. This reduction sadly has had costly implications with respect to what the many churches currently teaches about vocation and calling.

While the church has been the center of social change, and the cultivation of the common good from the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions alike, sustainable social change was never envisioned without the necessary role, creation, and development of other institutions like primary and secondary education, colleges and universities, seminaries, hospitals, orphanages, mental health institutions, business and economic institutions, political governance institutions, philanthropic institutions and charities, social development institutions like the Boy Scouts and the YMCA, and the like. These were seen as necessary means by which the work of the church is enriched by Christians and sustainable social flourishing occurs in the midst a world of pain, suffering, and injustice. Not an "if/then" but a "both/and." Christians established churches and launched schools, orphanages, and so on, concurrently and successively. This was the norm in the West for several centuries. Where is this spirit today?

As Wesleyan University explains:

The earliest universities, in early medieval Italy, trained their students in canon law;       subsequently theology came to be studied, and then the humanities. Almost every university and college founded in the U.S. and Europe until the mid-19th century—and many afterwards—was founded by some religious organization (including Wesleyan, of course). The degree of control exercised by these varied, but it is safe to say that no college or university has been unaffected by the Christian background of the university.
The development of parliaments and other representative institutions was also influenced by Christian institutions, since there was (at least nominal) election of the higher church officials and, besides being constituents in representative assemblies, regularly met in their own convocations or synods.
In most countries relief of the poor was a responsibility of the churches, and modern welfare legislation, although administered by the state, inherits the sense of moral responsibility for the poor which grows out of Christian social teaching. Hospitals also were founded by religious orders, and medical care was overseen by officials of the church. Economic institutions also grew out of the practices of the church (monks invented double-entry bookkeeping) and out of certain aspects of Protestant piety (Max Weber’s famous “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”). The interaction of Christianity and modern institutions continues, and poses a distinctive set of challenges for the choices facing policy-makers today.

Planting churches does not reduce unemployment, teach children math and science, nor build office spaces structurally that affirm humanity dignity, and so on, but the church does shape the people who can make those spaces thrive in ways that glorify God and help people.

What, then, does this mean? Simply this: if you have a heart for justice and community revitalization in areas where there has been injustice and/or people are struggling to survive maybe the best thing you can do is open a business, run for city council, become an elementary school teacher, a police offer or an EMT, and so on, instead of reducing what God does to orient people toward how he intends for them to live only and exclusively inside the church. As we see in the first six chapters of Daniel, God uses his people living in exile, working in all sorts of spaces outside the church, to fulfill his mission in his world. We need God's people seeking God's glory in the church but also outside of it.

Many conservative evangelicals seem to have lost this classical Christian understanding of building ancillary institutions alongside the church so that communities thrive for the glory of God. It's been such a profound disappoint in recent years to hear leaders who are such enthusiastic advocates for the need for church planting and orthodox churches to be the leaders that do not advocate for the building of Christian institutions like schools and other intermediate (mediating) institutions. In fact, some of the these leaders discourage Christians from participating in the building of Christians institutions and discourage sending the church's children to Christian schools for the sake of mission unaware of the fact that Christian schools are an aspect of God's mission in local communities. The result is that we have generation of young adults, especially men, who believe that the most faithful way to serve the mission of the kingdom (Christ's reign over all things) is in the church alone, when it may actually be, for some of them, in the arts, business, or law, just to name a few.

Resources:

Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, by Al Wolters

Wisdom And Wonder, by Abraham Kuyper

Desiring The Kingdom, by James A. K. Smith

The Tragedy of American Compassion, by Marvin Olasky

For the Life of the World, video series

The Calvinist Concept of Culture, Henry Van Til

God At Work, by Gene Edward Veith

Every Good Endeavor, by Tim Keller

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, by Max Weber

Laborem exercens, Pope John Paul II

The Political Economy of Liberation, Anthony B. Bradley

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AuthorAnthony Bradley