For better or for worse (and I think worse), evangelicals are known as fighters.
We tend to lead with our moral outrage, which spills out into angry social media posts, menacing speeches at school board and city council meetings, and high profile lawsuits against people who disagree with our values.
We imagine that fighting these battles will help us “win the culture back.”
But I believe that in order to win the culture, we need what conventional wisdom would deem a losing strategy. Not one that comes looking for a fight but instead is defined by self-sacrifice and service and which does “not resist the one who is evil” (Matthew 5:39).
Such a strategy is anathema in many evangelical circles, in which many see it as their sacred duty to remain vigilant about which public libraries and private businesses are hosting drag queen story hours.
As a side note, I truly don’t understand our current obsession with these types of events—on either side of the aisle. I don’t understand the obsession of progressives to host drag queen story hours, and I don’t understand the obsession of conservatives to protest them, when they could just as easily simply not take their children to attend them.
Apart from tribal signaling, drag queen story hours have very little bearing on the everyday lives of our communities. In the end, nothing material to people’s physical well being is gained or lost. (I understand that it is unpopular among evangelicals to not have drag queens living rent free in my head, but here I stand.)
Nevertheless, that isn’t to say that there is never a time to fight. In fact, some recent news stories from across the country have opened my eyes to exactly the kind of fight I can get behind.
In Bryan, Ohio, pastor Chris Avell of Dad’s Place was recently criminally indicted for zoning violations after he opened up his church as a warming shelter to the unhoused individuals in his community amid freezing temperatures.
Avell’s church is located near a night shelter, and Dad’s Place has extended an invitation to anyone whom the shelter can’t help due to capacity or other issues. Eight or so people stay there on any given night, and the service can quite literally be lifesaving in the dead of winter.
After being indicted, and with the city attempting to shut the church down, Avell filed a countersuit, alleging that the city’s complaints about zoning have served as only a thinly veiled attempt to clear the city of unhoused individuals gathering near Dad’s Place, which is at the center of town.
In other words, Avell argues, the city wishes to shoo unhoused individuals to another city so that it doesn’t have to see them mucking about at Dad’s Place.
However, as the lawsuit argues, “No history or tradition justifies the city’s intrusion into the church’s inner sanctum to dictate which rooms may be used for religious purposes, how the church may go about accomplishing its religious mission, or at what hours of the day religious activities are permitted.”
The goal of Avell’s lawsuit is to keep the warming shelter operational and available to whoever needs it.
Avell isn’t the one facing legal consequences for opening his church to unhoused individuals. First Baptist Church in Edwardsville, Illinois, was recently slapped with a daily fine of $750 and a cease and desist order from the city for opening its campus as a warming shelter for unhoused individuals and individuals whose homes do not have heat—again under the auspices of zoning violations.
After public pressure from the church, the local ministries with which it is partnered, and other advocates, the city later altered course and dropped the fines.
Other churches are not facing pressure from the government and yet still are experiencing significant hurdles to keeping people safe and warm.
For example, Denver Friends Church has begun opening its gymnasium to the local unhoused migrant population whenever the temperature drops below freezing. And while the city approves of the church’s efforts and even contributed cots and blankets, the nightly cost to house 29 individuals is about $500. The church has also needed to recruit an army of volunteers to help oversee the shelter, which offers dinner and breakfast, as well as hot showers.
By the time the snow begins to thaw, Denver Friends will likely have spent tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of volunteer hours on sheltering unhoused individuals from a different country and culture who have found themselves out in the cold.
Fighting these battles is making an impact. It is saving lives. It is also disrupting the status quo. To borrow a phrase from the late John Lewis, it is “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Furthermore, it is displaying the kind of radical generosity and self-sacrifice that has always characterized the church when it’s at its best.
When ancient historians described the budding Christian movement, which had broken out within the Roman Empire, they seemed to find the church to be a bizarre group of people. While most Roman citizens tended to be stingy with their resources and generous in giving away their bodies in sex to just about anybody, the Christians were just the opposite. They were generous with their resources and stingy with their bodies.
The Christians took care of the poor—not only their own poor, but the poor outside their midst as well. When Romans discarded unwanted infants, the Christians took them and raised them as their own. When contagious and deadly epidemics caused Roman citizens to flee from cities, the Christians ran to the cities to care for the sick and dying.
What’s more is that the Christians never went to the temples where cultic prostitutes could be found. They didn’t show up to participate, nor did they show up to protest. Frankly, they were much too busy saving other people’s lives to do either.
It was this kind of radical commitment to the well being of others regardless of age, gender, national origin, or social class that caused Roman emperors to begin viewing the church as a threat to the social order of the empire, which was maintained through well-established hierarchies and social stratification.
The Christians were too disruptive to the status quo. So the emperors rained down persecution on them.
And yet, the church didn’t stop doing what it was doing. As a result, this group of people that was once viewed as a threat to the empire over time came to be seen as a necessary evil. After all, the Christians were caring for so many of the needs of the citizenry that they actually fostered greater social peace. Sometime after that, Christianity moved from being seen as a necessary evil to being the dominant force in the highest places of Roman government.
We have a great tradition of radical love for others. And the good news is that there are those among us who are carrying the torch of that tradition, many of them at great personal cost.
May we all consider how we might do the same.
We should be so generous, so inclusive, so indiscriminately loving that it makes non-Christians suspicious. We should be so ludicrously self-sacrificial that people actually tell us to stop.
And then, we should just not stop.