“This, is a Lifetime Project.”

The words of James K.A. Smith during his closing session at the 2014 Horizons Conference in Chattanooga, TN could not have been more poignant. The conference, which focused on what it looks like for the Church to involve itself in the “common good” of the city, needed this close. We needed it because, while it is easy to believe the best about what we might accomplish in the future, it is not very often that we admit to ourselves that there is a strong possibility that the best days of the Christian faith lay still ahead, in a place we may never see.

The headline speakers, Andy Crouch and K.A. Smith, spoke to the obvious need for Christians to be involved in the public spaces of our cities (with special emphasis on the arts). Both, however, made a point of addressing the size of the task before us. The problems we face now in the world (like poverty, injustice, and trafficking) and the ones we face in the church (like immorality, over-condemnation of culture, and escapism) Crouch noted, cannot be solved overnight. “It took a 100 years to get ourselves into this situation. It might (and probably will) take another 100 to fix it.” It is only when we accept the monstrous nature of the task before us, that we can begin to pave the way for our children and grandchildren to see our work to its consummation. All things real and deep and true take time to blossom. This is a theme we too often miss in scripture.

So what does this slow road look like? K.A. Smith had some great advice for how to begin the path to the “common good”. I’ll list his “Augustinian principles for cultural engagement” and then translate them because, let’s be real, he uses some confusing words.

1. Even disordered loves attest to creational desires.

Even the places in our culture where the central pursuit of people has no rooted focus toward faith in Christ, we must still recognize the image of God in the good creative acts of humanity. In other words, whenever anyone anywhere creates something good, it is a testament to the character and nature of God. We should celebrate good work wherever it can be found.

2. Every critique is “ad hoc”.

Oftentimes as cultural “critique-rs”, Christians have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. What Smith is saying here is that all no critique is applicable to all people in all situations. Just because something is done wrong the first time doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried again in an attempt to “get it right” the on the second.

3. Recognize penultimate congruence even when there is ultimate divergence.

Even if you disagree about the end goals of your common good pursuits with your neighbor, there is still room to agree on where to begin. Here’s an example: When you serve those experiencing homelessness your eventual goal is to see them come to faith while your neighbor may only care about helping them off of the street. Even though you disagree about the ends, you can both work together on the beginning: to help that person get a place to stay and a sustainable job. In other words, we should almost always be able to find some way to work with others even if we have deep places of disagreement.

4. Don’t lose your eschatology: Cultivate a teleological sensibility

It is possible, in pursuit of the above principles, that you can begin to forget your ultimate goal. To hold on to your eschatology is to never forget how all of our stories end: with Christ’s return and the merger of the heavens and new earth; to life ever lasting. Cultivating a teleological sensibility, then, is to always remember the answer to the question, “Why am I doing this?”

It is a well known fact that all generations react to the decisions (for good or ill) of their parents and grandparents. Wisdom would dictate, however, that we take great care to make sure we do not over-react. As we seek to make a difference in a world of many different beliefs and points of view, there are a plethora of places where we can do good and there are a plethora of places where we can really screw things up. After spending time reflecting on the wisdom imparted to me at this conference, our generation’s greatest challenges are clear to me. We must learn to work hard without expecting too much, to collaborate without losing a vision of our purpose, and seek the good of our neighborhoods today while still hoping for a future, yet unseen, where our best arguments for the common good on both sides will all become a moot point.


Image used under the creative commons license courtesy of MTSOfan: http://bit.ly/1mmOlUS