A Review of
Becoming A Just Church: Cultivating Communities of God’s Shalom
Reviewed by Joshua Rhone
“I am a liability in the work of justice.” So begins Adam Gustine’s book on justice, the church, and God’s plans for creation (3). If what Adam sets forth in the remainder of the book is to be believed, and I think that it is, that statement is true, not just of him, but of many of us, as well as the churches to which we belong.
Gustine explains in the introduction that the problem is that the church, and evangelical church in particularly, has treated justice as an outreach; an add-on; or, in some instances, as something that can be outsourced to a parachurch ministry or organization. The reasons for this are numerous, ranging from the pragmatic to the theological. It is the theological, particularly the ecclesiological and soteriological aspects of evangelical theology, that Adam addresses in the sections and chapters that follow.
Before delving into the sections, chapters, and the theological argument that Gustine makes, it would behoove us to stop and identify two terms that are utilized repeatedly throughout the book, and will, undoubtedly, appear in this review. First, Adam defines justice as, “[T]he presence of God’s shalom. That is God’s wholeness, where, as some say, nothing is missing and nothing is broken” (14). It is a definition rooted in the work and teaching of the Rev. Dr. John Perkins and his involvement with the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). Second, throughout the book, Gustine often employs the term “shalom.” He cautions his readers early on that it is a term that he will use interchangeably with “justice,” (14) which, indeed, he does. In such instances, it is imperative to remember the latter part of how Gustine defines justice, as “God’s wholeness, where, as some say, nothing is missing and nothing is broken.” (14)
Definitions aside, we now turn our attention to the substance of the book. Becoming A Just Church is written in three parts or sections. In Part 1, Adam seeks to construct a theological vision for justice and its relationship to church. It is important to note that in the chapters that comprise this section, he wrestles with some rather foundational concerns, such as: the church’s identity and the church’s witness and engagement with the world. Part 2 focuses on ecclesial practices and the ways in which justice flourishes and/or falters in those spaces and practices. The third and final part is an opportunity for the reader to wrestle with the question, “So, now what? What do we do and how then do we live and minister in light of all that has been said?”
In Part 1, entitled “An Ecclesiology for Justice,” Gustine turns his readers’ attention to the church and its nature and purpose. He believes that evangelicalism has made a fundamental error, conceptualizing justice as an expression of the Great Commission rather than of the Great Commandment. Adam contends:
…framing justice as outreach is theologically inaccurate. The Scriptures do not frame the work of justice as a means to the end of evangelism. The commands “to loose the chains of injustice,” to “break the yoke of bondage,” and to see to it that widows, orphans, and immigrants flourish are rarely portrayed as missional outreach strategy in that sense (20).
In other words, justice is not a strategy to make disciples. Justice is not a means to an end. Rather, “it’s a way of life for the people of God” (22). And the reason that it is a way of life is because “the character of the people of God is measured by the extent to which they embody the justice of God in their way of life together” (23). In short, faith is about more than just what happens between an individual and God, it is about a new community constituted in Christ, who are so formed as “to be a people who both [express] and [extend] the shalom of God,” (29) to the world. The author depicts the role of the Christian community, the church, as a continuation of the Old Testament people of God, who are called out of darkness and into God’s wonderful light (1 Peter 2.9). Thus, the Christian community is both reflecting a godly, just way of life to the world, while at the same time offering a prophetic alternative to the current reality.
While the first two chapters of the section look backward, the final two look forward––to the telos toward which all of history and all of creation is moving. With regard to bringing the future to bear on the present, Gustine discusses the purpose of the church in terms of the following images. He portrays the church as a parable, which integrates itself into the ordinariness of life. As such the church smuggles godly, heavenly things into the present age. In so doing, the church participates in God’s redemptive mission, but in a way that does not cause defenses to go up, so that eventually the world will see “maybe clearly for the first time––what a true, good, and beautiful life actually looks like” (58). Gustine also suggests that the church models an alternative plot. He writes, “We are a people of tomorrow, today” (59). In other words, as the church lives out and into the reality of God’s Kingdom, it puts on display, brings into view, and otherwise demonstrates God’s intentions for creation. Ultimately, Adam believes that this will happen only when the church has “seriously grapple[d] with the notion of what it means to be for something, namely, the place God has put us and the people we share space with” (78).
Section 2 wrestles with practical and pragmatic concerns––namely, how the church’s practices help or hinder God’s shalom and justice. Unsurprisingly, chapter 5 focuses on the church’s vision. After all, as Gustine notes, “If we want to see our church become a more just church, it is imperative that we think through how to integrate justice into our field of view when it comes to discerning the vision of the church” (99). Adam cautions his readers that making headway in becoming a more just church that engages in the work of cultivating God’s shalom comes at a price. Namely, the status quo will be upset. Models of church will need to be reconsidered. A new vision will need to be cast. One that looks to and seeks to include the “moved and shaken” rather than just the “movers and shakers.” For Adam, one of the central text that the church must consider is Jeremiah 29, in which Jeremiah calls God’s people to “adopt a posture that is for the flourishing and transformation of the city” (112).
The church, Gustine believes, must define and enact concrete practices that help the church to pursue God’s shalom. Three such practices are: hospitality, discipling, and worship. Hospitality, as Gustine envisions it, is a subversive act. A prophetic renouncing of our individualistic, self-centered culture that refuses to acknowledge that “we belong to one another” (124). Biblical hospitality removes the margins. It invites, welcomes, and embraces those whom were previously viewed as “other.” Discipling, according to Gustine, consists of:
(1)Helping people hear the call of Jesus to join him in a different social location, (2) shepherding people as they discern those things that they have used to define themselves (their worth, status, etc.), and (3) creat[ing] proactive and tangible ways of self-emptying that do not reinforce the division and adulation of the high ground over the low ground (148).
In other words, discipleship cannot take place in a vacuum. It must be contextual; acknowledging our social location and how our social location impacts our perception of and participation in bringing about God’s shalom. It is a recognition that will ultimately result in “a rhythm of death to self and resurrection” (153). Finally, this means that the church must consider how God’s people gather for worship. Questions must be asked about the spaces that we create and whether they are authentically hospitable spaces; whether our practices include and encourage corporate confession; and even the stories that we allow to become central and defining of the community.
The third and final section is a dialogue between Adam Gustine, Juliet Liu, and Brandon Green on the topic of power. The conversation ranges from defining power, to the dynamics of power, to determining whom we empower in our faith communities. The bottom line is that “the ones we empower…to lead us will be gatekeepers, and so who those people are will be a critical issue if we hope to cultivate a community where power aids the work of justice rather than hinders it” (191).
Adam Gustine’s book should be required reading for every pastor and church leader. God’s call to do justice cannot be ignored and it cannot be outsourced. Justice is at the heart of God’s saving, redeeming work; and as the people of God, Adam Gustine, lays a biblical and theological foundation for our partnering with God in cultivating communities of God’s shalom, who faithfully impact their world in life-changing, life-giving ways. Gustine also raises questions that demand our consideration, if we, as the church, are truly striving to be a people of God’s tomorrow, today.
Joshua Rhone is a husband, father, and pastor. He is a graduate of Houghton College (B.A. in Religion) and Portland Seminary (M.A. in Ministry Leadership and M.Div.). Josh currently serves on the pastoral staff of First United Methodist Church of Hanover, in Hanover, Pennsylvania. He blogs at joshuarhone.com.