Editor’s Note: These are Matt Wilson’s reflections from the first International Integral Urban Mission Summit, in Bangkok.
When it comes to being a Christian I’ve got my doubts about lots of things, but I’m sure of this: by being a Christian I belong to a movement – a people movement. Jesus began this movement and remains at its head. The Holy Spirit has sustained this movement throughout the ages. And it is as a movement that we shall see the Father’s kingdom come, and his will done, here on earth as in heaven.
But here’s the thing… Many times throughout history the Christian faith has stopped in its tracks. Its leaders have found a place that feels good and they have pronounced, “We’ve arrived”.
Hold that thought.
The first, simplest and most challenging thing Jesus ever asked is recorded in the gospels for us with just two words, “Follow Me.” It’s hard to be a follower if you believe you’ve already arrived. If you already have all the answers. If you’ve already built a fence around your position and chosen to defend it at all costs against all encroachers. It is a truism that the church that has arrived is going nowhere. And here’s another: It is impossible for a movement to have already arrived. The primary characteristic of a movement is that it is going somewhere. There is a future horizon toward which it strains.
I worry that my generation in particular has bought into this “we’ve arrived” mindset. What makes me feel this way – what evidence do I see? Well, I think that has to do with two things, two things that are very important with relation to what it means to participate in the mission of God in His world today.
Firstly, there is a hardness of heart in this generation. Yesterday Shane Claiborne and I sat in the sweltering heat of a Bangkok afternoon listening to a young American family – Amy, Tim and their two little girls. They have spent almost 10 years living and working amongst the world’s most marginalized and forgotten people – child beggars, street prostitutes and trafficked women. They told us of interns who travel from the West to join them – some for a few weeks, some for a few months. Recently an intern was asked how they felt about the appalling conditions that these human beings, loved by God, were living in. The response from the intern? “I’ve seen worse.”
Is this the calcifying effect of a growing ‘poverty-porn’ industry that incorporates slum-photography tours within all-inclusive vacation packages? Is this the numbing of the emotions through the instant gratification of internet slacktivism that engages us with a cause for a few minutes and then quickly rushes us on to the next Cause Célèbre? I don’t really have a solid diagnosis, I just see the symptoms, all around me. So I pray, “Spirit of God, please keep our hearts soft.”
Secondly, I encounter a physical fixedness, a geographical boundedness. Again this has been amply demonstrated to me here in Bangkok. This morning I walked down a narrow alley into the Klong Toey slum, the ‘illegal’ home of 100,000 Thai families. I sat in a simple wooden house built over the swamp and drank tea with a young couple from Australia – Rod and Lexi – who have made the slum their home. Children laughed and played at their door. I was in another world, the world of the poor, the pushed-out, the not-invited. Back home in England I’m involved with a similar group that helps Christians of all denominations and traditions to “move in and live deep” in neighbourhoods struggling against the forces of poverty, crime, exploitation and violence. It’s a beautiful thing to be part of, but incredibly frustrating too – because every day we witness the story of the Rich Young Ruler writ large. Good-hearted Christians enquire about how they can get involved in our work and we reply: “It’s simple – move in.” And for 99 out of 100, we never hear from them again. Packing their bags to move out of familiarity and so-called security is a step too far.
So do these worries weigh me down? No they don’t. Because the exhilarating effect of meeting an Amy and Tim, or a Rod and Lexi, convinces me afresh that our movement is still very much alive. The Kingdom of God is advancing, amongst the lost, the last and the least, out here at the margins. And I’m incredibly hopeful, because that’s exactly how the movement started in the first place. After all, John’s gospel begins with the question: “Nazareth, can anything good come out of Nazareth?”