Where Do We Go From Here?

Pursuing compassion and justice after the 2018 Theology Conference

The 2018 Theology Conference, focused on “The Gospel, Compassion and Justice and the EFCA,” convened in San Antonio, Texas, at the end of January and beginning of February. More than 200 leaders from across the EFCA came together to explore this theme through biblical, theological, historical and pastoral perspectives.

As the conference concluded and the words of the powerful speakers lingered, many were left wondering, “So, what’s next? Where do we go from here?”

Greg Strand, in background, and Alex Mandes, bowling together after a long day of meetings.

In an attempt to answer these pressing questions, Alejandro (Alex) Mandes, executive director of All People, and Greg Strand, executive director of theology and credentialing, sat down to discuss how the EFCA moves forward, urged by the gospel’s calling to compassion and justice for all of God’s children.

Tell us about your shared vision for the 2018 Theology Conference.

Greg: To start, I think it’s important to know about the history of the Evangelical Free Church’s approach to compassion and justice. Article 8 of the current Statement of Faith (“Christian Living”) addresses a number of ways that we live by faith, including “compassion toward the poor and justice for the oppressed.” These themes are not new to the Free Church: The 1912 Statement of Faith, the merger between the Norwegians and the Danes, addressed compassion and justice. But in the first 50 years of the last century, the rise of modernism led to a divide between theological liberals and fundamentalists. Fundamentalists focused heavily on the gospel, rightly so, but moved away from what the gospel has to say about compassion and justice. In 1950, when a Statement of Faith was drafted for the merger between the Norwegian-Danish Free Church Association and the Swedish Evangelical Free Church, compassion and justice weren’t included. Finally, in 2008, we restored the themes of compassion and justice to the Statement of Faith.

Alex: In light of this history, Greg and I knew that there would come a time when the EFCA needed to address compassion and justice more broadly.

Greg: It was critical to establish a foundation in Scripture. Free Church people are Bible people. And in light of recent events in our nation and around the world, it was clear that it was both timely and necessary to address the issues of racial reconciliation and immigration. As Bible people, we must lead the way on these topics. At the end of the day, the Bible is being undermined and tarnished due to the lack of reconciliation among believers and lack of concern for the immigrant. For these reasons, we found it imperative to address compassion and justice in a theology conference.

What were the outcomes you two hoped for?

Greg: Awareness and attention come to mind. The degree to which racial reconciliation and justice have become merely buzzwords or white noise is unhealthy. As leaders, we become overwhelmed or paralyzed by the flood of issues clamoring for our attention. We’re tempted to put our heads in the sand and not deal with any of them. I understand that, but it’s not being faithful. When thinking about the 2018 Theology Conference, Alex and I wanted to help EFCA leaders pick their heads up and discover God-glorifying, Christ-exalting and Spirit-prompted actions that can lead us to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’re at the point where another corporate confession just isn’t sufficient. How do we keep from returning to ground zero and instead take some tangible steps? The goal of the conference was to give an opportunity to minority voices to speak and to give an invitation to the majority to come and learn—and to do so together in community. We are becoming an outpost of heaven, such that people from every tribe and tongue and language and nation are around the throne even now. We depict that. We reflect that. We manifest that here and now.

2018 Theology Conference attendees in conversation outside the church.

Alex: I take Amos 3:3 seriously: How can two walk together unless they have an agreement? Obviously, as Free Church leaders, what we have to agree on is the Scriptures. We are people of the Book and of sound theology. Before the conference, Greg and I met and discussed how we, as the EFCA, have to match our orthodoxy with orthopraxy. We want our denomination to be relevant. It’s not enough for us to just think right; we’ve got to act right. I believe that the reason the torch passes from the Church is that we forget that we are supposed to be on mission, not that we are the mission. Most generations of the Church have failed to be relevant to the culture of the day. The demographic shift in America is a slow train coming, and we want to be ready. Greg and I don’t believe that just because we had a theology conference on racial reconciliation and immigration that we’re going to finish it or solve it. As I told Greg, “We’re at the end of the beginning, not at the end of the end.”

What have been your primary emotions or reactions since returning from the conference?

Alex: The 2018 Theology Conference was the pinnacle of our effort at being one people, better together. I came back with a strong sense of responsibility. How do we move beyond that wonderful Theology Conference in which we were all saying the same thing? How do we walk that out? What’s the next step? We’ve said what we wanted to say. Now, what do we do?

Greg: I felt a gravitas. I felt a weight. I felt a burden. Maybe it wasn’t a burden for me to bear, but I felt it. When Ken Young got up on Friday morning prior to leading us in the public profession and confession of the Lausanne Covenant, Article 5, and said, in a sense, “I’ve not experienced anything like this in 30 years,” I felt two things: grief but also gratitude. As I said at the conference, let’s not despise the day of small beginnings (cf. Zechariah 4:10). We are responsible for this day, and, by God’s grace, to steward this moment well. I feel the weight of it. And I myself need to learn, to have time to read and process and talk.

Many could see you two as representing two sides of the tension in evangelical churches: Greg, you could be seen as representing the Anglo or majority culture, who caution moving slowly. And Alex, you could be seen as representing people of color who are tired of not seeing change. But that’s obviously a surface observation. Talk about your friendship. What’s happened in your journey together?

Alex: One of the things I want to make clear is that I care about theology and the Bible as much as Greg does. I also care about culture, sociology, economics, church planting and making disciples, but no system trumps the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church. I have a deep passion for that. Greg and I have a strong relationship because we have worked together for a long time, going on 12 years. He and I worked together to create GATEWAY, a project that has had transformational impact throughout the EFCA. Our relationship is based on common values, common theology, common ethos. Because I am a person of color, I am often the spokesperson on topics of compassion and justice and race, but I am much more than that. I think Greg probably gets that more than anyone else I know.

Nurturing relationships is critical.

Greg: Thank you, Alex. As you said, it goes back to 12 years ago, as we were learning to trust one another and learning to be able to disagree, even strongly, with one another, in the context of love. Sometimes I think we don’t trust the power of the gospel. The gospel does not just command us to live out one new humanity but it empowers us to do that. It’s not asking us to do what we cannot do without the Holy Spirit who lives within us. My relationship with Alex is a manifestation of how the gospel commands, compels and empowers us to work through hard issues with one another. Alex isn’t hard to love, but in some of those early days, as Alex alluded to, we didn’t always see eye to eye. But we stayed at the table. We had a common foundation, the Lord Jesus Christ, and a common goal, the manifestation of the gospel lived out.

Alex: One time we were in a meeting and I made a comment that the room didn’t really represent what the world looks like. Greg then stood up and finished what I didn’t have the guts to say. He said, “And we’ve got to deal with the white privilege in this room.” One person next to me said, “How much did you pay him to say that?” And I said, “Nothing, because he really believes that.”

Greg: Nurturing relationships is critical. We’re often shocked and surprised when there’s angst or differences of opinion. But why are we surprised that there are differences? For those of us who are married, are we surprised and shocked when there are differences with our spouse? Of course there are differences. What do we do with it? We shouldn’t go into our own rooms and close the door. Eventually, we’re going to have to come out. And we’re going to work through it. We are to make every effort (Ephesians 4:3) to live out what God has created (Ephesians 2:14-16).

Greg, you mentioned “small beginnings.” Does that mean to go slowly? As Ken Young pointed out, many have been waiting for 30 years. How are things going to be different going forward?

Greg: It’s a difficult thing. We can pursue small beginnings, but for whom? And for how long? To some degree, it begins to feel like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” White pastors would say to him, “Slow down.” And his response was, more or less, “For how long? How long do we wait? You need to know that while we are waiting, we’re not just sipping coffee with one another. We’re in the midst of being incarcerated and enduring many other injustices.” There’s a tension between the two sides. At the end of the day, wrongs need to be acknowledged and forgiveness needs to be extended. Reconciliation includes reparation as much as possible. I’ll go right the wrongs I committed. That’s not just repentance; that’s bearing fruit. It’s easier to pontificate behind a desk about what ought to happen than it is to live it out in the context of messy relationships. We’re continually trying to figure out how much is too fast, how much is not enough and too slow and to figure that out together. God enables us to do it. It cannot be done on our own. It will not be done on our own.

A small group discussion at the 2018 Theology Conference.

Alex: The next 50 years of the Evangelical Free Church can’t be like the last 50. Everybody knows that. America is getting more and more diverse. Again, if we want to be relevant in the future, we’ve got to talk about how our mission statement is lived out differently than it was in the last 50 years. I’m confident we’re going to address this issue. If Greg and I, who are so different, can live this mission together and finish each other’s sentences, this shows how far we’ve come as a movement. I don’t worry about a meeting that I’m not at. For example, Greg went to the MLK 50 conference in Memphis; I stayed at a leadership meeting, because I knew that Greg would represent me, and Greg knew that I would represent him. That’s what the future needs to look like more and more. Our relationship gives me that kind of hope.

What changes would be helpful to see in churches, districts and at the national level?

Greg: We need to continue to have the courage and the humility to address the issues of compassion and justice, which are deeply, truly biblical issues. No, they’re not the gospel, but they are entailments of the gospel. The theology conference is one step in that direction. I long for the day when I could address racial issues, as a white person, and a black person could address issues other than race issues. Those in the majority culture need to be looking at different ways of inviting people to the table and giving them a voice. And I think we could all be better at defining terms, like “power” and “privilege,” which some may understand implicitly and others may balk at. We need to understand these terms biblically in the context of the gospel of Jesus Christ and how they are lived out in our present context. On this issue of racial reconciliation, there’s a growing, ongoing transformation into the likeness of Christ. We all live with blinders and cultural and contextual limitations. I want to be more aware of these things. I don’t want to use language that is unintentionally offensive and then blame my listener for taking offense when I, as the speaker, should have considered the audience in the first place. We must always return to the commitment that we stay together under the Lord Jesus Christ, yoked to one another and walking the same path, side by side, as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Alex: With the vision President Kevin Kompelien has shared, that we multiply transformational churches by 10 percent annually, I believe we need to be planting many more churches that have a real heart for diversity and justice. I agree with everything Greg has said, but I’d add that, in every way, we need to really make sure that in our endeavor to plant new churches, we are planting churches that have a passion for diversity and justice. These churches will tend to be started by younger leaders, who often have a real strong conscience in these areas. But we should not presume that this will be the case. There needs to be intentionality. When we appoint future leaders, we should think about how leaders reflect our future in America.

I just don’t want to lose this important moment, created and allowed by God the Holy Spirit.

Greg: We need to be strategic. We talk about next steps, but we need to think about them strategically. That requires intentionality and purposefulness and above all, prayerfulness.

Alex: When it comes to hiring leaders for the EFCA and in our churches, we have to make sure we’re looking in the right places. We can’t just send out a job description and assume we’re going to get a good, representative pool of diverse candidates. Finding the right person requires a lot more time and intentionality. Are we sharing the position in places where people of diversity will see it?

Greg: Along with this kind of purposefulness in hiring, we have to keep opening the door for conversation. At the end of the conference, we had a group discussion. One of first questions asked was: What is your racial autobiography? Let’s talk about it; let’s share personal reflections and considerations. What are some steps of implementation you’re considering, both personally and as a church? What are the key questions that remain? We’re opening the door. Dialogue in relationships is critical. So help us: What are the next steps we have to consider as a denomination? There are certain things that we as a denomination are responsible to steward maybe differently than a local church or a pastor. That’s the gravitas that I feel. If we don’t take seriously the implementation of some next steps, then my concern is that we will not retain the status quo. We will not be where we are. With the present moment we have, I just wonder how many “do-overs” there will be in our lifetime. I don’t doubt that brothers and sisters will continue to be gracious, but I just don’t want to lose this important moment, created and allowed by God the Holy Spirit, that we need to steward, and by God’s grace, we will.

In your church, where have you seen progress on the issues of racial reconciliation and immigration, and compassion and justice more broadly? What progress still needs to be made in the EFCA? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Find more resources from the 2018 Theology Conference, including links to the podcast episodes of the speakers’ lectures. Thanks to Dennis Hesselbarth for moderating this discussion.

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