A. Trevor Sutton: Scripture addressed social issues before they were cool

Two people looking at a book together

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Trends may come and go, but life in Christ is eternally relevant, writes a pastor.

Let me begin with a confession: I am not that cool. Plastic-frame glasses would slide down my nose. Facial hair would make me look messy. V-neck shirts would look awkward on me. And I have neither the courage nor the desire to try cramming myself into a pair of skinny jeans.

However, being a pastor in a college town means ministering to 20-somethings, and spending time with them helps keep me marginally hip. College students gleefully inform me of the latest trends. I hear all about green practices, “third-place” hangouts, sustainable living and just about anything that is open source.

Many of these efforts are worthwhile. However, something always bothers me when I hear about the newest cause spreading through campus: people think that some mustachioed, skinny-jeans-wearing hipster was the first person to address the problem. He wasn’t.

Environmentalism is thought to be a new movement. Third-place hangouts -- spaces for people to gather, in addition to home and work -- are considered a radically innovative way of doing community. Sustainable, “local” living and merciful eating are played off as entirely fresh concepts. They are not.

God addressed many of these issues before they were cool. Scripture recognizes the need to care for the earth, live with neighbors in community and engage in merciful eating. Indeed, the people of God have long worked at providing solutions to social problems.

Take environmentalism. Scripture addressed issues of the environment long before Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” kicked off the modern environmental movement.

Caring for God’s creation begins in the Old Testament, where Scripture recognizes human responsibility for caring for the earth as if it were a brother. God instructs Adam to be keeper of the garden, just as Cain is to be keeper of his brother Abel. Genesis describes how sin has the disastrous power to destroy the fecundity of the earth.

Yet Scripture also points to God’s restorative work in Jesus Christ. All creation groans in expectation of Jesus’ making all things new (Romans 8:22; Revelation 21:5); the restoration of Jesus includes the renewal of the earth. The church goes about getting our hands dirty with the work that Jesus began.

This hopeful outlook can help combat some of the problems that may arise from strictly environmental causes -- “green guilt,” despair, apathy, even radical biocentrism and ecoterrorism.

Then consider “third-place” communities -- another not-so-new idea. Bookstores, pubs and coffee shops now market themselves as “third places.” Starbucks has even embraced this language on its website.

But today’s third places tend to encourage homogenized society -- old men at the barbershop, young people at the coffee shop -- whereas life together as God’s people offers a greater vision of true community.

The Israelites welcomed foreigners and “a mixed multitude” from their earliest days (Exodus 12:38; 20:10). And the descriptions of the early church in Acts show how young and old, rich and poor, powerful and destitute were all united in Christ.

Before it was cool, Jesus united all people: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 ESV). Jesus is the first place for unity.

Finally, local stores and farmer’s markets have championed the slogan “Think globally, act locally.” Local living is a way to meet the needs of one’s community more compassionately.

Small Business Saturday is a neighbor-oriented response to the consumer-driven shopping frenzy of Black Friday. Merciful eating is easier to attain on a local level, since the practices of local family farms are more transparent than those of factory farms.

Yet local living may not be enough to build true community. Sharing a common ZIP code does little to unite people. Neighbors may be isolated from one another. Front porches may be empty. People at a farmer’s market may not know each other’s names.

Being united in Christ and worshipping together in a congregation offers far greater opportunity to know and love our neighbors. Jesus Christ was God’s way of thinking globally and acting locally. Born in a specific time and place, Jesus was the local embodiment of the global creator.

Hipsters may be wrong about skinny jeans, but they are right about many social causes. Environmentalism, third-place communities, local living and merciful eating are worthy movements. Nevertheless, the church believes and confesses that following Jesus is far greater than any social cause.

This does not mean that the church should wag its finger at young hipsters and say, “Forget the social causes; you should be at church.” Rather, the church should engage these causes as an embodiment of Jesus Christ. We care for creation because Jesus makes all things new. We know and love our neighbors in community because Jesus transcends race, wealth or ZIP code. We live sustainably through farmer’s markets and merciful eating as a way of enacting the global message of God’s love.

I am not that cool. And I am probably going to stay that way -- because I believe that God’s kingdom at work in our world offers a far greater vision of relevancy than the latest social causes. New life in Christ makes us eternally relevant.