Talking Points is an ongoing conversation about theology, culture and vocation. To continue the conversation from our last conference, we asked one of the pastors who attended to write a guest post for our blog. His thoughts and experience on living out new creation theology in both personal and social spheres are both challenging and inspiring.

Add your thoughts in the comments on how to apply new creation theology in life and ministry.

Since my days at Calvin College and Seminary in the 1960s, I have always been fascinated by Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God. So, I deeply appreciated the opportunity to attend the Talking Points Conference, “Thy Kingdom Come.” I was again moved and challenged both personally and professionally by exploring the further implications of living out this prayer in the “already, but not yet” Kingdom in our world.

Here are some of my reflections as I left the conference:

First, there is great comfort, personally, as I think about aging and death (at age 72). I am realizing more deeply that my work for justice and for “the least of these” is a very real investment in the coming Kingdom. It gives me hope that my vision and work for healing, peace, equality and justice will eventually be realized in the new creation here on earth. I find great comfort in knowing I can experience this social transformation for an eternity rather than just waiting around forever in heavenly places with a harp and a crown. This hope even redeems my calling as pastor, which can often seem frustrating and frustrated by personal and collective sin and disobedience.

Second, during the panel discussion, I asked about the seeming dichotomy in so many Christian traditions between personal salvation/piety and social redemption/justice. For many years, I have felt an almost equal passion for personal spiritual formation and broader social justice in the world. However, this commitment often seems lacking in actual Christian practice regardless of theological statements. Many seem to have an “either/or” approach rather than a “both/and” approach.

On my way home, it dawned on me that I may have discovered a part of the answer to my own question. Although the panelists affirmed a both/and approach, which I appreciated, they had very little advice to offer other than to point to two spiritual forefathers whose ministry and theology demonstrated both—Abraham Kuyper and John Wesley. I could not help but notice the irony that Kuyper was a Dutch Calvinist (who influenced my school, Calvin College and Seminary), and Wesley was the founder of the Wesleyan Methodist Church (I currently serve in a Wesleyan church).

What strikes me about both Kuyper and Wesley is that their deep love for God and God’s created world led them to envision the impact of the gospel in every aspect of society. Likewise, their unusual involvement in working to transform their social and cultural milieu seemed to deepen their faith. Perhaps this happened out of necessity. We cannot faithfully address the impact of personal and systemic evil and sin in the world without ourselves going deeper spiritually.

That’s been my experience. I have found that I cannot mature spiritually, or even realize the need to do so, without becoming deeply aware of my own weaknesses and limitations. A lifetime of engaging in social justice ministry has heightened this awareness. Entering with care and compassion into areas of social/cultural brokenness and injustice has had a profound impact on my personal piety (and vice versa).

I have also found that when lay people engage in social justice ministries (such as recovery, care and prisoner reentry), there is a great window of opportunity for them to grow and mature both personally and in their Kingdom worldview. This is especially true if they are encouraged and mentored along the way.

Maybe this is the missing “hands-on” link between personal piety and social justice—a link that new creation theology provides. We aren’t just waiting to leave the planet, so we need to lead people to put their personal piety into practice here, to address the social/cultural issues around us. Practically speaking, we need more lay leadership development and an expanded Kingdom worldview in the Church that moves beyond personal salvation and piety but never loses sight of it.

In this way, perhaps the antidote to the dichotomy posed in my question lies in the very real calling and challenge of pastors to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” We need to equip people not just for ministry in the church, but also ministry out in the world of personal brokenness and social injustice. Then, we need to shepherd them in that service to help deepen their faith as they serve.

We have a gospel that brings a message of hope—a new, redeemed, enjoyable creation—not only to our personal lives, but also to the lives of broken and underprivileged people. This can and will have profound implications for a more just society and for evangelism and church renewal. I am eager to explore more aspects of “new creation” theology and practice, both now and for eternity!