Last week, I attended the CAFO 2015 Summit at the invitation of a devoted brother who champions the cause of the fatherless at my church and beyond. I was surprised by his excitement over my attending. I didn’t really think it was that big of a deal until I started to interact with other attenders. At a conference of >2000 attendees, I was definitely in the minority, and I don’t mean just ethnically. Asian-Americans indeed were largely absent, but I was even more surprised, then saddened, that pastors were few and far between. A topic as deeply theological and as clearly practical as orphan care and adoption had relatively little pastoral interest or involvement. I don’t say this to chide anyone, nor do I want to belittle the faithful lay folks who are battling for the cause of the fatherless. While impactful ministry is happening through these folks, churches have been entrusted to church leaders (pastors and otherwise) to prepare God’s people for works of service. How can we prepare the saints for a work we don’t know about?
It was deeply humbling to sit with these practitioners who were obediently carrying out the call to love the fatherless in whatever way they could: adoption, post-placement support, foster care, advocacy – in global/domestic, urban/rural settings. You name it, someone was innovating some way to care while others were figuring out ways to reform. The collaborative, congenial ethos of the conference was refreshing as was the non-American feel of it too.
In an evangelical culture dominated by celebrity and slick production, this conference had a quality production feel sprinkled with the hiccups of authenticity. At what other conference can you sit under lights and production, with a worship team cranking out the latest Passion, Hillsong music, followed by a Ugandan pastor who declares that he speaks “English, not American” in an African accent? Transitions weren’t super smooth, and I loved it that way. It was refreshingly honest, creative, and imperfect. This is beginning to sound like a restaurant review, so I’ll go on to share some of my initial takeaways.
1. Justice and the gospel can be represented well TOGETHER.
Finally, a gathering where the primacy of the gospel is repeated again and again as the motivating force for justice/compassion work. In the plenaries and the workshops, the gospel was proclaimed. Maybe this is why the movement has such passion and such sacrifice. The orphan care movement isn’t just addressing a social ill, it finds its core convictions in the gospel story. As Dorothy Sayers put it, “the drama is in the doctrine.” This reminds me that adoption is not just a metaphor for our salvation. It actually describes what takes place in our salvation. We are adopted into God’s family. God takes enemies and makes them children with all the rights of authority, inheritance, and heritage such genealogy entails. He does this through his son, who left his home to bring the orphans into the family. Justice-type rallies seem to err on one side or the other – either being so works-oriented that it becomes humanistic or so doctrinal that it becomes all critique and theory. CAFO nailed the tension to the cross.
…adoption is not just a core metaphor for our salvation. It actually describes what takes place in our salvation.
2. There are so many sincere and committed practitioners out there.
Going to workshops and hearing adoptive parents, foster parents, lobbyists, NGO leaders, and a few pastors was a needed corrective for me. I tend to stay in the world of ideas, so anytime I can be pushed by doers, it’s a good thing. I was moved just by hearing their stories, and by empathizing with their hardships. Nobody was telling me what I should do as a Christian or a pastor for that matter. They just brought their struggles and passions to the discussion, and I was challenged.
3. Pastors are not the enemy, but we need to get our act together and be more than just supporters.
I was sad to hear so many sincere church folks who didn’t feel supported by their pastors. I was encouraged to hear presenters respond by helping champions empathize with the pressure and demands that pastors feel. This again reminds me of the gospel. Instead of slamming pastors and calling them out, the prescribed approach was humility, meekness instead of strong-arming – the very attitudes that the gospel cultivates in a community. In one seminar (led by a pastor), he noted that pastoral support and buy-in was not the silver bullet to move the church to participate in caring for the fatherless. What a great reminder of not looking to any man or woman for what only God can do.
That said, as a pastor, I felt the strong divine reminder that I can’t just treat the orphan as one more cause alongside the other good things we do. There are just too many passages that deal with God’s heart for the orphan. It’s just too close to the gospel. While there are tons of worthwhile, important, biblical responsibilities we have to our world and to our people, one of the filters has to be what sorts of things will help us proclaim the gospel.
This is what excites me particularly about orphan care: it’s an opportunity for us as a church to put the gospel on display, and it may be one of the most shocking ways to do it. The church in N. America is increasingly being marginalized to the periphery of our culture. Not only do people not want to hear what we have to say, we don’t think we have anything worthwhile to say. We’ve lost our script, replacing it with bigger and bolder productions, nicer buildings, attempts at “relevance” by looking sleeker with skinnier jeans and cooler haircuts. Have we forgotten what truly makes us a voice in society? When was the last time you heard of a church not known for its celebrity pastor, or its great music, or its impressive building, or innovative program, but instead because of the strange way it cares for orphans?
The church has always been about the margins. It’s in our heritage. We love the poor. We care for the sick. We embrace the fatherless. We do the hard stuff that no one wants to do because it must be done, even if there’s no return. As the world continues to marginalize us, I wonder if it’s God sovereign work forcing us to the margins in order to reach the marginalized people who have already been living there: foster youth who age out of the system, orphans, the materially poor. If the church is the Church, she will gravitate to the margins. The question is, “will pastors be there too?” or better yet, “Will I be there?”