by Mike Metzger & John Seel
The NFL’s fall season finally finished last night—in February. Now eyes turn to NBA basketball, a winter sport that wraps up in June. But a sports-saturated society is not necessarily a negative. An extended basketball season, for example, provides an elongated glimpse of shalom. That’s because shalom means leading the league in assists.
The all-time assist leader is John Stockton with 15,806, followed by Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, and Magic Johnson—fourth with 10,141. These men didn’t merely know how to pass the ball—most players can do that. What makes an assist leader is the ability to see the entire court, establish the tempo, and make passes that lead to points. That’s what the early church did—creating shalom by leading the league in assists.
The church had its origins as a small sect within Judaism at the periphery of the Roman Empire. But it quickly grew, in part because it could see the entire court, including how to improve commerce, cities, medicine, and education. “Schools were established by the end of the second century in all of the major urban areas of the Mediterranean, in most cases by Christian intellectuals who resided there,” writes James Davison Hunter in his forthcoming book, To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. The church was similar to how one teammate described assist leader Larry Bird. He could “watch the entire game and be playing at the same time.” The church’s ability to see the entire court was furnished by the “four-chapter” gospel.
This expansive “four-chapter” gospel had a job description: make culture. This is what assist leaders do next. In seeing the entire court, they set the tempo of a game. Culture is the tempo of the times. For example, the educational system of the Roman Empire was highly stratified, leaving little room for social mobility. “Yet, by the late 300s, the church’s relationship to this system had changed,” Hunter writes. Bishops emerged as instructors, “deemed worthy of reverence” by the powerful. “As a consequence, they began pronouncing on public affairs and more and more Christians began to hold office and exercise influence in the cities of the Empire.” This, in turn, is how the church could make passes that led to points—the last step in leading the league in assists.
Scorers look to capable assist leaders when they break for the basket. Assist leaders, in turn, hit them in stride—helping them score more. This is what the church did for education. It hit the Roman educational culture in stride and improved on it. When the barbarians invaded the Empire in the fifth century, reading and writing Latin remained robust because of the educational culture created by Christians. This gave the church an opportunity to evangelize nobility because leaders in the wider world “saw in Christendom a more advanced civilization,” Hunter concludes. Granted, it wasn’t always perfect. But the church did hit leaders in stride and helped them flourish. That’s shalom.
Shalom is when the church leads the league in assists and everyone wins, even if the church doesn’t lead the league in scoring. It is when culture-shaping institutions in the wider world respond to the church and respect it. It is what the Bible calls flourishing.
These stories of shalom are drawn from Hunter’s book, To Change The World. Hunter calls the church to adopt a public posture of faithful presence, leading to shalom, another way of saying leading the league in assists. He writes, “A theology of faithful presence calls Christians to enact the shalom of God in the circumstances in which God has placed them and to actively seek it on behalf of others.” Faithful presence is not the starting point of Hunter’s book, but its conclusion. Two-thirds of the book is devoted to understanding how culture is changed and the appropriate role of power in this process. Coming to faithful presence requires first clearing years of erroneous assumptions.
Faithful presence is contrasted to three other postures towards public life—what Hunter calls “paradigms of engagement”—that have been adopted by the church in the recent past. Faithful presence can be clarified by underscoring what it is not.
It’s not a defensive enclave set against the world. For those who adopt this vision the main problem is secularity, “if only God could be re-enshrined in the social order the culture would be restored.” One can think of this as a lament over lost market share.
It’s not relevance to culture where the priority is being connected to the pressing issues of the day or the felt-needs of the person in the pew or more importantly the felt-needs of the nonbeliever. This posture focuses its sharpest critique not on contemporary culture but on the established church. One can think of this as a branding crisis.
And finally, it’s not purity from culture where active engagement in culture is abandoned for a call to authentic witness. This posture adopts the view that the “church has no other obligation other than to be itself.” While expressed in many different ways and through various traditions, it feeds on the logic of “us-against-them.”
In contrast, the foundation of faithful presence is the incarnation and Jesus’ example of “pursuit, identification, and offer of life through sacrificial love.” The same should be evident in our relationships with others, in the exercise of our vocations, and in the spheres of our public influence. “What this means,” writes Hunter, “is that where and to the extent that we are able, faithful presence commits us to do what we can to create conditions in the structures of social life we inhabit that are conducive to the flourishing of all.” That’s shalom, leading the league in assists.
This was God’s call to his people in exile in Babylon. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce… for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7). It’s his call to the American church once more. The church’s flourishing is tied directly to the flourishing of the community in which it lives and works. Our shalom is found in the shalom of others. That’s the way it was for Jesus. That’s the way it was for John Stockton, the NBA all-time assist leader. That’s the way it ought to be for the church, the worldwide all-time assist leader.