Lord’s Prayer Inspires ESA
Covenant News Service recently spoke with Al Tizon about his new position as co-president of Evangelicals for Social Action, balancing personal evangelism and social action, and the future direction of ESA.
Ron Sider retired in July and handed the reins to you and co-president Paul Alexander. Why is ESA moving to what you have called the “consensus model”?
Ron’s a complex guy. He put together a small but complex organization that influences individuals and the social structures and everything in between. He was very committed to evangelism, politics, and church transformation.
I came in 2006 as the director of holistic ministry initiatives. It was one of his passions—to keep evangelism and social concern integrated and to help local churches do holistic ministry in the world. Paul came in 2009 to direct public policy initiatives.
How will decisions be made?
We’ve gone in with our eyes wide open. We categorized all that Ron has been doing for 40 years. Then we said, you’re the buck-stops-here guy for this, and you’re the buck-stops-here for this. But we’ll both consult with each other before we make any major decisions.
So what you’re saying is it takes two people to do the work of what one man once did?
(Laughs) Maybe even a third, although that person wouldn’t be a co-director. We may need to add someone to help with cultural transformation. That’s yet another big piece of ESA. No one has really taken that on as an initiative because it’s a little more elusive, less concrete, but it is a real category. The organization’s name includes “evangelical” just as our denomination’s does.
Given that the word means vastly different things to so many people, what do you mean when you use it?
There is a lot of diversity, but within that diversity there are common strands. It basically has five characteristics: the Lordship and uniqueness of Christ, and with that the personal relationship; our sincere attempt to be faithful to Scripture; a sincere attempt to pursue holiness and moral purity, and a zeal for mission. The fifth is really interesting. It’s to be reactionary to any group that doesn’t adhere to the first four. So if people say they are Christians, but personal morality, or mission, or Lordship isn’t important, we ask, “Are you following Jesus or not?”
You and Paul Alexander each preached at the closing worship service before your installations. You spoke about the first half of the new ESA vision statement—”On earth as it is in heaven: radical love made visible”—and how it is based on the first two verses of the Lord’s Prayer.
Jesus brought spirituality and mission together with those first few instructions about how to pray. “Our Father…hallowed be your name”—worship. That’s the center, the crux of the Christian life. It’s to look up and to know that this God, this Maker of the universe and heaven and earth loves you. Wow! That’s why I do evangelism, why I do anything. But it doesn’t end there.
“Your kingdom come”—that’s a kingdom of justice, of compassion and mercy and love. “Your will be done on heaven as on earth.” There’s not a better mission statement. The coming kingdom is defining our mission of what we do today. Radical love made visible is a parallelism. We need to be seen. We need to be right here, right now.
In your sermon, you referred to the prayer as a “missional prayer.” Missional is the word of the day, but it doesn’t seem like everyone means the same thing when they use it.
They don’t at all. My understanding of the history of the word is that it is different from “missionary.” Missional is a theological word that reminds us that before we are a sending people, we are a sent people. The word missional used historically by (Lesslie) Newbigin and others is to remind churches that they have been sent by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to minister to the communities where they are.
In my book Missional Preaching I wrote that to be missional is “to join God’s mission to transform the world, as the church strives in the Spirit to be authentically relational, intellectually, and theologically grounded, culturally and socio-economically diverse, and radically committed to both God and neighbor, especially the poor.”
How do you see the missional work of ESA going forward?
ESA has always been committed to the church, to the local congregation, but we have arrived at a new clarity about the role of the local congregation. We want to work primarily through the local congregation. We want to partner with them and to equip them to do holistic ministry, to be responsible in informing cultural opinion as well as opinions on social issues. We want to do that in service of the church.
We are convinced that when God’s people come together, there is latent power to change the neighborhood and the world. We want to tap into that, we want to be part of what releases that power. There is a new clarity, so as we go forward, we are going to work hard to truly be para-church, to come alongside churches to be all they are called to be. So that is part of our ecclesiology and our strategy to go forward.
ESA frequently is tagged as being part of the evangelical left. What are your thoughts on this?
ESA has been identified as the evangelical left, and in the larger scheme of things, I guess that’s not completely inaccurate. But I don’t really like the terms left or right. To be an evangelical who pursues justice doesn’t mean you’ve camped out with the leftists. We’re just trying to be faithful to the radical implications of the gospel. That means being as committed to justice as we are to telling people about Jesus.
How do you keep those together?
ESA for 40 years has made both left and right mad. That’s a good sign because it means that we’re not being co-opted. If we don’t have a story to tell, what is the basis for our compassionate work, for pursuing justice?
Evangelism is waning even in evangelical churches. I wanted to be committed to the practice of authentic evangelism. Evangelism is simply restoring the art of conversation. We’ve totally lost that. The reason people are repulsed by evangelism is because we’ve replaced conversation with formula and manipulative ways to talk about Jesus. If we’re not happy and passionate about Jesus so that it comes out in conversation with people, that’s not good news to me.
(This interview was originally published on the Evangelical Covenant Church website and is reproduced here by permission.)