Hope is found in the very circumstances that cause despair.
Paul wrote about hope with these words in Romans 8:24 is this: “For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees?”
Paul’s exposition is that in hope we are saved. The Christian pulpit has long noted that men are not only saved in hope, but they are also damned by false hope. That is when in what people are taught to hope are lies, false promises, mythology, and counterfeit substitutes for the real gospel. Many preachers have created a kind of substitute gospel to more quickly address the real needs of hurting, hopeless people.
Yet my submission is that the gospel does not need adjectives like prosperity, health, or social. The gospel simply needs application. When properly applied the gospel addresses and remedies our social ills, our financial woes, and our physical concerns. When misapplied, it hijacks the truth for selfish gain, disenfranchises entire people groups for the privilege of a few, and makes a mockery of righteousness and justice.
I want to propose that the Christian pulpit is no place for punditry, trivia, or group therapy. It is the very station where real hope can be found by real people in real crisis. On an average week, the preacher has but a few moments to explain the manifold grace of God, proclaim the hope and help needed by broken hearts, and introduce lost souls to the person and work of Jesus Christ. For that reason, our sermons need not be reheated, inconsequential repetitions of the evening news.
Speaking of the news… For a few years, I regularly commuted to the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL just north of my home in Chicago. Although the normal ride to Deerfield is about 40 minutes, with Chicago traffic that window could occasionally double. On almost every trip the congestion on my route would pique my curiosity. “Why are there so many people headed in the same direction?” I would ask. “What could have mounted an additional 35 minutes on an otherwise breezy commute?” I wondered.
A few months into the commute, I learned of a radio station in Chicago that gave up to the minute traffic updates. WBBM 780 AM would help me every ten minutes on the 8’s. I anticipated some congestion, but my mind was always curious as to the reason for the excessive crowdedness.
After a few weeks of listening, I noted that when the station shifted to the traffic report there would be an accompanying turbulent background noise that was otherwise absent from the studio. I discovered that the station gave its live traffic reports from a helicopter flying a few hundred feet above the expressway. “What a clever idea!” I thought. The station paid a reporter to get into a helicopter, analyze the traffic flow, communicate details of traffic jams, identify reasons for congestion like stalled vehicles or accidents, and then stream that report directly down through radio to cars like mine.
What was interesting about that report is that nothing they reported changed the congestion in front of me. The report itself did not remove the accidents around me. It did not even shorten the commute on a given expressway, but it did relieve my anxiety by telling me when and how I could anticipate relief. I found in these reports information for alternative routes, and instructions on how to avoid dangerous pockets. They were able to provide all of this by observing from the helicopter above that which I could not see from pavement level.
I was struck by the profundity of that simplicity. We Christian preachers have much in common with the helicopter traffic reporter. We have been stationed to bring a report to hurting and often hopeless people. We do not get our message from pavement level, but we get it from above and report to those facing difficult days on how they can find relief, choose the better route and avoid dangerous pockets.
The pulpit becomes a kind of Heavenly outpost transmitting a signal from Heaven to Earth. Responsible, Biblical preaching recognizes that the only hope we have comes from the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we can never accomplish the daunting task of mending broken hearts, changing defeated lives or saving lost souls by distributing homiletical tidbits, engaging in doctrinal debates or simply parsing theological terms. In the difficult days of all that ails our cities, we don’t need clever pulpit shysters or poetic manipulators who simply discuss the evening news. We need an eternal word from the mind and mouth of God Himself.
The potency and sufficiency of preaching that inspires hope to the masses in our city must be the clear, courageous, and compelling message of the gospel of Jesus Christ made plain in proclamation and action.
After all the Gospel itself is a word of hope. It is the billboard on the road between the already and the not yet. It announces accomplished facts while encouraging endurance as we wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises. It says we have already been redeemed, but we still await the consummation of God’s kingdom. We have already been healed, but we await resurrected bodies that will never get sick with disease. We have already been delivered from the power and penalty of sin, but we await that glorious release from the presence of sin.
In essence, the gospel gives us good grounds for waiting on what’s sure to come.
- Campbell Morgan posited that waiting is fundamental to the experience of Christian hope. It is my proposition that the urban core, the concrete jungles, and the sprawling major metropolitan communities of our world need the message of hope found in the gospel. Police brutality, the public school to prison pipeline, economic disenfranchisement, systematic injustices – issues that plague our cities beg for preachers who will not fall short to demonstrate how the gospel of Jesus Christ liberates men’s souls and deconstructs human systems of oppression.
I have the unique privilege of serving the historic Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago. By North American standards, an African American church in the Midwest of 100 years falls in the category of historic. It is a church with a storied past and, Lord willing, a brighter future. What makes this church’s narrative historic is not only the longevity of its ministry, but also the effectiveness of its gospel work among the city’s most vulnerable populations.
Much of this article is tethered both to my work and research about Chicago. Today, Chicago is home to a population of 3 Million people. It is as Tanahesi Coates said, “America’s most beautiful city.” In the most recent census, African Americans made up of that 32%. They are not the only at-risk population, but they make up the largest section of the vulnerable population.
Chicago is popularly known as the industrial home to many of our world’s most transformative people: Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, and Michael Jordan – to name a few. What may not be so popularly known is how black people arrived in Chicago en masse. It was the greatest migration in American history. Converging dynamics – including economic patterns, subsidized housing, and industry expansion – created a new black Chicago. This new black Chicago was not without its share of significant troubles to both the city government and its residents. From these troubles emerged a church that both fortified and dignified black people in Chicago.
Local black churches made the world a better place for black people. They demanded fairer treatment for its people. They successfully assimilated black residents to Northern culture and ultimately paved the way for a new black society. The local churches did so under the watch of skilled preachers. Their messages, often corporate in application, took root in the biblical text and affirmed biblical theology. At one point in the 20th century Chicago was like no other land for black Americans.
In the span of five years, between 1916 and 1920, approximately 500.000 African-Americans migrated from the southern states to the northern cities of America.[i] They came primarily from Mississippi and Arkansas, but also from Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. They moved mainly into Chicago, Detroit and New York. These numbers are astounding because up until 1910, 90% of African Americans lived in the South.[ii] After 1920, nearly 40% of the African-Americans in the South moved to northern cities.[iii] This migration essentially doubled, and in some cases escalated by more than 600%, the African-American population in these cities.[iv]
The southern exodus of African-Americans speaks to the convergence of several sociological, racial, political, and economic factors. This was not the first migration of African-American people during the post-bellum years, but it certainly was the most extensive. Some estimates suggest that the migration continued, in lesser force, through the 1960’s. So strong was the migration over time that in 1965 there were more African-Americans living in Cook County than the combined number of African-Americans living in the entire state of Mississippi.[v] These numbers are staggering!
To paint the picture, Roger Biles notes that there were more black people living in Chicago’s housing projects than in Selma, Alabama – the home of Dr. King’s most significant civil rights victory: The Voting Rights Act of 1965. In fact, it was the housing crisis that motivated King to bring his Southern Christian Leadership Conference protests to Chicago. Chicago, because it had such a large population of African-American families from the American South, became his case study for equal housing offenses and his greatest challenge.
What they encountered in the big city was an industry bent against them, banks with red-lined lending practices, and a host of other complicated intricacies that made life virtually unbearable for them. But more than that, what they found were churches that preached an enduring hope found in Jesus Christ alone. And they developed through this hope a patience and purity that bequeathed large and vibrant churches to successive generations.
That’s how Progressive Church came to be.
For those who may feel that this an irrelevant repetition of history, let me suggest that what the local gospel-preaching black pastors of Chicago did was nothing short of phenomenal. They proclaimed the truth and demonstrated its impact through creative ministries in a way that built the hope of their hearers amid despair.
They proclaimed the gospel and developed ministry in a way that mended the broken and reached the lost. They contextualized the implications of the gospel for sufficient societal application. They did something called, “black preaching.” Some of my dear friends who are African-American preachers have asked the question, ‘What is black preaching?’ The question “What is black preaching?” makes some privileged assumptions. It assumes that all preaching, or any other kind of preaching, is free from socio-cultural influence. That just is not true.
Dr. Bruce Fields, professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is beneficial here. He helps us to see the need for contextualized theology, and by connotation black preaching. Fields argues that, “[too many theologians] think that social, cultural, and religious factors do not affect theological formulation. [They] do not understand that the formulation of doctrine, the exploration of the relationships between doctrines, and the commitment to applying theology to life can lead to different emphases.”
He goes on to say, “Members of these particular communities (those who ask – isn’t there just ‘theology’ or isn’t there just preaching? Why the adjective black?), believe they already have the theology needed for the edification of the church.”[vi]
Listen friends: no practice of hermeneutics, theology or preaching is divorced from the impressions of culture. Furthermore, the claim that the academy has all it needs to round out the rich tradition of Christian proclamation is both a shortcoming and a bit conceited.
On the heels of the great migration to the Northern cities of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis in the United States, black preachers inspired hope through gospel preaching to those in despair. They understood that The Gospel is for hopeless people.
They did not preach simply about how bad things were. They preached about how good God is, and motivated their churches to push for triumph over their circumstances. G. Campbell Morgan, preaching Romans 8:24 said it this way, “Where there is no place for despair, there is none for hope. If there is no danger for despair, there is no possibility or necessity for hope. That the old English word “hope” in all its mutations has retained the sense of expectation, of something desired and not yet attained.”[vii]
Even Morgan understood that the people to whom we preach face a basic despair; that they are currently missing something they need; and that some are under oppression from which they need to be freed.
And this is where preaching hope thrives. Hope shines brightest when days are darkest. When incidents like the shooting of 16-year-old LaQuan MacDonald in Chicago, or Mike Brown in Ferguson – or even the separate and unequal public education of our young in Chicago, or the proliferation of semi-automatic weapons in impoverished neighborhoods, or mass incarceration as a way to criminalize poverty – it is the gospel and the church that carries the gospel that is a city’s only hope. Hope conditions the heart when circumstances are unfavorable. Hope tells the spirit to keep going and not to give up. Hope has something to do with the future, with something that has not yet happened.
And the question begs to be answered, how do we preach while we wait with our people for brighter days and the brightest days?
I suggest that we keep preaching. We keep preaching though the night is long, because on the isle of Patmos, John looked and saw
… a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Keep preaching because though the Christian is far from home, Isaiah foresaw a day when the lion and the lamb would lay down together and swords would be bent into plowshares. Let our preaching be transcendent and transformative; its message call for individual and corporate action.
In our cities, we face some unique challenges with poor people. Bryan Stevenson in his book, Just Mercy describes the case – among others – of Mr. Walter McMillian who sat on Death Row in Alabama for 6 years for a crime he didn’t commit. In fact, at the time of the murder for which he was wrongly convicted, Mr. McMillian was hosting a church fish fry at which he was seen by dozens of people.
Stevenson’s conclusion from his work with the Equal Justice Initiative stopped me in my tracks. He said, “My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” This struck me because I understand justice to be a distinctively Biblical idea. It has a kind of church copyright.
I’m a bit reticent to speak on this issue because I’m not sure in America that the Christian church is ready for the implications of such an idea. We have made an assumption that sound doctrine is sufficient to solve the ills of our world, to draw men to the truth about Jesus Christ, to show them the everlasting way.
I contend not with the notion that sound doctrine is critical. It is absolutely necessary, and fundamental to the work of the church in the world. I simply want to suggest that some Bible preaching, Bible believing preachers may have inadvertently made a distinction within orthodoxy that the Bible itself does not recognize.
It appears that a well-reasoned interpretation is that The Bible recognizes no significant distinction between personal orthodoxy and corporate orthopraxis. To be a person of orthodox faith is, at the same time, to be a person of right action toward one’s fellow man. This is not political. This is Biblical.
Perhaps the greatest prophetic voice available to the city in 2018 is not a Black Lives Matter revolutionary, a conservative news pundit, or a pop music star with a social conscience. The most prophetic voice available to the city is a gospel preacher who understands the implications of the gospel to be both to the human soul and the society that traps the human spirit. That to get the gospel right is to extend beyond the preservation of right doctrine; and under that truth apply that right doctrine in the leadership of the church to make public its profession of her faith. In other words, families broken by systems, vulnerable populations, systems of injustice, and broken communities need to see a church that demonstrates right doctrine in how it functions outside the walls of the church.
This is not a call to party-platform politics. We’ve seen enough of that. We recognize an individual’s freedom of choice, but we more forthrightly recognize the Christian’s obligation to call out wickedness, abhor systemic injustice, and love mercy on a corporate, societal level.
The gospel at work in the city produces hope in the city. It suggests that we can have real joy in likely places when the motivation for our joy is not our circumstances. Our preaching should apply the message of the gospel to the circumstances of the people who face despair.
Righteousness & Justice
That systemic injustice is sin, and that God has something to say about it ought to reverberate through our preaching in the city – with the same force as we talk about individual sin. Undoubtedly, someone is thinking, “What does this have to do with scripture and preaching?” Let me tell you. Preaching that delivers hope in our cities need not engage societal issues in lieu of the gospel. That kind of preaching engages societal injustices because of the gospel.
While learning the original biblical languages, I made – for myself – a startling discovery. It was for me something I knew instinctively, but could not fully articulate biblically. I learned enough Koine Greek and Old Testament Hebrew to know that I am not a scholar in the original languages and how to find a good scholar when I need one. So, lest I be accused of some exegetical fallacy, like an illegitimate totality transfer, let me humbly submit my observation.
The New Testament words for righteousness and justice share a root; they are a kind of cognate cousin. They work in the same semantic domain (see Rom. 3:5, 26). In fact, they are at times interchangeable. The implication is that the notion of righteousness is related to justice.
This is what makes the claim of the gospel so scandalous. It is that we who are sinners are now – through the shed blood of Jesus Christ – made righteous before God and have peace with God. We have been justified; that is, righteousness has been credited to our sin-depleted accounts. The idea is that righteousness and justice go together. One cannot have justice by avoiding righteousness. And one cannot declare righteous what is not just.
Those who preach hope in our major metropolitan areas have understood and applied this interrelationship for centuries. For instance, in North America, even the imposition of wrongful biblical propositions to enforce slavery did not infringe upon the black preacher’s insistence that the Bible said something more, something different than that we had to be slaves. It sang of freedom, both for the oppressed and their oppressors.
This is the very arena where the gospel must be preached. This is where gospel hope is actualized. Hope is discovered in the very conditions that cause despair. Those of us who would dare to proclaim the hope of the Gospel should demonstrate the inseparable relationship between God’s righteousness and His expectation for justice in the earth.
You do not have to agree with my proposition, but it’s helpful to ponder. We must in and with our preaching declare God’s righteous standard to a world that He created. This takes courage. Many argue that the pulpit is not the place to speak to issues of justice and righteousness in culture and society, but I submit to you that every preacher speaks to it in some way. The pulpit is going to speak to issues of societal justice one way or another. Just because a preacher does not address it from the pulpit does not mean that he is quiet. What it means is that his silence over issues of social justice is a form of speech itself.
Let me go a step further. I propose that our implicit insistence that the Christian pulpit is not the place to address issues of societal injustice is more of an American notion of the separation of church and state. It is not our biblical, prophetic heritage. A cursory reading of the Old Testament, especially Isaiah – where we get some of our clearest and strongest preaching against injustice – reveals that the ministry of our savior came in power to ‘society’s nobodies’ (61:1-2).
In the context of Luke 4, when Jesus picks up the Isaiah 61 passage it was not a dismissal of the needs of suffering people with an exclusive focus on the exegetical points of Isaiah. It was a ministry to the oppressed. Spiritually oppressed? Absolutely. But let’s not stop there. The message is not limited to spiritual oppression. It was spiritual to the point where it encompassed the whole of us, including our physical wellbeing.
When Jesus says, “Today this is fulfilled in your presence” he had already inaugurated his ministry as seen in his physical healing of the lame, opening the eyes of the blind and even raising the dead. If we make it spiritual then we allegorize the text. What this tells us is that Jesus’ ministry was not solely about the human spirit. Yes, it is about the salvation and sanctification of humanity, but that includes the human condition, caring about men’s bodies not just their souls.
Now this is no suggestion that our Christian preaching de-emphasize the condition of men’s souls or the importance of man’s unregenerate position. It is however a rejection of that kind of preaching that minimizes the situations that trap a man’s life on earth.
The idea of church and state, in which Christian preaching deals exclusively with spiritual matters is not fully biblical. In the closing verses of Matthew 25 we learn much about the evidence of our relationship with Jesus Christ. How we deal with the hungry, the imprisoned, and the poor indicates how much of our faith has been internalized. This is the context in which Jesus says He will separate the authentic from the fake. The outworking of our redemption is to do and care about the least, lost and left out.
To say less is to allegorize, over-spiritualize and deemphasize half of the Old Testament and the ministry of Jesus Christ. Of course, there are those who do so irresponsibly; essentially making the church an empty social reformation program apart from the redeeming ministry of Jesus Christ. But on the whole our proclamation in the city must be seen to be in partnership with the disenfranchised.
But I haven’t answered an important question (or several) yet. Where does this hope come from?
In the heart of Bedford England stands a larger-than-life statue of the famed seventeenth-century author John Bunyan. So imposing is the size of the statue that some prankster has painted giant steps from the statue to the neighboring lavatory – as if to suggest that Bunyan still lives, and proof is that he still goes the bathroom. Any reader of literature knows that though Bunyan has long been dead, his brilliant work Pilgrim’s Progress, does indeed live on. That book has been translated into more languages than any other book in history, with the exception of the Bible.
There he stood in the John Bunyan Museum. Ravi Zacharias tells the story of his amazement as he and his family wandered through the museum built to Bunyan’s memory. He recounts the museum is an expression of gratitude to Bunyan and his work. So centered on Pilgrim’s Progress is this museum, that a copy of the book is exhibited in every language in which it has been printed. Zacharias noted the impression he felt seeing people of various nationalities engrossed in the display, walking from room to room, studying the exhibits.
Leaving the museum, he stopped and commented to the woman at the front desk, “Isn’t it amazing that a simple little book from the hands of a potter has won such worldwide acclaim?”
To which she replied, “I suppose that is true, but I must confess that I haven’t read it.” Aghast and amazed, Zacharias prodded, ‘Well why not?’ and there came the reply “I found it too difficult, I suppose.”
What does one say to the person who sells tickets to a museum, the existence of which is owed to one book, while she herself has left the work unread?
What a frightening picture of the church: Leaders who have not read the book; people who stand at the door or in the pulpit granting access to the church but are unfamiliar with the truth that binds it. I think we can conclude with Zacharias that such proximity to truth and distance from its worth is repeated in the church times without number. In the words of G. K. Chesterton, we hold the dust and let the gold go free.
We can’t have churches that do not read the book, or pastors who do not preach the book! Our hope comes from a savior who is God in the flesh, was crucified, buried and raised on the third day. When we have that, we have real hope.
Charlie Dates is Senior Pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is a contributing editor of Preaching. This article is adapted from a presentation at the International Congress on Preaching.
[i]James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners and the Great Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 4.
[ii]John Michael Giggie, After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875-1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 10.
[iii]Joe William Trotter, The African American Experience (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001). Three hundred seventy eight estimates are analyzed with the www.uscensus.gov historical data by race.
[iv]Such dramatic growth of the Negro population was the case in Detroit. Trotter, consulting Census Data, says that Detroit’s population rose from less than 6,000 in 1910 to more than 120,000 in 1920.
[v]Roger Biles, Richard J. Daley: Politics, Race, and the Governing of Chicago (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1995), 119. This is an astounding fact attributing to the notion that this migration was more like a relocation of African-Americans to the North and specifically to Chicago. Biles uses this sociological data to underscore Dr. Martin L. King’s interest in the northern ghettos. There were more Black people living in the housing projects of Chicago in 1966 than lived in Selma, Alabama—where Dr. King led a massive march for voting rights in 1965. Some say Selma was his greatest civil rights victory.
[vi] Fields, Bruce. Introduction to Black Theology, 2001. Baker Publishing. Page 11
[vii] Morgan, G. Campell. “Hope” Sermon on Romans 8:24 in Classic Sermons on Hope compiled by Warren Wiersbe, page 93