When I finished reading J. D. Vance’s New York Times bestselling book, Hillbilly Elegy, I had one thought: This book makes it so clear why the local church as God designed it is the hope of the world. Now, it might not be immediately obvious what a memoir of a young attorney describing what it was like to grow up in the poor, white communities of Ohio and Kentucky has to do with the local church. So let me show why, when I closed the book, I had that thought.
The subtitle of J. D.’s book is “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” In the book, J. D. wants to describe the lives and circumstances of his “people.” He writes:
…I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition—their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.
J.D. points out that these people are the most pessimistic of any group in America and are more socially isolated than ever. In the book, he wants to tell the story of “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south”. He wants to describe what this life of social, regional, and class decline “feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck”.
As J. D. tells his own story and describes the life of those living in the communities where he grew up, he makes a number of observations along the way about the nature of the struggle and its roots. While he notes that the causes are wide-ranging and complex, he repeatedly returns to several themes in particular throughout the book.
First, in these communities there is a deep lack of social capital—that vital network of relationships that connect people with resources, work, and education opportunities.
Second, there is a dearth of character formation. The values of hard work and honesty, even church attendance, are given a great amount of lip service in these communities, but J. D. notes that there is little substance to them.
Third, there is a deep lack of hope which results in an attitude of deep pessimism and resignation to “the way things are.” People don’t believe that their lives will or can get better.
It was as I reflected on these themes that I was reminded anew how the local church as God designed it is uniquely able to be an incubator of human flourishing that addresses these deep needs within a community.
On the issue of social capital, the local church as God designed it is to be a place where people from radically different backgrounds and places in society—rich and poor, well-connected and not so well-connected—with a wide variety of occupational sectors and skill sets come together in a community centered around Jesus and His mission in the world. Local churches can be places where people who would not otherwise know one another, spend time with one another regularly, much less love and sacrifice for one another, regularly come together to care for, encourage, and serve one another.
A great picture of this in the New Testament is in Acts 16. In this chapter the author, Luke, records the apostle Paul bringing the good news of the gospel to the city of Philippi. The account opens with Paul leading a successful businesswoman named Lydia to Christ. Then he liberates a slave girl, bringing her into the community. Finally, the account concludes with Paul bringing a blue-collar jailer to Christ.
Now, in this one church community, there is a white-collar businesswoman, a former slave, and a blue-collar public employee. This kind of local church community teems with the sort of social capital that leads to human flourishing in multiple dimensions, not the least of which being economic flourishing. The local church as God designed it is the hope of the world.
However, social capital alone is not enough to produce human and economic flourishing. Character formation is also vital and, again, the local church is uniquely positioned to produce people of character who are able to practice delayed gratification, love for others, seeking the common good, and the pursuit of hard work—in school, at home, or in the workplace.
In his recent book, The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity, Tom Nelson points out the deep links between the local church, character formation, and economic flourishing:
Economic systems depend on virtuous people, because the systems themselves take on the moral aspect from their participants. Virtuous people make virtuous economies. The spiritual formation of a more virtuous people is an important task that the local church is uniquely empowered and positioned to accomplish. The local church, then, is not a neutral or even a parasitic actor within a symbiotic economic system, but rather a prime value-added contributor to flourishing economic and social life. (53-54)
Local churches, when they are carrying out what they are designed by God to do, bring people from spiritual death to spiritual life, setting them on a lifelong journey of deepening in Christlike character. Indeed, C.S. Lewis has noted that the whole goal of the local church is to produce “little Christs”:
Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ…We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy [Spirit] will arise in us…Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else. (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 200)
The kind of character that results when the Holy Spirit arises in us is marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Communities saturated with people marked by these kinds of character traits cannot help but flourish. The local church as God designed it is the hope of the world.
Finally, the local church is the place of hopeful realism. When it is operating according to God’s design, the local church is a place that does not simply ignore the problems of its community or preach an escapist gospel “that we just have to hang in there until Jesus comes back but, in the meantime, we can’t do anything meaningful to make things better.”
Rather, it is a group of people marked by an honest, unblinking assessment of the real problems that face their community while maintaining an unshakable belief that things can improve. This sort of hopeful realism takes seriously the role that God has designed human beings to play in the wise governing and ruling of His world. God intends to use us, His image bearers, to accomplish His will on earth. When this sense of responsibility is coupled with a deep dependence on God, hope, energy, and human flourishing are released into a community. The local church as God designed it is the hope of the world.
This is why Christ Community is passionate about multiplying healthy congregations here in Kansas City, across the nation, and around the world. When healthy local churches are planted, nurtured, and grown in a community, they provide a stable institutional presence for human and economic flourishing that is unmatched. The local church as God designed it is the hope of the world.