As part of the team behind the Common Good RVA initiative, I have a particular interest in the phrase ‘common good’ which has been appearing more and more frequently in a variety of contexts--both Christian and secular. One such reference which recently caught my eye came in the Summer 2014 edition of The City Journal, a consistently wonderful publication of Houston Baptist University. It has caused me to think about the common good. In a section entitled Thoughts on the Age, writer-at-large Hunter Baker reflects on his attendance at the Q Conference in Nashville this past spring which is advertised with the tagline: “Join us in advancing the common good.” In a largely dismissive tone, Baker offers an etiological explanation for common good movements. He speculates, “I suspect I am seeing the cultural stance of those who have grown up in pervasively Christian subcultures.”
As someone committed to the idea of the common good, I couldn’t help but notice how incorrect Baker’s suspicion is with respect to my own story. I’m a product of the mainline church in liberal and highly secularized New England (absent a real Christian subculture), a graduate of a well-regarded secular research university, and a more regular reader of mainstream media than insider Christian media.
Motives for the Common Good
More than just this anecdotal counter evidence, however, I think Baker lacks an appreciation of the larger motives behind the current emphasis on the common good. Motives that are both Biblical and practical.
We started Common Good RVA because we believe that the Bible indicates it. From its beginning, the Bible’s scope is cosmic. To its end, the redeeming work of God in the world involves all things. Jesus’ ministry--as it is announced through the heralding of Luke’s gospel (itself echoing the prophet Isaiah) involves the captive being freed, the blind seeing, the oppressed being loosed. Jesus’ first miracle--turning water to wine at a wedding in Cana--itself is an act of common good. What Jesus reveals at Cana, writes Andy Crouch in his book Playing God, "is the ultimate truth of his mission: to make all things new, to bring all things to the glory for which they were made." Furthermore, Jesus’ sustained teaching urges his followers to be salt and light within the darkness of the world, preserving and illuminating within public, not just private, space.
Common Good RVA also emphasizes the common good because it is a practical and winsome posture for God’s people in the world. Baker lists a trifecta of issues (sexuality, marriage, life’s beginning) that aren’t resolved by emphasis on common good. He’s right, of course. Focusing on common good won’t address every important issue. But his language is revealing. He worries that changing focus from such issues will cause Christians to “lose momentum in those battles and leave the remaining fighters isolated.”
What if his language reveals part the problem? The church has become known for its battles and its fighters. Christians have become identified by what they are against rather than what they are for. An emphasis on the common good can help to flip the script, allowing Christians to align themselves with others in their cities (not against them); it begins to build trust in places where the commonwealth has long eroded. It fosters working together rather than shouting past. It gets Christians out of an evangelical echo chamber where voices grow only more strident and more unintelligible to the broader, common world.
We, too, are Human
Ours is not a posture of rebellion against Christian subculture. Nor is it a posture of battle against the culture. It is a posture of movement towards and engagement with the skeptical, dominant culture. It is a gesture towards those long suspicious of the Church, communicating that we, too, are human.
There is much we agree on. We see the same world. We feel the same pain. We bear the same image of the Creator God. So let’s talk. Let’s trust that common grace, though bent and distorted as it is by sin, is still grace that can (in whatever small ways) lead us towards a common good.
Common Good RVA is hosting a conference on Friday, October 3rd, and Saturday, October 4th to explore how Richmonders can use their vocational lives to write a different story for the city and for the region. Friday is a public exploration of the common good; Saturday is a deeper dive into faith, neighborhood, and vocation. More details and registration can be found here.
(Erik Bonkovsky is one of the pastors here at City Church.)