Ep. 074: Doing Justice in the Ordinary
When I first opened up Tony’s book, “Ordinary”. I was surprised to find a biblical appeal for Christians to act on justice and mercy. We’re excited to be talking with pastor and author Tony Merida this week on the issue of how we, as Christians, can do justice in the ordinary things of life. Often we can think (and I’m guilty of this) that justice and mercy ministries take away from “gospel,” but Tony quickly diminishes that idea by explaining that the gospel is what empowers us to do justice. Also, doing justice doesn’t always mean quitting your job and flying halfway around the world to bust a human trafficking ring (although it might), but it also looks like inviting your low-income neighbour over for dinner.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is Tony Merida. Tony is the pastor for preaching and vision at Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Thank you Tony for chatting with me today!
Thanks Isaac, great to be with you.
Before we get into the topic of our conversation, why don’t you first let us know who you are – specifically, I always love hearing how you meet Jesus (or how did Jesus find you?) and where are you and what are you doing now?
Yeah, so I was born in Detroit, Michigan but moved to Kentucky when I was small. Grew up with a dad who was not a Christian. He was a hard-working factory worker. My mom was a Christian. She took me to church services when I was young, but I never really understood the gospel until later.
I went to college, went to a small college in Kentucky on a baseball scholarship. In my sophomore year I was a shortstop, and our second baseman, Steven, was a Christian. Through his witness, I became a Christian in my sophomore year. It was really a dramatic conversion in many ways. I was living a very rebellious lifestyle – was not interested in God, the Bible, or anything to do with Christianity. And he just lived a very attractive, grace-filled Christian life in front of me. He had a tremendous impact on my life. The Lord used him to bring me to Himself.
Then I started sharing my testimony a bit, attended Bible studies, and began to see that I really loved to teach the Bible – to preach about God’s grace. But I really didn’t know what I was doing.
In my junior year I met a seminary professor from New Orleans who came up to speak at our school for three consecutive nights. And that was the first night I really sat under really good Bible teaching. My heart just burned with me – kind of a Luke 24 experience. And I said, “That’s what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
I ended up finishing my degree, played four years of baseball, and then moved to New Orleans to study under him – study expository preaching. There in New Orleans – I mean – my life was really transformed in many ways. I learned the basics of an evangelical theology, but also learned what it was like to live in a hard city. I eventually met my wife through some summer ministry experiences. We got married. I worked in the city. She was actually leading senior adults on mission experiences in New Orleans. I pastored in the city. We went through Hurricane Katrina. We then started a lot of disaster relief social initiatives.
And then through a series of events – I had wanted to plant a church for a long time – six years ago we were looking at cities in between New Orleans and where I’m at now in Raleigh, North Carolina. We adopted five children – we have four from Ukraine, and one from Ethiopia. We were looking at midsized cities with a lot of college students, I thought we would appeal to them. So this [Raleigh] is a great area for that. We started Imago Dei about six years ago, and the church is really done well.
In addition to that, I’ve been teaching at a seminary in Wake Forest. And that’s where we’re at now.
Along the way I’ve written a few books.
You know, recently when I was studying you a bit, I went to your church site and saw that you’re going through Romans which is great. I listened to the first one, and it was great! You’re doing a good work there. Anytime in our culture, anytime a pastor is just preaching the Word, my heart rejoices. So, thank you for that.
You mentioned that you’ve written a couple books. So, you’ve written a book a couple years ago called Ordinary: How to Turn the World Upside Down. And as I started to read the introduction or the forward, you mentioned that you were approached to write this book. And at first you were like, “No, I don’t want to do this.” Tell us how and why this book was written.
I was telling someone the other day, I have about twelve books in print and I didn’t set out to write any of them. I have three books on preaching and one’s kind of a revision of the bigger one, and I was approached to write that because I was teaching preaching at the time. And I decided to write it, I was really young.
And then I was approached to write a book called Orphanology after some folks heard me speak on the subject. I said, “I don’t know enough about orphan care to write a book on it.” I said, “I’ll team write it with someone,” and so that’s what happened.
And then Dr. Danny Akin had this idea that we would write commentaries together, it wasn’t my idea. And we’ve been able to put out a bunch of commentaries.
So, you know, kind of write in the middle – I was actually writing a commentary on First and Second Kings – and they said, “We would like for you to write a book,” this was B&H Publishers. And I said, “I don’t really have the time – I’m writing enough books. I’ve got five kids and one wife and a church and a job.” And they said, “Well, write a small book,” and I was like, “Okay, I could probably do that.”
They wanted me to write something on justice and mercy ministry from a gospel-centred, evangelical perspective. Really a book that would relate to the ordinary Joe. Not so much a big theory on justice and mercy, and not a big book on the stats of the needs around the world. But more of a – in fact, the original title was “Everyday Justice.” Like, how do we do neighbour love within the ordinary rhythm of life? There’s a quote in the book that turned the publisher around on the title, and we ended up calling it Ordinary. It’s a quote form Steve Timmis, who’s in England, “Most ministry involves ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality.” And so, we really communicate that a lot in our church – basically just saying that
ministry is not so much about adding something new to your life, it’s really about living with intentionality in the world you already live in.
Because they had this in mind, and because I was communicating this missional identity to our people, I thought, “Okay, it would be good for our church for me to write this.” I remember hearing Tim Keller say something like, for a pastor, “Don’t feel the pressure to write books. Write stuff, if you’re going to write, that is going to help your church. Not books that are going to take you away from your church.” I wanted this book first and foremost to be for our people. I wanted to solidify some of the things we were saying.
So we took some practical ways you can live with gospel intentionality to do word and deed ministry. Things like orphan care and advocacy and neighbour love and hospitality and prayer. Tried to weave in a lot of stories of individuals who are not in vocational ministry. Stories from the past as well from some of the heroes like William Wilberforce and MLK Jr. and others. And so yeah, that’s how it came to be.
It’s funny. Your original title, “Everyday Justice,” when someone would read that and if I would have read that first, I would have gotten the idea that, “Okay, this is going to be about justice ministry,” right? But, it’s this Ordinary title. So to be honest, I wasn’t really expecting this book, even after reading the little synopsis to really be about justice, caring for the oppressed, and advocacy and stuff like that.
So, when I first read that, I was like, “Great! This book is going to encourage ordinary Christians to live out their God-ordained lives in their homes, in their work, their communities,” but, after reading your introduction, was taken aback by the clear and true fact that the Christian who is living out their God-ordained life, it has to include that justice and mercy.
Can you explain this in a greater way? That all Christians have a duty to do justice and care for the orphan and all that kind of stuff, in their lives?
Yeah, I think, in many ways, every book is written in a context obviously, and we have a lot of books that are reactions to a perceived problem. And for me, my book is more of a book geared toward the evangelical world. The ‘mainline to liberal’ segment of Christendom tend to really focus on neighbour love and social causes. I’ve always admired a lot of their work. But I’m more of, well I am a conservative evangelical that believes in expository preaching and – I mean, we’re going through Romans, right?
And I come to the conviction of neighbour love and justice for the same reason I have a conviction about church planting and global disciple-making and prayer. Because I see it in the Bible.
I’ve been bothered by a lack of emphasis on social ministry from an evangelical Christian perspective. Even when you read a lot of spiritual discipline books on how one grows spiritually, they tend to focus on inward, personal disciplines. Things like prayer, fasting, Scripture memory, stewardship, things like that which are all super important. But rarely do you find anything on caring for the poor, caring for the orphan, the widow, as a means of spiritual growth.
And so, part of my pitch and proclamation on this subject recently has been, not only do the poor need you, but you need the poor. I think you see that in places like Isaiah 58, a great chapter on caring for the marginalized. Isaiah says, “If you do this, then your light will go up like the dawn, then you will experience healing, then you will be refreshed,” it’s like revival and renewal actually come when you offer yourself in sacrificial service and not just sitting at a desk praying.
Though part of me wants to see the church unleash not only for the good of the poor, but also because of what I think it could do to them. And I feel like what part of the challenge has been in trying to talk about caring for the orphan, the widow and so on, has been a push back that this turns it into the social gospel, we’ll end up losing the gospel and those types of arguments. But I think that’s a product of this binary culture that we live in, where if you affirm one thing people automatically think you’re affirming the opposite – or that you can’t hold two things together.
I just don’t see that being a problem for Jesus. I just see Him loving neighbour and preaching the gospel.
I don’t think the Christian wakes up and says, “Which one of these should we do?” I think we just go out and we say, “We should love people holistically.” And as we’re giving them water, we’re telling them about the living water. As we’re caring for the orphan, we’re telling them about a Father who adopts children. As we’re clothing people, we’re telling people about the righteousness of Christ that is ours. An integrative model of mission I think is desperately needed in the church. And to stop separating what God has joined together. So that’s the context from which I wrote it.
It also came out of my own experience of being convicted from a lack of involvement, personally, in caring for the orphan and the widow. And so in some ways it’s a public apology and repentance of my own. “Come on, the church can make a massive, lasting difference if we will start living with intentionally and sensitivity.”
Recently I was interviewing the director of church mobilization for the International Justice Mission in Canada – awesome guy, Mark Wollenburg. He even brought to mind Scriptures like Matthew 25, when Jesus doesn’t separate those two things at all. When you’re caring for the poor, you’re caring for Me.
Tony, I should also say that from reading just your introduction, I was convicted from your conviction because you were saying that you thought that “Social justice work, that’s for the liberal theologians,” and I confess that I’ve thought that same sort of thing.
So I’m talking to my wife after reading this in your book, and we’re like, “How can we do this? How can we care for the orphan, widow, oppressed? What can we do?” And then it clicked: our landlord is a widow. So it was like, “Hey, here’s this great opportunity! Let’s invite her down for dinner. Let’s do something!” So I thank God through your book for that!
Well yeah, what I’m trying to say in the book is, those dinners that you have – we look at them as very non-spectacular, but
lives are changed around dinner tables.
If we’ll begin to see that. If you just look at the ministry of Jesus in the gospel of Luke, He’s eating with people regularly. We tend to minimize that because I think we’re addicted to sensationalism in the church. We like the shock and awe and the conferences and the big names and so on, but the reality is that the Lord often works through those dinner conversations.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Rosaria Butterfield’s testimony. That was, again, a dinner. The pastor just invited her over for dinner. That’s where it starts.
You touched on this already, but let’s pour into it a little more specifically. Many Christians, and I think about the Christians that are around my age [twenties], they sort of believe they have really busy lives. They’re getting married, they have school, jobs, all these different things, and they don’t exactly know how they can do those “dinners.” I guess they’re still thinking in the “big” sense, not in the dinner sense.
But in the midst of all that, what are some ways that you encouraged your church, your college students in your church, to do justice on a daily and weekly basis?
Yeah, that’s a great question man. When some people come to us in our church, church people who’ve been to other churches, they often ask questions like, “How do I get plugged into Imago Dei?” And I’ll often say to them, “Go eat with people.” They normally want a program or something. And I’m just saying, “You eat, don’t you? Like, do you eat a couple times a day? Maybe you could eat with someone? Is that a possibility?” And my point is,
living with intentionality involves looking at your life, and asking “What am I already doing?” and “How can I fill it full of gospel intentionality?”
So for me, which is just me, not everybody else, I coach baseball – eleven and twelve year olds. It’s coaching, it’s fun, it’s sport, but it’s also a great missional opportunity for me to meet families and like we’ve already mentioned, having them over for dinner before or after the game. It’s remarkable the kind of impact that sort of thing can have.
We’ve encouraged people to start looking through their networks, networks like their family network, their vocational network, their recreation network, their commercial network (where they shop), and I’m leaving one out. But to look at their lives geographically, I think that was the fifth one, who’s in your neighbourhood?
Like you said, with your landlord. Look at where you’re working out or where you’re playing. And again, just looking for ways to live with intentionality. And start small. I feel like this is part of the problem again, that we want to – we tend to think if we can’t eradicate human trafficking, we shouldn’t even try and do anything. Or, we’re not ever going to solve the orphan crisis, so why bother? But I think what you’ve just mentioned, that’s a great example of starting small, and it’s amazing what can happen if we’ll just be faithful in small things.
The other day I was shooting basketball with my son Joshua. We’re Kentucky fans, and Kentucky players tend to go pro after their first year. And he looked at me and said, “Papa, should I go pro after my freshman or sophomore year?” You know, he’s in sixth grade. I’m like, “How about you make the middle school team first, okay?” I think we tend to have that ideology in our heads, at least I did as a young dude, I didn’t want to do anything that was small. I wanted everything to be huge.
But I’m just saying, “Look for opportunities in your neighbourhood, look for the snotty-nosed kid who’s riding a bike in your neighbourhood all the time and his parents don’t seem to be home, or look for the elderly in your neighbourhood. Is there a program in your neighbourhood for after-school tutoring?”
There are places, pockets, and people that can really benefit from our basic neighbour love.
And it’s amazing what it will do for our own soul if we be intentional.
Tony, how does the gospel and the theology of the gospel encourage and empower us as we go and do this?
Well, I think this is the big difference between what I’m saying on social ministry and what others in a different world are talking about when they talk about social ministries. One of the reasons the gospel is so important is we’re not earning our salvation by caring for the poor. I fear that a lot of people believe that. And so,
motivation matters. Not just our action, but our motivation matters.
The reason it’s important for somebody who believes in a classic orthodox doctrine of salvation – working the gospel into our hearts will keep us from feeling superior to the poor. Because in the gospel, we are the poor, having nothing to bring to the table. In the gospel we are the orphan, and God has adopted us. In the gospel we are the widow, and Jesus has become our Groom. In the gospel we are the sojourner and we’ve become part of a kingdom of priests. If anyone should identify with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless, it’s Christians. Because in the gospel, that’s us!
The more I work the gospel into my heart, the more sensitive I become to these folks. The more I begin to see myself rightly. And really, the more joyous it becomes. It becomes less of a burden and more of an opportunity to express the coming kingdom of God, which is another piece of this, to put on display what our King is like. What this kingdom to come is going to be like. And it’s a privilege to be a part of that.
As we wrap up here Tony, I thought it would be cool to ask this question. You mention in your book that before the Holy Spirit convicted you of your lack of a practical aspect of doing justice, you thought you were “doing Christianity” pretty good. You were a pastor, a professor, you had a marriage, all these things.
How would you encourage Christians to stay humble and open for when God does come and convict, because He surely will, and teach them as they grow?
That’s a great question. It could be answered in many ways, but I’ll just mention the first thing that popped in my head. We all have blind spots in our lives. And part of my problem was that I was swimming in one particular vain of Christianity.
And there are so many tribes, and I’m talking about solid Christianity, so many solid tribes within faithful Christianity. And the body of Christ is benefited by all of them because a lot of them have various strengths. And you mentioned IJM a while ago – they’re doing such great work. You’ve got other great organizations like Compassion International that are doing great work. These are more known groups of course. And then you’ve got tribes that are known for great expository preaching, gospel-centred preaching, theology and so on. And I just had not paid attention to the broader segment of evangelicalism, and it was to my peril. And I think it would benefit all of us to befriend Christians who are not like us.
I think we grow best when we’re with people who are different from us, because they’re asking different questions.
I think this relates to race, for example. I’m more sensitive to racial issues when I have friends who are not white, who are in my house, who put their feet on my chair, and open my fridge, and get involved in my life. As one of my friends says, “Iron sharpens iron best to cross lines of difference.”
If we’re not intentionally getting in places where we’re the minority, or where people are asking different questions, I think it will stunt our growth.
It’s good for us to be around people who are very involved in good social ministry, it’s very good for us to be involved with people who love the Bible and sound theology, because I think we just want to conform our whole lives to the whole of Scripture and not reduce it to one particular expression, if you will.
So, for me it’s just been good for me to listen. And you don’t have to agree with everything that everybody says, but to be open, to be mindful, to be a listener to the larger body of Christ. And pray that the Lord will give you discernment and make you more like Jesus in the process.
Thank you so much Tony. What I’m going to do to our listeners, if you are interested in Tony’s book Ordinary, or his other eleven, I mean who can surely just go online and search them. But for Ordinary you can always go to, do you know the website there Tony?
The easiest thing is to go to Amazon man.
Okay, you know what? Let’s just do Amazon. Go ahead and do that. I’ll put the links to that on our episode page as well. But Tony, let me say once again thank you. I appreciate your wisdom and I thank God for the work He’s doing through you over in North Carolina. So thank you so much!
Thank you Isaac, I appreciate it man. I’ll be looking for that invitation to Vancouver as well!