When it comes to unpacking the Upstream vision, I am reminded of this story –
One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?” The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said…“I made a difference for that one.”
Christianity has a long tradition of caring for people, medically, physically, spiritually, legally, financially, materially, educationally, philosophically, and pastorally. This has resulted in Christianity being described by historian Tom Hollandin book Dominion, as the single greatest positive influence for good, and sociologist Professor Rodney Stark in his book, The Rise of Christianity, has made the point that it was this practical care of Christians for all people — especially the marginalised, not just their own, that has led to it growing (and continuing to grow) exponentially around the world. This, of course, has resulted in schools, hospitals, and orphanages being established anywhere the fragrance of Christ has been scented. It is fair to describe most of this caring work asdownstream activity. Professor Stark also points out that one of the attractive features of early Christianity was its lack of dependence upon government to finance its aid for the sick, the vulnerable, and the abandoned — because for its first three centuries of expansion there was no concept of State welfare or aid. It’s only in fairly recent times that governments have adopted and replicated this Christian ministry of care through their various welfare programs. It’s a noble thing that governments and Christian organisations work cooperatively to alleviate downstream challenges. And perhaps the reason that governments rarely get involved in upstreamsolutions is the fact of their election-cycles. They may only have 2, 3, or 4 years to implement an upstream plan that requires 20+ years to bear any fruit. Thus, society’s greatest societal problems – crime, illiteracy, marriage breakdowns, domestic abuse, sexual abuse of women and children, meaningful employment, adequate private housing, equitable wealth opportunities, elder care, health care, and education (as distinct from schooling) are rarely addressedupstream. This is why I want to encourage Christians, whose efforts are not subject to election-cycles, to play their part in our collective upstream strategy. Here’s how.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27
Rev. Tim Costello addressing the Tasmanian legal fraternity, January 2021
Because Christians have long cared for the vulnerable in society, some people have come to view Christianity as merely a welfare organisation. Some Christians have objected to this characterisation and asserted that Christianity cares more for people’s eternal destinies than it does for their temporal needs. This has caused some believers to identify themselves as either left-wing (social justice) or right-wing (evangelism and morality) Christians. In a recent address to the legal fraternity of Tasmania, Rev. Tim Costello, the former CEO of World Vision Australia, pointed out that Christianity is not an “or” but is an “and” when it comes to caring for the vulnerable and upholding to the classic truths of Christ’s teaching about the human condition and the eternal hope of the Gospel found only in the cross of Christ. He cited Christ’s words in the Beatitudes about His followers being “salt” and “light” to reinforce his point. Light, he stated, was commonly what the left strived to do by exposing injustice. Salt, on the other hand, was what preserved and flavoured goodness.
To paraphrase what Mr. Costello was pointing out, Christians are aware that we live in a seen and unseen world where temporal needs are easily seen and eternal needs are not so easily seen but are none the less vitally important as well. To paraphrase the paraphrase: we all live in a material world and we all interact in an unseen spiritually material realm. It is in the realm of the unseen immaterial world (although I am deliberately using the term ‘spiritual material’ to describe that it is a real realm comprised of spiritual matter) that we experience our greatest pain. We refer to this immaterial (spiritual) pain in everyday parlance:
Psychological pain – ‘psych-’ comes from the Biblical Greek word psuché which is translated into English as ‘soul’. Strictly speaking then, psychology is the study of the soul.
Emotional pain – we frequently call this – heartache, to refer to emotional pain of loss, grief, disappointment, jealousy, annoyance, anger, or bitterness. Such painful emotions are not the result of chemical secretions; rather, they are the cause of them. Emotional pain is the ache of the soul.
Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief. Proverbs 14:13
When a person’s soul aches, the downstream result is often excessive alcohol or illicit drug use. For some it leads to unsociable behaviour such verbal or physical abuse of others. For some it leads to promiscuity in the vain pursuit of looking for lasting love. For some it looks like withdrawal from people and over-eating. Each of these downstream problems also become downward spirals that can only get worse unless the cycle is broken somehow..
¶ Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation. Psalm 42:5
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:16
Firstly, going upstream should look like churches growing significantly and cooperating more regularly. As churches contribute toward the solutions for society’s greatest problems it should also raise the general respect that Christians are afforded in culture. This will increase a community’s openness and receptivity to the gospel (Matt. 5:16; Eph. 2:10).
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6
Secondly, it will look like the fostering of a generation of young Christian leaders who will increasingly see their call as “bi-vocational” — working in a profession or trade but also with a mission to minister into the headwaters of what would have been society’s greatest problems if they hadn’t gone upstream and averted them. Their mission won’t be to “change the world”, but it will be to help change their community, one life at a time. This should result in a lowering of the crime-rate, decreased prisoner recidivism, lowered prison populations, marriages that go the distance, children that grow up in a home with a loving father and mother, the beautifying of our private and public spaces (“Edenifying”).
I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. First John 2:14
Thirdly, it will look like Christian men developing a broader, deeper, grander vision of what Biblical masculinity is and how to live up to it. This will result in changing the culture toward how men view and treat women, resulting in decrease violence toward women and children, and the lowering of sexual assault.
But how do we get there? It’s important to acknowledge that many Christian organisations are already making a difference upstream. Christian schools, churches, Scripture Union, Prison Fellowship, and The Collective Shout, are seeking to make a difference that will have a positive flow-on effect for years to come. But there’s something each one of us can begin to do upstream.
For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? First Peter 4:17
From the studies that I’ve seen, the rate of domestic abuse/violence against women by men is just as high within the church as it is in the general community (ABC; SAFER). In our city of Launceston alone, the rate of domestic abuse/violence is sadly among the highest in Australia. There are several Christian agencies working downstream to provide support to victims (note). The impact of domestic violence (DV) has several further downstream effects. It can lead to marriage breakdown, murder, homelessness, the creation of orphans, alcohol and drug abuse, criminal activity, imprisonment, poor literacy outcomes for children, school bullying, generational financial hardship, and even sexual abuse. While our State has several deeply troubling societal problems, many of them stem from partner-violence against women perpetrated by men. If we could dramatically lower the DV rate in Tasmania we could avoid a host of these further downstream problems. I have a plan for how we can begin to achieve this:
1. IMPLEMENT A NEW VISION OF MANHOOD WITHIN THE CHRISTIAN CHURCHES OF TASMANIA
We go upstream as far as possible. This necessarily involves developing a rite of passage for a young boy into young manhood. Ideally this would have included an ethos and understanding by Christian parents, churches and Christian Schools about the formation of godly manhood among their pre-teen boys. On the Saturday immediately after a boy turns 13 he participates in a church-based event and a rite of passage into manhood. From that point, he is not to be considered a child or an adolescent but is now regarded as a young man. This rite of passage would be done around a meal where two or three invited men share what they have learned about what it means to be a godly man. The young man’s father reads a declaration of manhood over his son, and presents him with a gift of a small hand-made wooden box. The men of the church who are present at this meal then pray over the young man. The minister of the church pronounces a prescribed blessing and benediction over the young man. The next day, Sunday, the young man publicly participates in the church service in some manner such as a Bible reading or a prepared prayer. The young man is then charged to fulfil a mark of respect to his mother by committing to never the house from this day forward without making his bed first.
Former long-term Risdon Prison inmate, Tony Bull, makes small wooden boxes from the skills he learnt in prison.
2. BEGIN TO GIVE THE EXISTING YOUNG MEN IN A CHURCH PUBLIC SPEAKING RESPONSIBILITIES DURING THE CHURCH SERVICE
While seeking to implement this rite of passage into manhood, the existing young men of the church are each given the responsibility opportunity that the inducted young man will be given after his rite of passage. Once each young man has had at least one opportunity to publicly speak in some way during the main church service, all of these young men should be gathered together to discuss the vision and challenge of being a godly young man.
3. THE MINISTER SHOULD PREACH AND TEACH IN THE MAIN CHURCH SERVICE ABOUT THE VISION OF GODLY MANHOOD, ANNUALLY
It is important that young women hear from the pulpit how a young man ought to view and treat them in a biblically informed vision of godly manhood. It is similarly important that every young man hears this vision at the same time so that he knows what’s expected of him and also knows that every young lady in the church also knows what’s expected of him. It’s important that the senior minister teaches it so that everyone knows what’s expected of each man.
The acceptance of a biblically informed vision of manhood by the men of a local church, formally commencing with every 13-year-old young man, should result in a commitment to emulate Christ, the supreme example of a man. He was a man whom women felt safe around. He viewed women as equally divine image bearers who co-fulfilled the original creation mandate and were even entrusted as the first ones to proclaim the hope of the gospel. Developing and implementing this upstream rite of passage into manhood won’t necessarily solve all our State’s problems, but it will solve some, even if they are just the ones within the Christian community of Tasmania. And even if it fails, it might still result in some young men at least appreciating what the goal of manhood ought to be. And it seems to me, that if that’s all we achieve it will still be beneficial downstream.