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Social justice vs. kingdom work

Feed the homeless? Promote world peace? Can the church do good without sharing Jesus?

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Love Jesus.
Tolerate the church.
At a time when Americans’ confidence in organized religion has hit a 40-year low, that mindset seems particularly prevalent among younger Christians.
At the recent National Conference on Youth Ministries, Scot McKnight — one of the keynote speakers — challenged what he described as the modern tendency to lift up social justice efforts as “kingdom work.”
“It’s like a tsunami, beginning to overtake the church, and the church is losing significance in local communities because Christians are devoted to changing the world through the political process,” said McKnight, a prominent evangelical New Testament scholar and popular blogger.
Showing compassion, feeding the homeless and working for peace are good causes, but kingdom work involves introducing people to Jesus and his church, McKnight told 285 youth ministers from Churches of Christ in 30 states.
That message struck a chord with some of the youth ministers who gathered at the Crowne Plaza Colorado Springs — in the shadow of Pikes Peak.
“We’ve swung so far from the door-knocking days that we’ve forgotten to actually door-knock on the hearts of people and give them the message of Christ,” said Lee Langdon, youth minister for the Alameda Church of Christ in Norman, Okla. “Reestablishing that into the hearts of our teens and into their own missions is going to be important.”
However, McKnight’s attempt to distinguish social justice efforts from kingdom work did not resonate with everyone.
Doug Foster, a church history professor at Abilene Christian University in Texas, said Churches of Christ historically have been “culturally oblivious to the fact that justice — God’s kind, not our political agendas — was at the heart of true religion in the Old and New Testaments.”
“I am not so sure Scot is on target with his analysis, though he may have a point about many young people becoming frustrated with the lack of concern and sensitivity — and even opposition — to the church’s involvement with social justice issues,” Foster said.

Joel and Ann Soumar work with 30 teens at the Vero Beach Church of Christ in Florida.
“It’s easy for people … to get excited about social justice and seeing wrongs righted, and it’s harder for them to get excited about things that are going on at church,” Joel Soumar said.
For example, last year’s viral YouTube video supporting the capture of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony deeply moved a girl in Soumar’s youth group.
But the same student showed less interest in being a part of church programs.
The focus on social justice comes at a time when Gallup reports 44 percent of Americans have a “great deal” of confidence in organized religion. That’s the lowest figure since the polling company started tracking the question in the early 1970s.
As a 20-something youth minister, Nathan McBroom from the Central Church of Christ in Topeka, Kan., said he has become “wrapped up” in the idea of social justice.
He even taught his students using a curriculum put out by the International Justice Mission, a human rights organization that rescues victims of violence, sexual exploitation and slavery.
“We actually learned a lot about oppression, God’s hatred of oppression, God’s love for justice and his desire to set the captives free and all that,” McBroom said.
But the Kansan said McKnight’s message was like “a slap upside the face,” telling him to wake up and remember the centrality of the church.
“He’s totally right. (Mahatma) Gandhi didn’t do anything in kingdom business,” McBroom said, referring to a point made by the speaker.
A Hindu, Gandhi led India to independence and inspired movements for non-violence, civil rights and freedom around the world.
“Sure, Gandhi made some good changes in this world, and God was happy to see his creation find peace in certain places,” the Topeka  youth minister said. “But the kingdom is all about the lordship of Jesus Christ, and I think I really needed to be reminded of that.”

David Chenault, family life minister for the South Main Church of Christ in Henderson, Tenn., also said he appreciated McKnight’s perspective.
“It did strike me that the only thing we have to offer is Jesus,” Chenault said. “We may be able to build houses and provide resources and feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, but our primary job is to introduce the lost to Jesus.”
But to James William McCarty III, McKnight’s message seemed better suited for mainline Protestants than members of Churches of Christ.
“I hear what he’s saying but think he’s speaking to the wrong audience,” said McCarty, a Pepperdine University graduate who previously served as a minister and managed a homeless shelter in the Los Angeles area.
Now a doctoral candidate at  Emory University in Atlanta, McCarty is completing a dissertation on the ethics of political reconciliation and transitional justice. He’s a member of the Federal Way Church of Christ in Washington state.
Historically, McCarty said, Churches of Christ have suffered from a lack of “deep commitments to those aspects of the faith that go beyond what is done in Sunday worship.”
“Even our most social justice-oriented ministries tend to remain deeply tied to the life of the local church or churches,” he said, citing as an example Made in the Streets, which serves homeless children in Nairobi, Kenya.
Made in the Streets attracts college-age volunteers from across the U.S., he said. These students see it as “a way to serve the kingdom through a justice ministry.”
“However, life at MITS revolves around the life of the Kamulu Church of Christ as much as it does the ministry center in the Eastleigh slum,” McCarty said.
This past summer, teens from the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene traveled to Chicago and worked with the homeless.
Besides feeding poor people, the students “stepped way outside of their comfort zones” and struck up conversations with those helped, said Sarah Campbell, the church’s director of student ministries.
“A lot of times, our actions carry more weight than our words,” Campbell said. “Through our actions and through our relationships with people, then Christ can be shared. Helping our students realize they can start relationships and then share their faith from those relationships — even relationships with people that are not like them — is a really powerful thing.”
In Campbell’s view, McKnight’s keynote address underscored the need to keep Jesus at the center of such undertakings.
But she does not see social justice and kingdom work as an “either/or” proposition.
“I would just say it’s something that needs to be a ‘both/and’ thing, where we’re conscious of it and know that the pendulum could swing too far,” she said. “Social justice is important, but Christ needs to be at the center of it.”

READ A FULL TRANSCRIPT of McKnight’s remarks and McCarty’s response.

  • Feedback
    Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world
    Sounds like to me “social justice” is a part of pure religion. Not the whole part, but undeniably, a part.
    When is the last time any of us visited widows and orphans?
    Neenah, WI
    February, 16 2013
    To those defending the “social justice” idea: (1) Please define it; (2) Please give us evidence that the term is used consistently with your definition by other Christians. Are we all talking about the same thing, or talking past each other because the term has no precise meaning?
    Clark Coleman
    Rugby Avenue Church of Christ
    Charlottesville, VA
    February, 12 2013
    Read Mark 1:21-39. Jesus was healing people and driving out demons. That’s social justice. Yet he left them to go preach somewhere else. He said, “That is why I have come.” Mark says that “he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.” He did both, but he came to proclaim the kingdom of God. Same with us.
    steve ashworth
    Central Church of Christ
    pearland, Texas
    February, 9 2013
    This discussion made me think of something that the late Dr. Adrian Rogers said: “If a man is an alcoholic, and he quits drinking but never gets saved, all that means is that he will go to hell sober.” The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing, and the main thing for the church is making disciples.
    Steve Ashworth
    Central Church of Christ
    Pearland, Texas
    February, 8 2013
    Some of our preachers are more influenced by what Glenn Beck said than what the Scriptures teach. He said, “Flee from these churches that emphasize social justice.” Isn’t it ironic that when Jesus listed the “weightier matters of the law,” the very FIRST THING HE MENTIONED WAS JUSTICE (Matthew 23:23)?
    One cannot read both the OT or NT and fail to see the abundance of emphasis God places on justice. Much of our problems in dealing with this is that historically the church has been on the side of those who practice and promote injustice.
    Harold Williams
    Diamond Grove Church of Christ
    Henderson , TN
    February, 8 2013
    I’m writing a book about narcissism in church. A point of my research is “people don’t care what you know until they know you care.” I am visiting around on Sundays because the preacher where I went told me there was no excuse for me not sitting 8 rows from the back and I was using diabetes as an excuse to sit in the back. Where I sit has 0 to do with my walk. I do volunteer work which is a blessing, but have realized the problem I’ve had with compulsive lying from church leaders because they must be “right”. Social justice includes, telling people they’re lost excludes. I’ve been told I would go to hell by church members based on opinion and was once told I was lost because I’m Church of Christ. Mic. 6:6-8.
    Johnny Mullens
    Church of Christ
    El Paso, Arkansas
    February, 8 2013
    When we do not teach the “Great Commission” we are not following God’s Word. Our Children are the future of the Church!
    Don Sinquefield
    Ola Church of Christ
    Kaufman, TX
    February, 7 2013
    This shouldn’t even be a debate. Sharing the Good News of the kingdom, and caring for the needy and is what Jesus did. We are the body of Christ in the world. The disciples of Jesus carried a common purse to help the poor, and as Paul when out into a Gentile world with the Good News, he was admonished to “remember the poor,” the very thing, he say, “I was eager to do” (Gal.2:10) It’s not either/or, it’s both!
    Larry Bertram
    Orphan’s Lifeline International
    Colorado Springs, CO
    February, 7 2013
    I couldn’t agree more with Sarah Campbell. I think it must not be an “either/or” but a “both/and” proposition. Biblically, Christ teaches that to turn the hungry or cold away with a ‘well wish’ is not enough – that’s not what he’s asking us to do. We must both ACT AND SHARE WHY – because Christ’s love and example compels us. The two together (action driven by faith and love) are indomitable with God’s blessing.
    Aimee La Buy CranUSAe
    Fairfax Church of Christ
    Springfield, VA
    February, 7 2013
    The term “social justice” is used for everything from benevolent work to socialist redistribution schemes. If we want to communicate what we are doing and what we believe in, we will avoid nebulous terms that have far too much political baggage.
    Clark Coleman
    Rugby Avenue Church of Christ
    Charlottesville, VA
    February, 7 2013
    Thayer is right–no one should encourage young people or anyone else to despise those who have come before us. There are many examples of godly people in Churches of Christ who have seen the implications of the gospel for bringing good news to those the world marginalizes and oppresses. Often in our history we have tended to label “social justice” issues as inherently political therefore and inappropriate for the church to become involved in.
    Doug Foster
    Minter Lane Church of Christ
    Abilene, TX
    February, 7 2013
    I totally agree with McKnight’s point. Making people’s earthly life better while letting them face eternity unprepared is not the mission of God.
    I know that Doug Foster has a point as well, but I think that he has exaggerated it. It does not help to deliver a put down to the church like that. Our youth should be encouraged to build on the good things their elders have done. They should not be encouraged to despise those who have gone before. Yes they made mistakes, so do we. I do not see Doug’s comment as fair or edifying.
    Thayer Salisbury
    Flanders Road
    Toledo, Ohio
    February, 6 2013

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