Last post (Justice and the gospel), we looked at how the ministry of Jesus included both evangelism and meeting physical needs. But in many western evangelical churches, the “gospel” has been narrowed down to mean little more than personal salvation.
If you are in a church like that, and you believe that justice and care for the poor and marginalised is part of the gospel, what can you do?
Let’s look at a few ideas and a little personal experience, and then (hopefully) others will share what they are doing.
Getting the basics right
Change is often difficult, especially in christian churches. Laypeople suggesting change can be threatening to leaders, challenging either their self esteem or their sometimes strong views on what they or their denomination thinks is important, or isn’t.
I think we should attempt change in as peaceful and ‘submissive’ way as possible. Avoid challenging leaders, keep them informed and work within the boundaries they put in place. I think I would rather leave and go somewhere else rather than cause difficulties, though there are some grey areas here.
Prayer and the Spirit
It should go without saying that prayer should be the highest priority. Changing people’s minds is the Holy Spirit’s business more than it is ours. People who change because of inner conviction are happier and more committed to the change than people who change because someone pushes them.
Pray for your leaders. Pray for other people to join you. Pray that God will direct your steps. Pray that the Spirit will open up the way for you to move forward (rather than you having to carve a path).
Start small and build support
If churches moving to a more balanced ministry of evangelism, disciple-making, justice and care is (as I believe) a move of the Spirit, then we can expect that other people will be getting the message too.
It therefore seems wise to prayerfully choose a few projects that are likely to have broad support, and begin there. Keep your program in front of people and invite interested people to join you. As people join in, new programs can be commenced.
Education and awareness
Take opportunities to educate people about issues than concern you – third world injustice, local community needs, etc. Some important things which christians should be concerned about are not always well known. Once people know, some will want to join you in addressing the issues.
A long journey begins with one step
If your group grows, hopefully, without threatening anyone, the culture of the church will start to change, albeit slowly and inconsistently. Hopefully the ministerial staff will be among those who shift ground, even if only slightly.
Persevere, unless ….
If you believe God has called you to make change, persevere unless you meet a brick wall. Changes like this can take years, even generations. But if this is truly from the Spirit of God, change will occur – if not in your church, then certainly in many others.
For the last 11 years we have attended a large (700), strongly evangelical church in an affluent suburb. Its denomination has tended to see “the gospel” in narrow, substitutionary atonement terms, and viewed “social gospel” with suspicion.
A long journey begins with small steps
Through circumstances, we were invited to join a small “justice and mercy” group – basically us and two others. We organised 40 Hour Famine, mainly with the large youth contingent, which meant it was not seen as “social gospel”, and the teens were enthusiastic. We also sold TEAR Christmas cards from the original Useful Gift Catalogue.
A generous response
Then one of the youth leaders suggested the church sponsor children in Rwanda through Compassion, and about a hundred people joined in, far more than Compassion would have expected. I have some questions about third world aid through child sponsorship, but the church members’ strong response showed that there was a groundswell of interest in caring for others.
A corner is turned
The team continued to grow slowly and expand its interests. Clean Up Australia Day, support for the Hamlin Fistula Hospitals in Ethiopia, neighbourhood collection of food and toys for distribution to disadvantaged families in Sydney, provision of food to people in need, and some opportunities to inform the congregation about other issues, all kept justice and mercy on the agenda.
But just when I personally was ready to give it up because of slow progress, we seemed to turn a corner, something I can only attribute to God answering prayer.
- The team doubled in about a year, including several youth.
- Activities expanded to include support for Fair Trade products, help for people out of work, and provision of emergency meals for people in some short term difficulty,
- An enthusiastic couple, deeply involved with refugee advocacy and support, joined the church because it has a justice and mercy group.
- We were given more regular opportunity to have short information spots in services, and through these we raised awareness of third world poverty, child slavery and people trafficking, Fair Trade, the plight of refugees in Australian detention centres, and the existence of an active group in our church that was committed to addressing these issues.
- We took church staff to visit another church with a thriving and impressive community welfare ministry, and gained acceptance for the idea (not yet realised) that our church could do a similar “Lifecare” program.
- The ministers are cautiously supportive of our plans. I get the feeling they are unused to laypeople taking so much initiative.
- In all this we kept presenting the idea that Jesus’ gospel was wider than our church’s “gospel”, and what we were doing was an important part of our mission as a church.
2014 is a new year
At the end of last year we put out a ‘prospectus’, examples of the sorts of activities and programs we would like to commence in 2014, if there are people who want to join in. Almost a dozen people have expressed interest, and we have already started planning, or dreaming, about these new projects:
- Improved recycling and waste management at our church.
- Fair Trade markets.
- A youth program raising awareness and offering projects they can participate in.
- Expanded visits to aged care facilities to encourage and support residents.
- Developing links with local community care and justice organisations.
- Support for organisations rescue people from slavery.
- Renewed interest in the Lifecare proposal.
Our future, and yours
We don’t know where we will end up. But we feel the culture of our church has already begun to change and grow. We are closer to being a church that doesn’t just talk, but also acts.
I’ve written this post to encourage you to consider doing something similar, if you are not already.
Please share your experience in this area, whether you are much further advanced than we are, or are only dreaming. Thanks.