As a pastor, I have led our church to care deeply not only for the lost, but for the lesser. In the spirit and teaching of Jesus, the twin mission imperatives of the Church were to share the gospel with those who are estranged from God and to care for those in need. With the Great Commission (Matthew 28) came the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25). When Paul passionately pleaded to take the gospel to the Gentiles, the only instruction from his fellow apostles was to remember to care for the poor (Galatians 2). As one of my seminary teachers once told our class, “In one hand we give the bread of life; with the other the bread necessary for life. It’s not an “either-or”.
He was right.
Yet we continually make it a pendulum swing, veering in one direction or the other at the expense of how we tilt it. Few churches are truly balanced. It’s either mega-evangelism and light social ministry, or light evangelism and mega-social ministry. In recent years, the general trend is clear: social ministry is at the forefront, and evangelism is relegated to the background.
It is not difficult to discern why. For many years the Church swayed towards evangelism and failed in the area of social concerns. This did not sit well with public opinion, and the Church paid the price in terms of reputation and respect. It has become clear to many pastors, especially in newer and younger churches, that regaining a voice in the culture would require showing God’s love to those who need it most. It would catch the attention of the world and earn the right to hear the gospel.
They weren’t wrong.
The current dilemma is that an increasing number of churches are forgetting the balance. They give a cup of water to the thirsty but forget the living water that we will never thirst for again.
The way our world embraces social ministry – and more specifically social justice – as its “religion” adds to the challenge. As Helen Lewis writes in Atlantic, “If someone yells ‘repent’ at you in the street, are they more likely to be (a) a religious preacher or (b) a left-wing activist?” She goes on to give examples of calls for repentance and threats to hell, all embraced by social justice advocates. His observation is revealing:
This language of fire and sulfur may seem strange at first sight, because society becomes less religious…. One might expect that religious concepts – repentance, hell, heresy, apostasy – would have become less salient as a result. But this is not the case. For some activists, politics usurped the role that religion played as a source of meaning and purpose in our lives, and a way to find community.
Essentially, our culture – especially the younger part of it – has “substituted one religion for another”. Lewis is even more telling when she notes how “treating politics like a religion makes it more emotionally unstable, more tribal (because differences of opinion become matters of right and wrong), and more prone to outbursts of moralizing. and piety”. She offers a penetrating quote from Elizabeth Oldfield, the former director of the Christian think tank Theos: “I was thinking of that quote from Marx that religion is the opium of the people. I think what we have now is [that] politics are the amphetamines of the people.
The idea of the “Social Justice Church” arises when Lewis notes how more difficult it is today to come forward as a Christian in an LGBT space than an LGBT in a Christian space, and how dating across political lines is the new taboo. One woman said she could happily date someone from another religion, or no religion at all. But a conservative? “Absolutely not. No.”
When Lewis asked why, she said, “If your God looks exactly like my God, I don’t know. But I know what the answers are to stop people from suffering and to make the world a more equitable place.
The temptation of the Church would be to join the world in its redefinition of the Church, or at least a redefinition of its mission. That is, to reduce the Church to nothing but social justice and social ministry. While this may eventually make the Church more socially accepted, it would also leave the Church offering the world nothing it does not already have.
Again, we alone offer the bread for the stomach and the bread of life; water for the thirsty and living water that will never make us thirsty again. As the Church in Jerusalem reminded Paul, we must care for the poor while bringing them the gospel.
It may not be the “Social Justice Church”.
But it is the Church.
James Emery White
Helen Lewis, “How Social Justice Became a New Religion”, AtlanticAugust 18, 2022, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a former assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To take advantage of a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, go to churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest news on church and culture from around the world, and listen to the Church and Culture podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and instagram to @JamesEmeryWhite.