Live from Shift: Deep Justice vs. Shallow Service
Social activism is gaining popularity with evangelicals, but is it making any difference?

Kara Powell spoke during the final session at Shift this afternoon. Powell is the director of the Center for Youth and Family Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary. She began by bursting a pretty big bubble. Many churches have gotten involved in short term missions trips (STMs) that often involve a service project in a developing country. But are these trips making any real difference?

The research isn't encouraging. Powell shared about how those being served by North American church groups often feel demoralized by our service, and how many wished these churches would simply send the funds so they could do the work themselves. On the flip side, evidence suggests these trips are having a minimal impact on students as well. In an article she wrote called "If We Send Them, Will They Grow?" she concluded that students who go on STMs are not more likely to become long-term missionaries, and it doesn't impact their materialistic lifestyles.

Powell said a lot of our local and international efforts toward the poor are really a placebo effect. They make us feel better about ourselves, but they're not really impacting people the way we'd like to believe. What's the answer? She believes we need to shift from shallow service to "deep justice."

After tracing the importance of justice as a theme in the Old and New Testaments she laid out the difference between serving the poor and seeking justice. "Service is giving someone a glass of cold water who needs it. Justice is asking why the person needs a glass of cold water." Service is good, she says, because it addresses real needs. But seeking justice means fixing the system that created the problem in the first place.

Our churches tend to approach service as an event - buying gifts for poor kids at Christmas, feeding the homeless, going to Mexico to build a house. Again, these are worthwhile things. But justice isn't an event, it's a lifestyle. She defined justice as simply "righting wrongs." Toward this end students at her church are engaging issues like sex trafficking, HIV/Aids, and modern-day slavery.

Powell's talk was very piercing. Is your church forming people to merely serve, or to be a people of justice? My sense is that if we pursue the goal of "deep justice" we may see an awakening in many evangelical churches. But if it remains simply events of service then social justice will be just the latest trend that will pass out of popularity like WWJD bracelets.

April 10, 2008

Displaying 1–7 of 7 comments


April 14, 2008  12:07am

While I understand that stm's have been good and valuable for a lot of us, I probably have to agree with Kara on this one. Alot of people have mentioned how these STM's have been successful because they have helped them or their students. I think that proves that we have missed the point. While I understand 'God blesses the giver' but the STM's should not be about us, they should be about those that we are helping. And if the stats prove that they are not helping and that the people in these other countries don't really appreciate or even enjoy us being there, then we don't need to be there. I think if we say that they are valuable because 'it helps us' even if it's not truly helping those we are supposedly 'going for', then we're saying that our spirituality is more important than theirs. Just a thought

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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

April 11, 2008  11:01am

P.S. While I understand the context in which the word "serve" is being used by Powell and this articles author, we would do well to consider the significant importance of service as central tenant of our faith.

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aaron peternel

April 11, 2008  10:44am

Kara - at several points I heard your politics infiltrate your session. I could not understand, as an example, how you started so strongly stating the ineffectiveness of STM...focusing on the lack of long term impact, yet you seemed to endorse the endeavors of churches that were at best short term solutions. I was somewhat discouraged that you did not mention that statistic of 25 - 40% of all people experiencing homelessness are mentally challenged. Your comment was "all the homeless needs is homes." In short, I believe that what the homeless needs is healing. Political slant doesn't change this dynamic. On a different note - I am sitting in your feature session here Friday morning - your focus is different. Your emphasis is poignant, but yet provocative and I weep inside for the lack that I permit in my church and in my ministry. THANK YOU!!!

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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

April 11, 2008  9:23am

Short-term missions trips are a tool for spiritual and missional formation, as well as service and evangelism. Like any tool, used improperly, it will have limited impact. However, used correctly it can and does have long-reaching positive impact. I believe it is irresponsible to undermine an important part of the Church's missions engagement without first asking the deeper questions about the underlying assumptions, missiology, etc. that shape it. After all, anyone with the smallest knowledge of church history could find overwhelming "statistic" of "failure" in long term contexts. But we all know it isn't that simple... right? Peace, Jamie

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ben Birdsong

April 11, 2008  7:56am

I have heard a discussion regarding the book that contains this research called Deep Justice in a Broken World. I do not agree with the statement that short-term missions projects should be rejected. I think that there should be an intentional focus on using short-term mission trips to build the mindset within students about being focused on becoming focused on social justice. Short-term missions should seek to build a heart of social justice in students. Youth ministers can then make local social justice projects a focus of their ministry at home, which has gained a momentum from the short-term missions trip.

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Sam Andress

April 10, 2008  10:34pm

Well said Josh Whitler! Though I still wrestle with my materialism imbued American life-style, STMs are changing the questions a whole generation is asking about the nature of life, the church, the gospel, the American Dream, and the like. In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, "I could give a fig about simplicity this side of complexity, but I will give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity." What STMs do when they are at their best is open up the world in ways that God sees it and most Americans don't. Powell is certainly right that when they are turned into a "let's go help those poor people in Mexico for a weekend" type event STMs suck. I found that when I've returned from various trips to Africa, I have come back with the questions and struggles my new found friends have. Struggles and questions they would never get to bring to the U.S. or other capitalistic demoacracies on their own. If we go as listeners then we get the opportunity to hear God–because God's voice is loudest among the most marginalized.

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April 10, 2008  7:48pm

I didn't attend the session, but I've heard the statistics before. I have to say that I believe in STM's, because quite simply, they changed my life... but I think that happened precisely because I had mentors and conversations that shaped my heart and mind to transition from shallow service to deep justice...a lifestyle of justice. That conviction also is best supported and understood by the fact that both our service and our commitment to justice are natural, unavoidable outpourings of our love for God and for His people. They all draw from the same well. And to use a Mother Teresa quote from yesterday, once you've seen Calcutta, the response must be our being led to the Calcuttas we see everywhere in our own spheres.

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