Urban Exile: Re-discovering Justice?
For many evangelicals, justice ministry is nothing new.

We evangelical folk love conferences. We'll attend one across the country or host one in our spiffy new sanctuary–er, auditorium. Shoot, we'll even blog about a conference for those who couldn't make it. I've attended my fair share of these get-togethers, from California to Michigan, and blogged about them along the way. Perhaps that early American phenomenon–the frontier camp meeting–lingers in our memory and has found new expression at mega-churches and sports arenas around the country.

During my suburban ministry years, many of the conferences I attended were of the how-to variety. Think "This Old House" with Bob Villa, but substitute house with "small group," "sermon," or "assimilation plan" and Villa with (mostly) white pastors and theologians who write books.

This conference-going tendency must run in our evangelical genes, because the folks at my urban church also make these events a priority. Here's the difference: instead of learning how to improve their church, these city-dwellers are interested in improving their neighborhoods and city. The half-dozen people from our congregation who just returned from the Christian Community Development Association conference in Miami attended workshops that focused on bridging racial divides, homelessness prevention, and immigration issues.

To be fair, this focus on justice has recently made an appearance on the wider conference circuit. I remember my surprise at Bono's video appearance at a Willow Creek conference a couple of years ago. His appeal for American churches to get involved in combating global poverty was warmly received. Leadership journal's managing editor, Skye Jethani, has noticed the arrival of all-things-justice at recent conferences and wonders about the origins of this development.

We've successfully reintroduced justice to a new generation of evangelicals, but is it being rooted in a fuller, wider, more Christ-centered gospel? Are we seeing justice ministries at conferences?because our view of the world, God, and the gospel has really matured? Or are we seeing justice ministries at events?because wider global awareness has simply awakened our affluent Western Christian guilt?

So, why the emphasis on justice at evangelical churches and conferences of late? As Skye points out, perhaps the American church feels guilty as we recognize the extent of our power and affluence. Knowing that churches in India are being burned down can make it hard to enjoy a latte from the church coffee bar.

This awareness of the global church may also lead to a higher emphasis on community. While our country sometimes operates unilaterally, the American church generally appreciates our place within the wider Christian community. More recently, we are coming to value the diverse theological perspective of our global family, much of which challenges our individualist and spiritual understanding of the gospel.

November 07, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 11 comments

Paul Atwater

November 17, 2008  3:50pm

My wife's aunt (Lucille Becker) was the organist for Unshackled all those years. Auntie 'Cille (to my wife's family) was a phenomenal organist who considered that style dramatic, not spooky (although I got a real kick out of that description). And she was more than just an organist. She was dedicated to urban ministry, playing for many years at an urban church in Chicago on Sundays and at an urban synagogue on Saturdays. I think she would have liked having her work brought up in the context of biblical justice.

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Adam S

November 11, 2008  9:15am

I know of several African American churches that have Associate Ministers of Justice (using the definition of Justice that is close to the one that Brandon and Heather are hinting at) but I have never heard of a predominately white church with a minister of Justice. Maybe we should be talking about that. It seems to me that we have this conversation about the "rediscovery of social justice" every few years. Social Justice has never been lost, just not visible in the broader church. John Perkins and others have been working on social justice ministries for decades and they weren't the first ones.

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November 11, 2008  8:22am

Heather: You're exactly right. Thank you for your comment.

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November 10, 2008  6:19pm

I agree with you Brandon but I'd go a bit further than that. Justice does not just require us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked but it demands that we question why people are hungry and naked in the first place. If the answer to that question lies with inequities and injustices in our society then we have to speak and act on the behalf of those affected to attempt to right the wrongs of a broken and lost world. That's why we pray the Lord's Prayer in the present tense.

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November 10, 2008  9:06am

For RDM: I think you're right to point out the difference between "charity" (or "mercy") ministries and "justice" ministries; it's a helpful distinction that (you're right) we don't make often enough. However, I think you're mistaken in your definition of justice. "Justice" in a modern sense refers to punishing sins (or sentencing criminals), but in the Bible, "justice" more often means giving the righteous what they deserve but cannot accomplish for themselves (see Job 19:7 for example). "Judgment" is punishing the wicked. (a search of the terms at BibleGateway.com yields some interesting results).

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David Swanson

November 10, 2008  8:28am

Not scary, Melody. I think the music is spooky. But then, I think most organ music is spooky.

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November 09, 2008  6:40pm

The word "justice" is used incorrectly, as it always is on this blog. Giving out food and blankets, supporting aids orphans, is all correctly described as "charity" or grace. Charity is a good thing but it is not justice. Justice, in God's lexicon, is when sin is punished. If we do not make that distinction to the lost, they will remain lost regardless of the occasional alter call.

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Todd Burus

November 08, 2008  3:30pm

I agree with the first poster who expresses concern over a lifeless philanthropy being the focus instead of a Christ-centered love for fellow image bearers of God. The emphasis on social justice is important, but if all we are doing is keying in on the incarnation of Christ we are no better than the previous generations whose promotion of church growth too heavily weighed the exaltation of Christ. Social justice is a part of the Christian life, but one would be hard-pressed to say it IS the Christian life (which I feel many today are likely to do) given the amount of time spent on other theological matters in the New Testament. And to say it's the gospel is surely a step too far. Here I would point to Tim Keller for a correct understanding.

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John Finkelde

November 08, 2008  5:02am

This emphasis is growing in AUstralia as well. Pentecostal churches have not been known for getting involved in social justice isuues but it is happening more & more and a good thing it is.

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November 07, 2008  2:29pm

My parents volunteered at the Pacific Garden Mission as well as many other missions on Chicago during the 1930's and 40's. The number of down and out people who "got saved" there and went on to be great ministers of the gospel themselves is staggering. I grew up seeing that proclaiming and giving went hand in hand. When did that change? I've always enjoyed the 'Unshackled' radio program but I never thought the organ music was scary. Why did you say that?

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