Social Justice, the Circus, and Programming Away the Gospel

Paul Dean
Paul Dean
2013 20 Nov

I’ve called our church to keep visiting orphans and widows, adopting children, and ministering in the prisons. I’ve encouraged them to keep doing mercy ministry and working for social justice. Of course, I don’t want the church as the church to set up a program of feeding the hungry or clothing the naked. What? Let me explain.

Is social justice essential to the mission of the church? Al Mohler and Jim Wallis debated this question. While both agree Christians must be involved in undertaking for the vulnerable and pastors must speak to their congregations in that regard, Mohler answers “No.” Making a distinction between the church as the church and individual Christians, the church as the church’s mission is the gospel: the message of salvation. Those who’ve become followers of Christ then engage in social justice.

Wallis’ chief concern is a truncated gospel that focuses on personal faith and excludes social justice and what that gospel has produced in the wealth-saturated church of American culture: privatized religion. Mohler counters saying the gospel has implications for social justice because God is the only one who is just and the church’s mission is not to make mere converts but to make disciples who then in turn work for social justice. Salvation is personal but not private.

Wallis would shift the definition of the gospel to include not only salvation in Christ but social justice as defined by bringing jobs to the unemployed for example. Mohler asserts we can’t change the definition of the gospel or the marching orders Christ has given us in the Great Commission. Yes we must work for the kind of social justice Wallis is talking about but that is an implication of the gospel and not the gospel itself. Mohler’s chief concern is that in changing the definition of the gospel and shifting the mission of the church away from what the church alone can do (advance the gospel) the gospel will be lost.

Mohler’s right. And that got me thinking.

Thought one: Wallis made the point that he found Christ in the black churches that were engaging politically. Well enough (and praise God). But he also acknowledges a lack of emphasis on salvation in Christ in many social justice ministries.

Thought Two: Thabiti Anyabwile has written a book entitled The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity.  He notes the further one goes back, say about two-hundred years, the more theologically orthodox the black churches were. Despite being enslaved many had a robust commitment to the sovereignty of God in salvation and a sustaining hope in the resurrection. Fast forward and the churches become less orthodox. The focus in and on the black church now is how they dealt with things like abolitionism, civil rights, and political issues (a la Jim Wallis). Anyabwile avers with the influx of liberation theologians, prosperity preachers, and outright heretics, the gospel has been lost to a great degree in many quarters of the black church.

So, Mohler sees a danger in losing the gospel with a shift in gospel definition and church mission. The church is not to develop a large scale program of ministering to orphans for example. Individual Christians must care for orphans but the church can’t shift the focus in terms of making disciples (mission). If the church takes a programmatic approach to the evils in society the gospel itself by necessity becomes secondary and eventually will be eclipsed altogether. In fact, that’s exactly what happened in the mainline denominations I might add. In the early twentieth century they were doing evangelism and saw the need for a more holistic gospel. They shifted their focus; meeting social need became programmatic; it became the mission of the church and liberalism was the result. The gospel was lost.

And now Anyabwile chronicles a very similar dynamic in the black church. Okay.

Thought Three: With the programmatic method of most conservative churches today are we not walking down the same path of gospel loss? It’s no exaggeration to say that for most Christians in America today church is about doing one’s religious duty on Sunday morning, getting the kids involved with some fun activities, and having men’s or women’s fellowships of one kind or another with other church members. Hasn’t church become the next pot-luck supper, the next women’s craft-get-together, or the next Easter or Christmas choir program? Isn’t it about the next bible study, youth trip, children’s outing, senior trip, or singles’ social? Isn’t it about the latest program that our kids will love? It’s like I’m a kid again at the circus that came to town every year; I can hear the man yelling in his best sing-song voice, “Program! Get your programs here. Program!”

This programmed approach is a subtle shift in mission emphasis. It’s no longer gathering to worship God and spur one another on to love and good works in the culture that we might make new disciples. The emphasis now is on offering the most activities that will keep the most people interested in coming to the massive activity complex we’ve built. Have we not traded mission for activity to satisfy our religious consumer appetite? And in so doing are we not losing the gospel? It’s telling when a young couple leaves our church simply because we don’t have enough activities for their children. And that particular is universal – else thousands of churches wouldn’t be competing for families by offering those activities. Isn’t it a sure warning sign we’re losing the gospel when our focus has shifted from reaching the lost to competing for Christian families: in other words, competing for market share?

Well, it’s like my dad used to say at the circus: “We can’t afford a program.” He was right – because we can’t afford to lose the gospel.   

Follow me on Twitter: @pauldeanjr