Let's talk about social action.
Feeding the hungry. Clothing the needy. Providing a place where the marginalised are welcomed and given resources. What’s not to like about this?
First, the Bible’s take.
Well, the Bible is packed with both prophetic judgement and commands to Israel concerning the foreigner and the poor. (Isaiah 1.17 is a classic: Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.) The word ‘justice’ in the OT is not just about ethics, it’s about caring for those who are left out, the marginalised. Gleaning on the edge of the fields – see the book of Ruth – is an example of a command to be generous to those on the outside, those with very little. For more on this subject, I recommend Tim Keller’s book, Generous Justice.
In the NT, James gives a definition of religion as a mode of life which has the care of widows and orphans at its heart. Most importantly, we see Jesus attending to both the body and the soul. Healing physical illnesses, feeding the five thousand, teaching his followers to give both body and soul to the task of the Kingdom, a kingdom which includes the whole person. Indeed, the new heavens and new earth in Revelation – our ultimate destiny – is framed in language which envisages a transformed, physical reality. We don’t end up floating around on clouds. The whole person – body and soul – is saved for life with God.
Nowadays, this isn’t even controversial. Every church leader I know acknowledges the basic biblical principle that the church is called to care for the disadvantaged. Now, almost every church runs a breakfast, a single mother’s group, a debt centre perhaps, even a food bank. Which is fantastic. However, it is a sad fact that social action projects can cause division.
Why is this?
First, the messaging.
Make no mistake, social action projects make great headlines. The numbers fed, the relationships formed, the hustle and bustle of a church building with lots of people engaged in caring for others. It’s not a surprise that churches with lots going on tend to publicise these during Sunday services.
And that can create a problem.
Messaging is really important in church, yet very easy to get wrong. The words we use contain many assumptions, which are often left unclear. Reach the city! What does that really mean? Here are some questions from a confused, rather disgruntled member of your congregation. Let’s call him Phil. He’s a teacher, married, with three children. His wife looks after her elderly mother. He asks,
'What’s the purpose of the church? We spend a huge amount of effort feeding people – with a Jesus talk tacked on – but I don’t see many conversions. In fact, I’ve heard that sometimes Jesus isn’t even mentioned.'
'What about me? I’m at work all day. I don’t hear my role mentioned much from the front.'
'What about my wife? She cares for her mother. Isn’t her role valuable? And what about my teenagers at school?'
He goes on,
‘I’m just confused. Is the purpose of the church to generate lots of activity or preach the gospel? I feel like our message is getting lost in all this activity. And most of us who go to work, we’re being ignored.’
Phil deserves an answer. He’s a valuable member of your congregation and he’s not alone. As leaders, we’re responsible to provide clarity on this issue, and ensure that Phil – and others like him – understand the theology of social action, what we mean when we use the word ‘gospel,’ and perhaps most importantly, the reason why every single person has a valuable role in the church.
This is Part One of a series of posts on social action. Next time, I’ll suggest some possible responses to Phil, but let me finish on a positive note.
I’m so encouraged by the change which has swept through the people of God. In the 1970s, when I grew up, social action was done by charities. Now, we’re all involved in different ways. God has transformed us by the clear teaching of his Word, leading us to care for those in need in ways we had neglected for too long. It’s critical that we don’t allow this wonderful work to be a cause of division.
It is the work of God’s Spirit that now – more than ever – we are caring for the whole person.
To God’s glory.