Several readers have remarked how my blog on Social Ministry and Social Justice was helpful to their understanding and application of these two prevailing expressions of church ministry. In this article I want, with the help of a metaphor from Richard Rohr, to further unpack the subtleties of social ministry and social justice.
In my experience there are at least three church based expressions of social ministry/justice, each are Holy Spirit prompted and each serves a distinct and different purpose. Rohr refers to these as “levels” and uses the imagery of a flooding river to symbolize their circumstances and application to church ministry.
Three Levels of Christian Social Ministry and Justice
At the first level, churches rescue drowning people from the swollen river, dealing with the immediate social problem or need confronting them: someone hungry comes to church and we offer them some food, or invite them inside to the church’s food pantry. These are hands-on, in the trenches social ministries, like the familiar soup kitchen or clothes closet. Such “good works” always appear rather generous, Christ-like, charitable, and they tend to be admired and appreciated by the community.
At the second level, there are church ministries that help people not to fall into the swollen river in the first place, or show them how to survive when they do fall in. Typically, these ministries fall into two categories, education and health care. Most Christian denominations, as well as the Catholic Church, have in the last several hundred years filled the world with schools, hospitals, orphanages, and social service ministries that empowered people and provided them new hopes, dreams and opportunities for their lives. Regretfully, we find today that churches increasingly cede this ground to the government and other non-profits.
Finally, at the third level, there are church ministries that build and maintain a dam or levy to stop the river from flooding in the first place. This is the work of social activism, justice and advocacy that includes such things as: critique of systems, government and institutions and organizing speeches, boycotts, protests, and campaigns of resistance against all forms of injustice. In short, these ministries seek systemic change, not just individual change. And, though much needed, it is the calling of only a few and so is not prevalent in most churches.
All Three Levels Are Needed
As all three levels are needed and involve a calling from God, one is not more vital than the other. The important thing is that the love and commands of Christ compels all churches to be using the gifts and callings of its members to do something to help the people of their community and for the rest of the world. At the same time churches must avoid all comparisons and offer respect and support for all three levels of social ministry/justice, even if it can only provide one or two. Just practice Ephesians 4:7-13 and use our different gifts and callings to create a unity in the work of service. God expects no less.
Posted on February 16, 2021