Social justice

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When I started writing the piece on Africa, I intended to write a sidebar on social justice. Well, it turned into a little more than that. There’s no doubt in my mind that a growing number of churches are interested in social causes. Ministry to orphans with AIDS in Africa seems to be particularly popular among Texas Baptists.

But there also are a number of interesting angles to churches delving into social justice issues, as was noted by some commenters in an earlier post about the next generation of Baptists. I’d like to intersperse a series of questions that stem from the social justice article. If the first couple spark a conversation, I’ll keep going. Otherwise I’ll chalk it up to a lesson learned.

Here’s the first part I’d like some feedback on:

Having an impact on such large issues is difficult, but possible if a church is focused for a long-term effort. Steve Seaberry, Baptist General Convention of Texas director of Texas Partnerships, encourages a church to have at least a three-year partnership in an area when working with social causes. Bob Roberts, pastor of Northwood Church, has routinely said it will take at least 30 years to any significant impact in a situation that needs to be drastically changed. 

A commitment of that length requires the cause remain in front of the congregation. Members must remain connected to the cause and inspired to continue serving. The congregation must provide a way for all of its members to participate in the partnership, whether that be through missions education, trips, giving money or donating items.

“But even for a progressive congregation like ours, there’s a lot of education yet to be done about social justice,” said Mark Wingfield, associate pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. “We have not arrived. Many of the people from Wilshire who have traveled to Kenya will tell you that trip changed their perspective of the world.”

Even if a congregation remains behind the effort, some members of the congregations are going to be called to service in other places or ministries, noted Jeff Raines, associate pastor of First Baptist Church in Amarillo. Churches have to balance focused mission efforts with the freedom to allow church members to respond to God’s calling upon their respective lives.

“I think it’s hard,” Raines said. “It’s a constant tension. I listed Brazil, Mexico, Kenya [as missions emphases]. We’ve had some people connected with a missionary in Slovakia. It’s not really staff-driven, but we’ll certainly promote this group is going to Slovakia, if you want to go contact them at this number. We don’t want to squelch that.”

Sellers believes the tension between a focused effort and allowing individuals to follow God’s calling is a healthy one. The key is involving as many people as possible in the mission work God wants them to do.

“I think that working in multiple places around the globe doing multiple kinds of ministries will engage more people than focusing on one location, which may tend primarily to be one kind of ministry,” he said.

Assuming you agree churches can have an impact on the world around them, what’s the best way to approach large issues? Is it better for churches to focus on one area — a specific community, area or issue — or is Sellers correct that working in multiple places actually engages more people and therefore has a larger impact? Should churches focus on specific efforts? Should they use a scattershot approach? What seems to work best? Is there a middle ground, and if so is that the best route to go?

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