THE CHRISTIAN CHRONICLE
Social justice vs. kingdom work
By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle
February 5, 2013
AT A NATIONAL MEETING of youth ministers, the key role of the local church is emphasized.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Love Jesus.
Tolerate the church.
At a time when Americans’ confidence in organized religion has hit a 40-year low, that mindset seems particularly prevalent among younger Christians.
At the recent National Conference on Youth Ministries, Scot McKnight — one of the keynote speakers — challenged what he described as the modern tendency to lift up social justice efforts as “kingdom work.”
“It’s like a tsunami, beginning to overtake the church, and the church is losing significance in local communities because Christians are devoted to changing the world through the political process,” said McKnight, a prominent evangelical New Testament scholar and popular blogger.
Showing compassion, feeding the homeless and working for peace are good causes, but kingdom work involves introducing people to Jesus and his church, McKnight told 285 youth ministers from Churches of Christ in 30 states.
That message struck a chord with some of the youth ministers who gathered at the Crowne Plaza Colorado Springs — in the shadow of Pikes Peak.
“We’ve swung so far from the door-knocking days that we’ve forgotten to actually door-knock on the hearts of people and give them the message of Christ,” said Lee Langdon, youth minister for the Alameda Church of Christ in Norman, Okla. “Reestablishing that into the hearts of our teens and into their own missions is going to be important.”
However, McKnight’s attempt to distinguish social justice efforts from kingdom work did not resonate with everyone.
Doug Foster, a church history professor at Abilene Christian University in Texas, said Churches of Christ historically have been “culturally oblivious to the fact that justice — God’s kind, not our political agendas — was at the heart of true religion in the Old and New Testaments.”
“I am not so sure Scot is on target with his analysis, though he may have a point about many young people becoming frustrated with the lack of concern and sensitivity — and even opposition — to the church’s involvement with social justice issues,” Foster said.
Joel and Ann Soumar work with 30 teens at the Vero Beach Church of Christ in Florida.
“It’s easy for people … to get excited about social justice and seeing wrongs righted, and it’s harder for them to get excited about things that are going on at church,” Joel Soumar said.
For example, last year’s viral YouTube video supporting the capture of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony deeply moved a girl in Soumar’s youth group.
But the same student showed less interest in being a part of church programs.
The focus on social justice comes at a time when Gallup reports 44 percent of Americans have a “great deal” of confidence in organized religion. That’s the lowest figure since the polling company started tracking the question in the early 1970s.
As a 20-something youth minister, Nathan McBroom from the Central Church of Christ in Topeka, Kan., said he has become “wrapped up” in the idea of social justice.
He even taught his students using a curriculum put out by the International Justice Mission, a human rights organization that rescues victims of violence, sexual exploitation and slavery.
“We actually learned a lot about oppression, God’s hatred of oppression, God’s love for justice and his desire to set the captives free and all that,” McBroom said.
But the Kansan said McKnight’s message was like “a slap upside the face,” telling him to wake up and remember the centrality of the church.
“He’s totally right. (Mahatma) Gandhi didn’t do anything in kingdom business,” McBroom said, referring to a point made by the speaker.
A Hindu, Gandhi led India to independence and inspired movements for non-violence, civil rights and freedom around the world.
“Sure, Gandhi made some good changes in this world, and God was happy to see his creation find peace in certain places,” the Topeka youth minister said. “But the kingdom is all about the lordship of Jesus Christ, and I think I really needed to be reminded of that.”
LIFE OF THE CHURCH
David Chenault, family life minister for the South Main Church of Christ in Henderson, Tenn., also said he appreciated McKnight’s perspective.
“It did strike me that the only thing we have to offer is Jesus,” Chenault said. “We may be able to build houses and provide resources and feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, but our primary job is to introduce the lost to Jesus.”
But to James William McCarty III, McKnight’s message seemed better suited for mainline Protestants than members of Churches of Christ.
“I hear what he’s saying but think he’s speaking to the wrong audience,” said McCarty, a Pepperdine University graduate who previously served as a minister and managed a homeless shelter in the Los Angeles area.
Now a doctoral candidate at Emory University in Atlanta, McCarty is completing a dissertation on the ethics of political reconciliation and transitional justice. He’s a member of the Federal Way Church of Christ in Washington state.
Historically, McCarty said, Churches of Christ have suffered from a lack of “deep commitments to those aspects of the faith that go beyond what is done in Sunday worship.”
“Even our most social justice-oriented ministries tend to remain deeply tied to the life of the local church or churches,” he said, citing as an example Made in the Streets, which serves homeless children in Nairobi, Kenya.
Made in the Streets attracts college-age volunteers from across the U.S., he said. These students see it as “a way to serve the kingdom through a justice ministry.”
“However, life at MITS revolves around the life of the Kamulu Church of Christ as much as it does the ministry center in the Eastleigh slum,” McCarty said.
This past summer, teens from the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene traveled to Chicago and worked with the homeless.
Besides feeding poor people, the students “stepped way outside of their comfort zones” and struck up conversations with those helped, said Sarah Campbell, the church’s director of student ministries.
“A lot of times, our actions carry more weight than our words,” Campbell said. “Through our actions and through our relationships with people, then Christ can be shared. Helping our students realize they can start relationships and then share their faith from those relationships — even relationships with people that are not like them — is a really powerful thing.”
In Campbell’s view, McKnight’s keynote address underscored the need to keep Jesus at the center of such undertakings.
But she does not see social justice and kingdom work as an “either/or” proposition.
“I would just say it’s something that needs to be a ‘both/and’ thing, where we’re conscious of it and know that the pendulum could swing too far,” she said. “Social justice is important, but Christ needs to be at the center of it.”