The work of God’s justice
By Keith Spencer
Confession: I have an office full of books, most of which I have never read. I meant to. Really, I did. For example, there was a period of time when I collected all the hot books on growing your church, the ones that everyone was reading and struggling to put into practice. Congregations held rallies and kickoffs and made banners and rolled up their sleeves and did what Lutherans do best: They got to work.
However, the degree of success varied greatly. Part of the problem was the number of these books coming out, one after another, each chock-full of new strategies, offering more checklists, and a new paradigm. I’m sure that I was not the only pastor banging my head against the wall, or the desk, or the copier (which was thankfully under warranty). Too many books. Too many strategies. Too many book covers filled with pictures of perfect pastors of perfect churches with perfect smiles. And I found myself talking to myself (which is in some circles the first sign of madness), and asking, “Does it really take a great smile, a multi-page checklist, and lots of people to be the church?”
And then something began to nag at me: Nowhere – not in any of the best-selling books on church growth that came across my desk, or in discussions kicked around at pericope study, or pushed at conferences and inevitably collected dust on a pastor’s bookshelves – was the topic introduced of how to involve a congregation more deeply in the work of God’s justice.
Micah 6:8 tells us:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Now there is a checklist that got my heart pumping when I was first introduced to congregation-based community organizing about a decade ago. For the first 40 years of my life I had not heard a lot of talk about justice in the congregations in which I found myself, or if I did, it was not connected to congregational ministry in any real way, where a congregation actually did justice.
We are, of course, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, gospelizers who share the good news. And when the good news is shared in the Scriptures, doesn’t the Holy Spirit multiply members by the thousands and thousands? Curse you Book of Acts for giving people the false notion that there was one big mega church running around there in Jerusalem. But shouldn’t we be growing our congregations? Isn’t average worship attendance one of the metrics by which we are measured by those who measure? I am avoiding the whole “Well, what do we mean by growth?” debate: numbers of people or a deeper faith or both, etcetera. Truth be told, most of our congregations would love to see more butts in the pews and more money in the offering plate. And more children and teens and 20-somethings and families and men. We will always live in the tension of wanting to passionately live out the call to be gospelizers who freely love our neighbor with all of our heart, mind and strength and folks who just want someone else to make up the budget shortfall for a change.
I don’t know why so many congregations avoid justice work, but I suspect that the fear of offending members who may speak with their checkbooks, or who would flat-out leave the congregation, would receive more votes than either confusion (justice work is not synonymous with works of charity) or ignorance (JUSTICE WORK?).
Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and making quilts are all good and necessary things, but these are examples of charity. Although wonderful and necessary, acts of charity do not always directly address the root causes of hunger and poverty in this world.
When we talk about works of justice, we leave the world of food pantries and bake sales and quilting bees behind, and we begin to move quickly outside of what most of our folks consider their “church work.” Meaningful works of justice require a certain comfort with power – building it and using it. It means discerning and taking a stand on issues where there may be consensus but rarely unanimity. Often it involves confronting racism that still clings to our bones, ligaments left over from another time. And inevitably it requires confronting those in authority who have the power to change the injustice systems.
We live in a world where a number of alternative “gospels” written by those who gain money and fame by enflaming fear are shared daily through a multitude of media outlets. The true good news embraces the notion that our God stands with those who cry out for justice and that we should, too. A purely attractional model of church growth would have a hard time embracing congregation-based community organizing because the gospel, whether we like it or not, will offend and divide – which should come as no surprise since it warns us that it will. Some folks will always see justice work as playing politics (or not consistent with their politics) and leave. Across our country, justice network organizations, such as the Gamaliel Foundation, the PICO National Network, and Direct Action and Research Training help to gather, equip and connect congregations for this work of justice. While I do not believe that working for God’s justice and growing our congregations are mutually exclusive endeavors, avoiding what some might label as “controversy” out of fear of offense and the people and resources that may choose another path in another place, seems an unhealthy way to bear the cross with Jesus.
Keith Spencer is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Pembroke Pines, Fla.