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Social Justice: A Time for Reflection – Part 1

Among the many delights brought to us by the internet is its capacity to enhance our memories of the past, to sharpen the detail of the reminiscences we might have of prior events.

I took the same sort of trip down memory lane recently when I watched some clips of another musical event from the past.

In 1997, I joined a large crowd at Wembley Stadium to declare that Jesus was “Champion of the World,” a song by Noel Richards that had been written especially for this occasion.

A group of us had travelled by coach from our church in Exeter, and we were all very excited about what had happened.

We went home and sang again about Jesus being “Champion of the World.” There were other songs with a similar vibe – “Walking the Land with Hearts on Fire” and so forth.

Even though that event took place only 20 years ago, it seems, to me, to reflect a completely different kind of mindset with regard to mission and the local church.

The ’90s had been designated a decade of evangelism, and our church was one of many planted in that period. And, I can assure you, it was most definitely a church.

Phrases like “living missionally” and “being incarnational” were yet to be added to the evangelical lexicon. Evangelism was something that we understood to be primarily about proclamation.

And if, back then, someone had asked us what a food bank was, or a CAP Centre, we would probably have shrugged our shoulders in a nonplussed manner.

How times change.

We now find ourselves in a context where, in my experience, most churches now define themselves, or get a sense of who they are, as much by the social projects they run as by the manner in which they worship on a Sunday morning.

Offering some kind of social justice ministry has become “de rigeur” for most Baptist congregations, a trend driven by a reawakening of evangelicals’ social conscience and also by dramatic political changes, such as austerity and localism, which have created new needs and opportunities in almost every community.

However, I often wonder if our thinking and belief have kept pace with our activity on the ground.

Psychologists use the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the stress we experience when we try to hold in tension contradictory beliefs and behavior in our lives.

For example, we loathe ourselves because we continue to smoke in spite of our knowledge of the harm we’re doing to our bodies.

Or we continue to drive a gas-guzzling car even though to do so is at odds with a genuine concern we feel for the environment.

Could it be that the same kind of dissonance is now bubbling under the surface of many of our churches?

We’re busier than ever, spending much of our time doing work that demonstrates the values of the kingdom, providing food to the hungry or a shelter to the homeless.

However, we struggle to understand the significance of our activity when our beliefs consist mainly of a gospel that is about individuals pledging their belief in Jesus in order to go to heaven when they die.

If we think of sin in terms of the faults and bad habits that plague individual lives over and above the structural injustices we collude with, and if we conceive of salvation as what happens beyond this life rather than a present liberation from the many ways sin brings brokenness and distortion into the experience of life, then we will struggle to realize fully the value of many new ministries.

This reorientation of our activities toward the social and local has probably been the biggest change in our churches over the last 10 years.

Could it be that this season of projects now needs to give way to a time of reflection on our practice, to allow our thinking to catch up with our doing?

The response of some leaders is to call for a greater “confidence in the gospel,” a plea that inevitably raises the question of what we understand the scope of the Gospel to be.

Many new organizations have grown in recent years offering us help in the running of new initiatives.

Who will provide the support we need for this increasingly urgent task of expressing what we believe God to be doing in this season, and how it can be understood as good news?

Trevor Neill is minister of Yardley Wood Baptist Church, Birmingham, United Kingdom. A version of this article first appeared in The Baptist Times of Great Britain, the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @TrevorNeill1.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series. Part two is available here and part three here.