Social justice's role in missions
March 2014

By Tom with SEND International — Social justice, ending the sex trade, digging wells, creation care—these are all the rage in this generation. As a former church-planter and the mobilization director for a church-planting group, my focus has been on seeing new churches started among unreached peoples. I am all about evangelism, discipleship, house churches, church-planting movements, etc. I have often heard others from my circles (and probably myself) bemoan this generation’s interest in social justice, fearing that as they run after these things, the gospel will get lost.

Christianity Today’s article, “The Surprising Discovery about Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries,” helped me realize that social justice has often taken place right alongside church planting and evangelism.  It was church planters and evangelists of old who fought against slavery, illiteracy, wife burning, child labor and many other injustices.  Many of these former missionaries didn’t go out to solve these wrongs, but when they came face to face with them, they fought.  They realized that they couldn’t just share the gospel and wish them well.  They had to help make things right while they shared the gospel.

Today, we are faced with sex slavery, lack of clean water, poverty, and a host of other issues.  These also need to be taken on with both hands; one hand fighting injustice and the other sharing the gospel.

Let’s stop bemoaning this generation’s passion and compassion and start celebrating it.  Let’s show them how they, like those before them, are moving God’s kingdom forward through good deeds and the proclamation of freedom through the gospel.

In Southeast Asia, one ministry team is teaching nationals how to better take care of their environment through introducing terrace farming instead of slash and burn farming.  This ministry not only helps preserve the environment, but provides more sustained and profitable farming for the nationals.  By helping in this way, the team is able to build relationships and share the gospel.

In a church planting ministry in Europe, one of the ladies began to build relationships with the women in her neighborhood, which included prostitutes.  But she didn’t do this alone—she took along with her other women from the new church plant and is instilling in them the dignity of all people and that the gospel is for everyone.  At the same time she is building some good friendships with those they meet.

As this generation pursues a more holistic gospel, we have to be careful to not see meeting people’s needs as merely a way to share the gospel.  People can’t just become a project.  If that happens, the people we are ministering to and those we are ministering with will sniff that out and disappear.  Let’s see how we can truly blend the Great Commandment with the Great Commission and watch God work.

So, how do we in the church-planting world move forward?

  1. As you plant churches, keep your eyes open for social justice issues in your area.  When you find issues, talk and pray with your team about them.  Don’t be afraid to get involved.
  2. Look for social justice teams in your church-planting area and see if there is a way to collaborate with them.
  3. Dealing with social justice issues is a legitimate platform for connecting with various segments of a population that you are trying to reach.  Most of SEND’s teams offer some sort of ESL training.  ESL is very desirable for a certain segment of the population.  What if you used “creation care” as another way to connect to people?  Who would be interested in that? Whether it’s creating a group to pick up trash in some public places or developing some recycling procedures, you will connect to another segment of society.  The same could be true if you got involved in issues related to poverty, sex slavery or local medical issue.
  4. Invite and embrace people to your team who want to share Jesus through hands-on involvement in a social issue.

I, for one, confess that I was wrong and am looking forward to a whole new generation engaging the world!

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Tom E.
Tom is a Christ-follower, husband, and dad who is discontent that 1/3 of the world is still unreached with the gospel. Tom and his wife, Lisa, joined SEND International in 1996 after graduating from Dallas Theological Seminary. They worked as church planters in Taiwan and East Asia from 1998 to 2004. After returning to the States, Tom worked in mobilization and training, and now works in diaspora ministry near Detroit.