What’s more important—justice or discipleship?
That’s the question Jim Martin asks in his book, The Just Church. Martin works for International Justice Mission, the excellent Christian organization that brings justice for victims of sex trafficking, slavery and other violent oppression around the world.
The question of justice versus discipleship is an important one for the church. As Martin points out, many pastors are rightly looking for their churches to grow in numbers and for their members to grow in discipleship. The desire is godly–to bring new believers into the flock, and to grow believers’ relationships with God.
However, Martin says, the methods used to pursue discipleship are not always effective.
We continually tweak the mode of our worship in an effort to connect more deeply with God. Surely a new song, an ancient hymn, a new form of worship, or an old rite will give us that sense of connection we crave… Our willingness to examine our forms of worship is well-intentioned and often good, but it can produce a tendency to become entirely focused on these things to the exclusion of the clear commands of our Father.
Those are sobering words. So what are the clear commands of our Father?
Discipleship through justice
God tells His people how to get close to Him in Isaiah 1.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood…
Learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow (v. 15, 17 NRSV).
Through doing the work of justice, we gain intimacy with God.
Better fuel for justice and discipleship
One of my favorite parts of Martin’s book—the section I bookmarked and read to my staff team at Food for the Hungry—had to do with what fuels us in our work for justice. Martin relates his typical experience of receiving phone calls from church leaders who are outraged by the injustices that they hear about, and who want to be part of the solution right away. As easy as it would be to capitalize on their outrage and impatience, Martin takes a step back and points out a profound fact.
“The stark reality is that the outrage and impatience many of us feel upon our introduction to these issues does not prove lasting fuel for the justice journey. The good news is that there is better fuel to be had.”
The better fuel, of course, is a deep, abiding relationship with God. As my friend Josh Kienzle points out, it’s the cross.
And so discipleship becomes both the fuel and the outcome of doing justice!
In many churches, “mission” work is far separated from discipleship. It’s common to pigeonhole missions or outreach work under the job description of one church staff member, highlighting justice and mercy causes just once or twice each year. Meanwhile, the role of discipling church members is seen as the role of the teaching pastor, Sunday school teachers and small groups.
What if, instead, mission work was seen as a discipleship opportunity for the entire church? Here are a few ideas for maximizing the synergy between justice and discipleship at your church.
- Share child sponsorship. Invite every person and family in your church to sponsor a child. Through prayer, giving and letter-writing, your congregation’s relationship with God will dive deeper.
- Weave stories into sermons. When you’re looking for an illustration of answered prayer, living by faith, or God’s provision, ask for stories from members of your church’s latest short-term mission trip.
- Focus on the vulnerable during worship. A number of songs or hymns already on your church’s playlist are certain to have themes that praise God’s care for the broken. Ask your worship leader to lift up a prayer for a vulnerable population before beginning one of these songs, and then ask the congregation to focus on God’s heart toward this group as they sing.
- Ask for help. Do you have church members who frequently approach you about world missions? Pull them aside to ask about their discipleship journey. Chances are good that they are passionate about the cause because God has worked powerfully in their spiritual lives. Learn from these members’ journeys, and see how you can apply the lessons for your whole church.
How have you seen justice and discipleship work together at your church?