Speaking to a group of Baptists at the recent Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia general assembly, the Reverend George Mason challenged churchgoers to engage in social justice ministries that help the poor, empower the oppressed, and bring healing to the brokenhearted.
One of the more profound things he said was that if churches did commit to social justice, there is a good chance that more young adults would also reengage with the local church.
For churches that are struggling in reaching this age group, this sermon was a breath of fresh air. More significantly, I think Mr. Mason is on to something larger than just encouraging a particular age group to grow closer to God.
The Catholic Church is recognizing how popular it is to do social justice in partnership with young people. The new Pope Francis, named after the saint who gave his whole life to help the poor, has revitalized the church, energized people of all ages, and has garnered some unique ecumenical attention.
But the more startling statistics are coming out of Catholic seminaries. According to Cathy Lynn Grossman, writing for the Religious News Service, there is a higher percentage of candidates for the priesthood in seminaries than any other time in the last two decades.
Young people are getting excited about ministry, and local churches are rediscovering their skills for outreach and missions.
This trend echoes George Mason’s point, and then some: When local churches plug into the needs of local communities, they are able to join the very presence of Christ already at work in the lives of neighbors and neighborhoods. It is an ingredient for revival for all age groups and for the church as a whole.
This call to do social justice is reminiscent of the prophetic message of many of the Old Testament prophets and, of course, Jesus.
Micah’s message to Israel in 6:8 was this: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Jesus gave a similar warning in Luke 23:23: “Woe to you…for you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”
Sure, doing social justice in the local community may re-engage young people, but it is what every church needs to get back to the heart of God. It’s not enough to merely come to the building to worship, hear good preaching, and fellowship.
Each and every church is called to reach out to its local community and partner with the community to provide for the needs of the many. God gives us opportunities to help those in need, and we turn around and give locals the opportunity to help one another.
It’s a mutual partnership of finding where God is at work, not a presumption that we know what people need to meet God.
This is something I learned in pastoral care classes. Our instructors told us that we cannot assume that we know what people need when they come to us for help. Rather, most people know what they need. We need to merely listen and help people find the resources that will best fill those needs.
Doing social justice and helping people in the local community on their own terms is the basis for hope. It’s born out of a conviction that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and that we don’t need to fear the world but join God where God is already at work.
My predecessor here at Trinity, Sonny Gallman, often said, “God is already at work redeeming those in the world; its our job to let people see it for themselves.”
I am delighted that Pope Francis’ leadership over the past few months and my Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ this past weekend have put social justice back in its proper place as a priority for the church. It is refreshing, it is vibrant, and it is Spirit-inspired.
The Rev. Joe LaGuardia is the senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, 301 Honey Creek Road, Conyers. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.trinityconyers.org.