Tag Archives: social justice

It’s Not Enough to Care About ‘The Poor’

“It’s just too easy to love ‘The Poor,'” policy expert and author Amy L. Sherman says in a video interview for the study guide Seek Social Justice, an anti-poverty project. “It’s a lot harder to actually do the hard work of building face-to-face relationships with real people with real needs, with real, messy issues.”

The half-century anniversary of the War on Poverty is a good occasion to reflect on her observation. Fifty years ago yesterday, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty in a speech that pledged “not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”

Poverty-In-AmericaA flurry of federal antipoverty programs followed Johnson’s rallying cry. Eight presidents later,  the federal government runs 80 means-tested programs providing cash, food, housing, medical care, and targeted social services for poor and low-income Americans. Yet despite spending nearly $20 trillion since the War on Poverty began, the poverty rate remains almost as high today as it was in the mid-1960s.

Why the troubling persistence of poverty? What should those in the church do about it?

Higher Call to Effective Compassion

Long before LBJ’s call to combat poverty, Christians heard a higher call to compassion for the poor. How to live out that biblical command in the context of 21st-century America is the challenge. And it’s one that thinkers such as Sherman, author of the book Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good, have encouraged Christians to think about more deeply.

Good intentions, they argue, aren’t enough. Truly effective compassion means striving for human flourishing and seeking the conditions that make it possible. The good news is that the good news has equipped the church for the kind of relational restoration of individuals and communities that is so urgently needed for fighting poverty in America today.

First, effective compassion means we need to take time to understand the problem. Thankfully, absolute poverty—the kind of extreme, life-threatening deprivation we see in developing nations—has been all but eradicated in the United States. Material living conditions of those defined as poor by the government have improved over the past half-century.

Some situations are still particularly perilous. But typical poverty in America is deeper and more complex than simply material need—and our responses should take that reality into account.

Consider the relational conditions of the poor. More than 70 percent of poor families are headed by a single parent. Around 40 percent of families headed by single mothers are poor. Children born and raised outside marriage are about five-times more likely to be poor, research by The Heritage Foundation shows.

Sadly, the situation has only worsened over the history of the War on Poverty, leaving more children and families vulnerable to economic hardship. Since the mid-1960s, unwed childbearing has skyrocketed from 8 percent to more than 40 percent of all births, and from 25 percent to about 73 percent for black children. Welfare programs have contributed to the problem with marriage penalties—government benefits structured with financial disincentives for parents to marry—amid larger social trends toward family instability.

Toward True Human Flourishing

Effective compassion doesn’t settle for handouts; it strives for true human flourishing that goes beyond material need. Made in the image of God, human beings are by nature relational. Brian Fikkert, co-author of the book When Helping Hurts, suggests that four fundamental relationships are essential: right relationship with God, self, others, and the created world.

Seeking holistic thriving helps us keep the created dignity of those we serve at the heart of our efforts—while also keeping us in touch with our own needs in these spheres. In our pursuit of flourishing, we need to consider how appropriate roles for marriage and family, church, business, and government—not to mention personal responsibility—can help prevent and overcome poverty. Effective compassion draws on all these roles and calls for right relationships among them.

Family is fundamental to human flourishing, particularly in caring for members’ many needs. Family prepares children to live in communities. Its significance is particularly poignant in its absence: family breakdown is a significant predictor of hardship for a child, neighborhood, or community. Single-mother families are more than four times more likely to be in poverty than married-couple families. Churches cannot afford to ignore the need to rebuild a marriage culture generally and help to form and restore healthy marriages. Couples should consider serving as marriage mentors to those who never have witnessed a stable, loving marriage.

The church is equipped to address all the relational dimensions that contribute to full human flourishing. The church community can address the spiritual brokenness that lies at the root of much material need and relational breakdown. First Baptist Church in Leesburg, Florida., offers a particularly creative example of a range of ministries—from  clothing closet to addiction treatment center to pregnancy center—that aim to meet not just physical needs but also the deep emotional and spiritual challenges underlying them.

Business sometimes is portrayed as the problem in debates about poverty. But enterprise provides us with the opportunity to work, and work is essential to human dignity, helping us pursue our creative potential as made in the image of God. Innovative ministries such as Houston’s WorkFaith Connection train and place those who lack a traditional work history—whether because of addiction, incarceration, or welfare dependence. The Prison Entrepreneurship Program, also in Texas, is a particularly exciting ministry. It pairs CEOs with inmates nearing the end of their terms, to develop entrepreneurial skills and business proposals through rigorous training.

Government provides law and order, and it uses force as necessary to protect the weak and punish oppressors. Good government preserves the space for other institutions to fulfill their roles and responsibilities. Its role is limited: Government protects what family, church, business, and other communities cultivate. Government welfare programs may be able to provide temporary material assistance for those who have nowhere else to turn; but they also hurt when the helping hand creates dependence.

Personal Engagement and Stewardship

Each of us has a personal responsibility to heed the call to care for the poor. The Bible doesn’t leave us room to make poverty someone else’s problem. We should resist the temptation to keep the poor at arm’s length through impersonal solutions or to ignore the problems in our own backyard because far-away causes grab our attention.

One way to exercise this responsibility is to steward the opportunities we have in a family, church, business, or civic role to contribute to the flourishing of all our neighbors. Engaging personally with our neighbors is the best way to grapple with the relational dimensions of poverty and social breakdown.

As Sherman warned, it’s not easy. But we have marching orders from our Creator to do more than just say we care about “The Poor.”

Note: Seek Social Justice is a DVD-based study guide developed by The Heritage Foundation and designed for small groups to explore issues related to poverty and social breakdown. To view video excerpts and for more information, visit SeekSocialJustice.com.

Love the Sojourner: 4 Steps Forward in Refugee Outreach

Before our church got off the ground a couple years ago, the vision of transforming the city intrigued me. But a few months into our church plant, I would have settled for a transformed marriage or two.

When you’re the only staff pastor of a small church, pulling off a weekly service is hard enough. Beyond that, how can you lead your church into meaningful, sustainable engagement with local unbelievers?

The answer depends on each church’s context. Our church decided to work and pray for a church culture where it’s normal to be in relationship with immigrants and refugees.

Why Minister to Refugees?

There are important theological reasons for investing in the foreign-born. God commanded Israel to love the sojourner, as a reflection of his care for the vulnerable and a reminder of their sojourn in Egypt (Deut. 10:18-19). Surely we too, as “sojourners and exiles” in this world (1 Pet. 2:11), should be drawn to those who are cut off from everything familiar and are, in so many ways, helpless.

Yet in this article I want to focus less on the theological rationale, and more on the strategic value of refugee outreach for mobilizing your church in evangelism.

Taking into account the demographics of our city, the extent of our resources, and our overall ministry philosophy, our leaders settled on a couple criteria we want our evangelistic steps to reflect. First, we desire an approach that will not require a ton of work to keep things rolling or to keep people interested. It needs to be somewhat self-sustaining.

Our second criterion dovetails with the first: we are aiming and praying toward a culture of evangelism. We want to see our members embrace an evangelistic way of life that trickles into our conversations with each other, how we spend our time, and how we pray.

On the one hand, working toward a new set of lifestyle norms in your congregation is more intensive than an event- or program-driven approach. You never cross culture-building off your to-do list. It requires singular focus, intentionality, modeling. But it’s also true that culture-building doesn’t require the same staff-dependent plate-spinning that’s necessary to pull off large events or refuel beleaguered programs. In a church plant, what you lack in staff and financial resources you more than make up for in what you might call “motivated malleability.” What I mean is that your church culture is largely there for the shaping, and your people are more likely to be eager self-starters.

Guided by these criteria, we are calling our people to engage their lives with immigrants and refugees. More and more people from countries hostile to the gospel are settling in American cities every year. And opportunities for relationship-building and gospel-motivated service among them are low-hanging fruit. We haven’t seen revival yet, but we’re inching closer to the place where it is normal in our church to be in relationship with foreign-born unbelievers.

Four Tips for Reaching out to Refugees

If you believe this strategy may work in your context, here are a few steps we’ve taken that could help you get started.

1. Identify faithful ministries already doing good work among the foreign-born in your city. Especially if your church is small, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel if there are already ministries that can facilitate the kind of relational engagement you’re aiming for. Chances are these ministries exist in your city and they need volunteers. You’re looking for an individual or team already embedded in an immigrant community who wants to hand off some of their relationships. You might start by checking out organizations like World Relief, InterFACE Ministries, and the North American Mission Board.

2. Find a person or a team to coordinate volunteers from your church. If you’re a pastor, given the diversity of your responsibilities, this outreach culture isn’t likely to get very far if it’s solely on you to recruit volunteers and connect them to ministry opportunities. You need a quarterback. You want someone who understands and embraces the vision to own responsibility for recruiting, training, and connecting those who step up.

3. Find a useful pathway for relationships. The needs that come with resettling in a drastically new place can be debilitating, so it isn’t difficult to identify service opportunities that lead naturally into relationships. Medicine can be a good option. We have a number of folks with medical training in our church, and we try to funnel them as volunteers to a medical clinic in our community that assists newly arrived refugees.

Other opportunities promise even more sustainable relationships. Our first avenue was forming playgroups between some moms in our church and moms in an immigrant community. It’s amazing what kids can do to diffuse cross-cultural awkwardness. And who doesn’t love a good playdate?

English-language learning is another huge opportunity. Helping someone with conversational English is a perfect pathway into relationship, and it only requires setting aside regular time to meet and talk.

These service opportunities are not pretexts; they’re legitimate ways to meet needs and show love. But what you’re aiming for is meaningful, life-integrated friendships.

4. Celebrate and champion this culture using your ordinary pastoral tools—like preaching, prayer, and membership interviews. If the pastor is responsible for keeping outreach efforts afloat through other kinds of administrative work, things probably won’t end well. Instead, cast vision and celebrate what God is doing in order to stir up others’ desire for the work.

So I look for opportunities in sermon application to encourage people in these relationships. I often focus on our outreach work in my pastoral prayers, sometimes praying for individual volunteers by name. And the new member interview—a frontline, culture-shaping moment—is a perfect chance to ask someone to consider taking on a relationship with a foreign-born individual or family.

Editors’ note: A version of this article first appeared at 9Marks.

5 Myths about Jubilee

Found in Leviticus 25, the biblical practice of Jubilee is becoming ever more prominent in discussions about justice, poverty, and debt relief. Many evangelical authors mention Jubilee as a biblical example of debt forgiveness and redistribution of land. It has also gained popular attention in the news media.

Jubilee has been offered by several sources as a solution to our current economic crisis. At Forbes, Erik Kain asked, “Could a debt jubilee help kickstart the economy?” Reuters profiled economists who are seriously considering Jubilee as a tool for ending the recession, and the Huffington Post linked the practice to the demands of Occupy Wall Street. In an age of crushing federal and consumer debt, a practice that forgives financial burdens is naturally becoming quite popular.

But what is the context for the scriptural practice of Jubilee? When the Israelites reached the Promised Land, God distributed land to the 12 tribes (Joshua 13:7, 23:4). The purpose of the Jubilee law was to keep the land in the hands of the tribes and families to which he had given land in the first place.

In Leviticus 25:8-10, a ram’s horn is to be blown on the day of atonement of the 50th year (or the 49th), and each family is to return to their property. Verses 15-16 details how this process should work:

You shall pay your neighbor according to the number of years after the jubilee, and he shall sell to you according to the number of years for crops. 16 If the years are many, you shall increase the price, and if the years are few, you shall reduce the price, for it is the number of the crops that he is selling to you.

Today, many myths persist about this ancient practice. We’ll deal with five of the major ones.

Myth 1: Jubilee means a forgiveness of debt.

It is clear in the Old Testament text and to many commentators that in Leviticus 25, Jubilee does not involve forgiveness of debt, at least in the way we normally use the term. There is no debt forgiven because it has already been paid. Let me explain. If Israelite family members have a debt they can ask the person farming their land for a lump sum payment priced according to the number of years before the Jubilee. The price would be determined by the projected amount of crops to be yielded prior to the Jubilee. To put it in modern terms, if you had a debt of $250,000, there are five years prior to the Jubilee, and each crop is worth $50,000, then the “buyer” would give you $250,000 for the rights to farm the land, and at the time of Jubilee you would receive your land back because the debt had been paid off.

So the “buyer” does not really own the land but leases it. The debt is paid off by the land (crops). We don’t know exactly how the price was determined for each year of crops, given the uncertainty due to bad weather or other factors that could lead to a poor or lost crop. Perhaps the price took into account that some years would be more profitable than others.

At the time of Jubilee you would of course rejoice that your debt had been paid and your land returned to your full use, but you would not thank the leaser for “forgiving” your debt. The Jubilee declaration might be analogous to a “mortgage burning party.” You would celebrate with friends that this significant debt was paid. The debt is not “forgiven” or “cancelled” because it is paid.

Numerous commentators endorse this understanding. For instance, Derek Tidball says, “Purchasing the land was like purchasing a lease.” [1] And R. K. Harrison says, “Only the produce of the land could thus properly be bought or sold.” [2]

Myth 2: Jubilee involves a redistribution of wealth (land).

I’ve heard it said that Jubilee is the paramount example of a mandatory, legal (government) redistribution of wealth. So the argument goes: God required by law that land be redistributed every 50 years.

However, if Jubilee did not involve debt forgiveness, and instead celebrated a debt paid off, then there is no redistribution of wealth. There is no redistribution because the land never left the ownership of the original family to whom God gave the land.

Jubilee keeps land and wealth in the same place they started. Wealth and land are not redistributed to a different family. They are returned to the same one according to God’s original distribution.

Myth 3: Jubilee shows the relative nature of private property.

This myth purports that since God owns the land, there are no absolute rights to private property. If there are no absolute rights to private property—land or wealth—this provides warrant for the government to take private property and redistribute it.

Actually, Jubilee honors property rights by giving land back to its original owners. God owns the land, but has given the Promised Land to the tribes and families of Israel with the condition that private property cannot be sold, squandered, or given away permanently. The property rights remain with the tribe or family that was given the land in the first place.

Jubilee underlines the value and importance of private property for the tribes of Israel. The family is not permanently deprived of their land. Rather, private property rights in Israel were established permanently and enforced by the practice of Jubilee.

Myth 4: Jubilee leads to income equality.

Some argue that the periodic “redistribution” of land at Jubilee kept the rich from gaining more wealth, and the poor from descending deeper into poverty. But there is nothing in the passage that necessarily prevents income inequality.

Jubilee certainly did stop any one person or small group of people from buying up most or all of the land, those “who add field to field, until there is no more room” (Isaiah 5:8). What Jubilee did not do was prevent some people from becoming wealthier than others. They could buy houses in towns that were then permanent possessions (Leviticus 25:30). If they made a profit during their lease, they could lease even more land during the next 50 years.

The primary intent of the law is not economic equality. Rather, God wanted to prevent the Israelites from losing their ability to enjoy the Promised Land. He promised his people freedom from slavery, and a land flowing with “milk and honey,” where they could prosper and enjoy life, using their creativity to farm the land and enjoy the fruits of their labors.

The purpose of Jubilee was not income equality, but rather that no Israelites would permanently lose the enjoyment of sitting under “his vine and under his fig tree” (Micah 4:4).

Myth 5: Jubilee is a universally applicable principle.

Actually, Jubilee applied only to Israelites. This is another significant point almost entirely omitted from the normal narrative about Jubilee.

Non-Israelites might have been able to lease land or hire indentured servants. They could not permanently own land (Leviticus 25:47). Only Israelites could own land (Leviticus 25:44-46). There was no redistribution or return of land to foreigners. The poorest people of the land—widows, orphans, and aliens—were to be included in feasts, but they did not have property rights outside the walled cities.

Jubilee and the State

This redemptive-historical approach to understanding Jubilee has the advantage of avoiding the debates about capitalism or socialism. Given the complexities and misunderstandings surrounding Jubilee, the present-day applications of this practice are not immediately clear. They are not as easy to interpret and apply as those who perpetuate these myths want to maintain. But it is clear that Jubilee cannot be used to defend redistribution of wealth by the state.

Of course, even if the Bible doesn’t require the state to redistribute wealth, the state may still do so. Whether the state is the best vehicle to meet the needs of poor people is a separate issue.

There is a case to be made that the state should provide a safety net for the poor. But state involvement does not absolve Christians of individual or corporate responsibility. Certainly Christians must be concerned about the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan because God requires us to do so. Jesus says that whoever serves one of the “least of these” serves him (Matthew 25:45).

Biblical commands are not given to the impersonal, secular state, but to Christians to care personally for those in need with our time and treasure.

* * * * *

[1] Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 296.

[2] R.K. Harrison, Leviticus (NICOT) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 317.

* * * * *

For further reading on Jubilee:

Michael A. Harbin, Jubilee and Social Justice

Art Lindsley, Five Myths About Jubilee (full version)

Finding a Better Way for Mercy Ministry

Let me tell you the story of two churches’ approach to mercy ministry (ministry to the physical needs of local non-Christians).

Mercy-for-the-City Bible Fellowship talks a lot about mercy ministry. Their staff is tireless in caring for the poor, though the church is clear that the ministry of the Word is primary. They advertise dozens of mercy-focused ministries on their website and in “infomercials” during the service. Their members love being part of a church that takes social justice seriously.

But as you dissect members’ lives, you realize that their concern for the poor largely starts and stops with church activities. They gladly sign up once each month to deliver food and gospel tracts to low-income housing units, but they don’t really know their own neighbors. Strangely, the church’s public commitment to mercy ministries has dampened the responsibility individual members feel to care for the poor in their own circles. And it’s more than a little awkward when “the poor” show up to be part of the church: Mercy-for-the-City seems to think of “the poor” as “them” and not “us.”

Then there is We-Are-the-Elect Reformed Bible Church. Their pastoral staff has been careful to keep the mission of the local church simple, as Jesus intended it. Their job is to make disciples of all nations, and so the church as an institution limits itself to proclaiming the gospel and discipling believers. “Love your neighbor” is heard from the pulpit as the pastor faithfully preaches through the Gospels. But the effect isn’t quite what the pastor would like.

The church’s neighborhood includes a large refugee population from East Africa with significant physical needs. The pastor cannot point to any one member and say that he or she is “in sin” for ignoring these needs. After all, his members are quite busy doing good things with their lives. But the fact that nobody sees these refugees as a priority just doesn’t seem to square with what he sees in the New Testament.

Programmed Ministry and Organic Ministry

So how should your local church support mercy ministries?

Sometimes we think the answer falls into only one of two categories—the options in the story above. In the first category, which I’ll call “programmed ministry,” churches build a mercy ministry into their institutional life. They will fine-tune their budgets, staff, and vision statements to make sure that the ministry is integral to who they are as a church.

In the second category, which I’ll call “organic ministry,” the church simply leaves responsibility for mercy ministry in the members’ hands.

The first category wires mercy ministry into the institutional church; the second leaves it to individual Christians. While both of these approaches may be appropriate in different situations, both can at times fall short.

Take a job training ministry, for example. On the one hand, should we integrate job training into the structure of our church as a programmed ministry? Probably not. While important, providing job training for needy non-Christians is not integral to the mission Jesus gave us as a church, whereas Word ministry is. And I want my congregation to understand that Word ministry is something that we must do as a local church. Job training is something that individual Christians may find useful in what they must do: obey Jesus’ command to love their neighbor.

On the other hand, given the specifics of this job training ministry, I may not want to leave it to the members as organic ministry either. Perhaps the members of my congregation, left to themselves, will not take as much initiative as they should in caring for their neighbors in our community. Perhaps if we don’t highlight at least some ministries like this as important, they will think such service is unimportant to the Christian life.

The programmed approach does a good job of helping Christians to love their neighbors, but it can compromise the primacy of preaching for the institutional church. The organic approach puts the primacy in the right place and keeps the Word central, but it can push mercy ministry too far off the radar screen of the individual Christians who make up the church.

Responsive Mercy Ministry Support

Therefore, it’s worth considering a third level of support, which I’ll term “responsive ministry.”

In this model, we lead with the preaching of the Word, including commands like “love your neighbor.” Then as church leaders we watch to see where that Word is taking root and flowering into action, and we respond by using church resources to support the most strategic pieces of that work. Resources could include:

  • budget dollars;
  • coordination of volunteer resources through a weekly prayer meeting or online bulletin board;
  • highlighting member initiatives in sermon application;
  • creating a deacon position to facilitate that work.

If interest wanes and members determine that a different initiative or ministry would bear greater fruit, the church may slowly reallocate its resources in response.

Regulated Free Market Approach

Think of this as a regulated free market approach to supporting mercy ministry. On the one hand, it is a free market. Rather than telling people how they ought to love their neighbor (as the programmed approach effectively does), we’re watching to see what naturally takes shape as the Holy Spirit convicts through his Word. And then, reactively, we get behind that activity.

Yet on the other hand, this is not laissez faire capitalism in the church either. We are deliberately helping the best ideas to prosper, and unapologetically using the resources of the local church to do so.

The deliberately responsive, “regulated free market” approach has a number of significant advantages.

Advantages over the Programmed Approach

I believe it’s better than the programmed approach for three reasons. First, it increases responsiveness. By fostering a “free market” of good deed opportunities, the responsive approach avoids pouring more and more congregational time and money into ministries that are no longer the most valuable areas for investment.

Second, it leaves responsibility with the congregation. The programmed approach can leave mercy ministry in the hands of staff members, with church members essentially “outsourcing” their responsibility. The responsive approach leaves initiative and responsibility squarely in the hands of the congregation.

Third, it protects the primacy of Word ministry. The responsive approach makes a clear distinction between the primary mission of the church (proclaiming the gospel and making disciples) and the church’s role in fostering specific ways for members to live out their obedience to Jesus in the world. The programmed approach can sometimes blur this distinction.

Advantages over the Organic Approach

But I also believe the responsive approach has two advantages over the organic approach. First, it broadens participation. Christians may be convicted from Scripture to love their neighbors, but it is almost always easier to do that when joining an existing initiative rather than creating one from scratch. By using church resources to coordinate efforts and get new initiatives off the ground, church leaders can lower the bar for members to put Scripture into practice.

Second, it focuses participation. By choosing which initiatives to highlight and support, church leaders can focus church involvement on the best-conceived ideas that focus on meeting both temporal needs and eternal needs.

Underground Ministry

In our church, we’ve often used this responsive approach to supporting mercy ministry. And on the whole, I’m pleased with the kind of ministry focus it has given us.

When you first look in on our church, our concern for our neighbors doesn’t seem particularly impressive. There’s no banner on our website, no brochures about food programs in our lobby, no large 501(c)(3) we’re running out of the church, no “director of mercy ministry” on our staff. But when you open up the church, poke around inside, and start talking to members, you discover a whole world of activity. Further, most of this “love of neighbor” activity is gospel-focused and carried out together with other church members.

In other words, the sheen on the surface isn’t there, but the culture is deep. And I think that’s healthy. We can certainly still afford to grow in this area as a church, but with God’s blessing this responsive approach has served us well.

Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in the July-August issue of the 9Marks Journal, “Mercy Ministry in the Church.”

The Gospel and Social Justice: Toward a Robustly Biblical Conversation

Writing for TIME magazine, Amy Sullivan brings to our attention an issue that has much of contemporary evangelicalism scrambling for clarity. The issue is the relationship between the gospel and “social justice.” How this relationship develops, particularly among younger evangelicals, is fraught with potential pitfalls for the unified advance of the gospel in our day.

Sullivan’s article argues that today’s younger evangelicals (the under-30s) are “expanding their mission” by being deeply concerned not with “fire-and-brimstone conservatism” (like most people Sullivan invokes Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson as representatives of this “older” evangelicalism), but with issues like global poverty, creation care, and inner-city education. According to Sullivan, “Today’s young Evangelicals … are socially conscious, cause-focused and controversy-averse.”

Sullivan’s article is helpful in noting several reasons for this shift. Some of the reasons, like seeing attention to social justice issues as the outworking of the gospel, seem good and right. Love to neighbor can look like a million things, including laboring in the inner cities of America to help provide a better education for poverty stricken families. But some of the reasons for this shift, if true (and I suspect they are), do cause concern.

First, Sullivan observes that many young evangelicals are engaged in social justice issues simply because it’s popular:

Young Evangelicals are politically involved for that most prosaic of reasons as well: it’s popular. Bono talks about his faith at the National Prayer Breakfast and challenges world leaders to forgive the debts of poor countries. Relevant magazine, a publication for young Evangelicals with 100,000 subscribers, urges its readers to “reject apathy” and educate themselves about issues ranging from “unjust war” to “creation care” (the Evangelical phrase for protecting the environment). A young minister named Tyler Wigg-Stevenson launched an Evangelical movement in 2008 to abolish nuclear weapons. And at a revival gathering called Passion 2010 in Atlanta over New Year’s weekend, more than 22,000 Evangelical college students donated nearly $700,000 of their own money to support organizations working to dig wells in Africa, help children in poverty and save women from sex trafficking.

If a movement is based on popularity the inevitable question has to be asked, “What happens to the cause when it’s not popular anymore?” It’s hard to sustain anything long-term if it’s based merely on popularity.

A second reason for the rise in popularity of social justice issues among young evangelicals is still more disquieting: the desire to not be like our parents. To make this point Sullivan invokes Don Miller:

Does all of this social activism mean young Evangelicals are liberals? Hardly. Theologically, they remain fairly conservative, but mostly they reject political and religious labels. In fact, many would rather you didn’t even call them Evangelical (simply Christian is the preferred term). “For a lot of younger Evangelicals, it steals our identity,” says Don Miller, whose spiritual memoir Blue like Jazz has sold more than 1 million copies and has developed a cult following among under-30 Evangelicals. “We’re not like Pat Robertson. We’re not like Republicans. We’re not like our parents.”

What Miller seems to be highlighting here is simply a form of rebellion cloaked in good deeds — hardly a motivation worth giving one’s life to.

For the sake of moving this debate further along, let me suggest another reason many younger evangelicals might find social justice issues so attractive: it’s easy. What do I mean by this? Surely I don’t think working in inner-city Chicago to help poverty stricken children learn to read is easy, do I? Yes, in a relative sense.

The world will applaud your move to the south side if you’re working in a school. But see what the world has to say if you plant a church. The world’s applause will likely turn to scorn, and for a generation raised on social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and MySpace, this must be avoided at all costs. God forbid I lose a friend, follower, or page-view due to my overt gospel ministry. But tell my family and friends I’m going to give my life to help end global poverty, and suddenly I’m a rock star (or at least a lot like one). Social justice issues fit with Sullivan’s description of younger evangelicals as “controversy-averse.” No one argues with the need to feed the hungry. But people are killed for the proclamation of the gospel.

I’m grateful for Sullivan’s article because it’s an issue Christians must wrestle with. What is the relationship between the gospel and social justice? With Scripture as our guide, how should we think about this without just writing another “Four Views” book?