Balancing Mission and Social Justice: Navigating the Church’s Purpose

POINT OF THE POST...

Discover the delicate balance between social justice, community engagement, and the mission of the local church. Explore the importance of supporting non-profits, spreading the Gospel, and growing disciples.

Church Trends Are Trending!

The following posts will address the 5 Church Trends that Demand Our Attention. Let’s begin with TREND 1: Online and virtual church experiences.

You’re Church Is Just Another Non-Profit, Right? 

Of course not. I hope you read that question and felt a bit unnerved with me. But not too much…I want you to keep reading because I want us to seriously consider a question together: 

What’s the difference between your church and the local non-profit serving your community?

Have you ever asked that question? Like, seriously asked.

I suspect in your community, many non-profits are serving those in need through food pantries, homeless shelters, job and skill training, ESOL classes, and more. These organizations exist for the good of the community and those in it.

But what’s the difference between your church and these other organizations.

It seems like an obvious question with a relatively obvious answer. But let’s dig a bit deeper for a moment.

A Trend in the Church

An emphasis on social justice and community outreach is a growing trend in the church that most likely will not decrease in the coming years. Churches will feel some appropriate pressure to do better in these spaces. Yet, as with any trend, there are potential downsides and consequences.

If you’re wondering how serving the least of these or engaging in social justice as a church has a downside, I get it. But there is. There is an opportunity cost to any choice we make in the local church. The value or benefit forgone or sacrificed when choosing one alternative over another is an opportunity cost. It is the cost of what you give up to pursue a particular option or opportunity.

If you choose to move from a temporary facility to a permanent building, there is an opportunity cost. Perhaps minimal by comparison, but there is a cost. Every budget decision creates an opportunity cost. Spending $100 here means you have $100 fewer dollars there. And there is an opportunity cost associated with engaging more with social justice and community outreach.

Like moving from a portable location into your first permanent building, the upside of social justice and community outreach is obvious. There is biblical support (Psalm 82:3-4, Proverbs 19:17, Isaiah 1:17, James 1:27, Matthew 25:35-40) and clear needs. There’s a secondary upside, as well. To quote my friend Jeff Henderson,

“For too long, churches have been known for what they are against. We need to be known for what we are FOR.”
– Jeff Henderson, “Know What You’re FOR,”

Doing good in the community is good for the community and the church. Getting caught doing good is a good thing, especially in our current culture where churches, pastors, and Christians are not liked or trusted.

So yes, it’s evidently clear that this trend is mostly positive.

The Potential Pitfalls of Social Justice and Community Outreach

We must first delineate between the church and these other non-profit organizations to understand the pitfalls.

There are some similarities:

Non-Profit Status: To start with the obvious, both are 501(c)(3) Organizations. Giving is tax deductible (at least in the US). Both are treated similarly by the government.

Community-focused: Both a local church and a local non-profit organization focus on serving the community’s needs.

Volunteer involvement: Both the church and non-profit organizations rely heavily on volunteers who dedicate their time and skills to support their respective missions.

Service-oriented: Both entities are committed to serving others and meeting the needs of the community.

Fundraising and financial stewardship: Both the church and non-profit organizations need financial resources to support their activities and initiatives. They often rely on donations, grants, and fundraising efforts to sustain their operations and fulfill their missions.

Yet, even with so many similarities, there is one key difference. The mission.

The mission of these non-profit organizations is compelling and necessary. Fighting food insecurity, homelessness, educational disadvantages, mental and emotional challenges, and trafficking is indispensable. These missions matter.

But these missions are not the mission of the church. Their primary purpose for existing do not match the eternal and God-given purpose of the Church.

The mission of the church is to spread the Gospel of Christ while supporting the faith growth of the body of Christ.

That is why the church exists. So when a church begins creating programs and focusing more on social justice and community outreach to spread the Gospel and grow faith, the church remains on mission. But when social justice or community involvement becomes the mission, the church is now off mission.

The Slippy Slope of Mission Drift

No church sets out to lose focus of its primary mission. But churches (or any organization, for that matter) that don’t actively keep their mission as their primary focus drift away to the trend du jour. As drifts tend to be, this drift is always subtle. At first, the church begins a program or raises funding. Soon, though, this one program or momentary financial offering becomes larger and in focus. New, similar programs are created. More budget is directed. And so on and so forth.

Meanwhile, the mission of the church is still written on the wall, but it’s not happening down the hall. At all.

There is little evangelism or edification. But there is a wealth of community needs being met.

Slowly but surely, you’ve become a non-profit organization with a weekly gathering.

Eternity is no longer in view. Faith is not your focus. Good works are plenty, and your heart is pure, but your God-given mission is missing.

Doing Good While Maintaining Your Mission

Your church shouldn’t ignore the community! The opposite, in fact. But you must discover a pathway to participate in social justice spaces and community outreach to enhance your mission, not replace the mission. This means asking some tough questions about what you’re currently doing. And creating a decision grid to use when considering adding anything new.

Questions For Your Current Programs and Focus
  1. In eight words or less, how would we state our mission? I like the simplicity of reducing a mission statement to its irrefutable minimum to help every see more clearly why you exist.

  2. For each program, ask, “Does ______________ help accomplish the mission of our church in the lives of the people in and around our church?” Food pantries are great, but how is your food pantry a part of the Great Commission? Serving in the community is great, but if you only meet a physical need and have no way of engaging spiritual needs (eventually), you may be off mission.

  3. Make a Retain, Revise, Remove list. Retain what moves the mission of the church forward. Revise what can move the church mission forward if refocused. And remove everything else, even if it’s good. 

Grid Questions to Ask as New Needs are Found
  1. “Is anyone in our community working to address this need?” If so, don’t compete, but compliment. Help fund them and send volunteers to them, but don’t replicate their efforts. 

  2. Next, ask, “Does engaging with this need help us directly spread the Gospel and edify our congregation?” If not, don’t do it. You’ve got to resist the urge to prioritize needs over spreading the Gospel. Now, you absolutely can meet needs with intentionality around the Gospel, but it is the lack of intentionality that plagues too many churches. 

  3. Then, “How will we intentionally incorporate meeting this need in our discipleship pathway?” Again, this question is painfully clarifying. If you have any program that isn’t a step in your discipleship pathway, you’re already off mission to some extent.

  4. Finally, “How will we measure our discipleship to ensure we are on mission?” Metrics are facts, and facts don’t lie. 

Final Thoughts

I assume the enemy would love to see churches off mission. Food, clothing, and martial health outside of salvation are ultimately worthless. The Gospel is the mission of the church. Everything else is sideways energy unless it directly fuels the mission. 

I cannot encourage you enough to ask these hard questions to help ensure your church is functioning as God designed the church. 

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