Q&A: The Just Church … how to make a real difference
Many Christians are discovering God’s heart for justice in the pages of Scripture and hearing his call to do justice for the very first time. Some are deeply moved — even angry — when they become aware of the awful oppressions imposed on the weak and vulnerable. They want to do something, to make a meaningful difference.
Unfortunately, the enormity of injustice in the world causes some to lapse into despair — what can one person do, after all? Others stop short of truly meaningful action by just giving money to an organization that drills water wells or BOGOing shoes to the poor. Only a few make the jump into the missional discipleship that gets personally involved, hands-on, with multiplying justice in community.
Here at Multiply Justice, we want more for you than anger or despair — or a consumerist self-deception that pretends buying something satisfies Almighty God’s cosmic passion for his people to bring abundant, eternal life to his oppressed children. That’s why we not only tell stories about justice, but also point you toward resources and trustworthy partners who can help you put boots on the ground in the fight for Kingdom justice.
An excellent new resource for organizing your justice campaign is now available from one of our trustworthy partners. International Justice Mission has published The Just Church: Becoming a Risk-Taking, Justice-Seeking, Disciple-Making Congregation, a road map to doing justice in a meaningful way that brings long-lasting transformation to individuals and communities. The Just Church will provide tangible, accessible strategies to help your church respond to God’s call to seek justice, defend the widow and orphan, and rescue the oppressed in far-off places and right in your own community.
This Q&A will help you hear the heart of the book’s author, Jim Martin, who draws on 18 years of experience on the front lines of the fight for biblical justice to lead church mobilization efforts for IJM:
Q: Would you please share what prompted you to write The Just Church, and what your main objective was in writing the book at this time?
A: One day I had the realization that it was just a matter of time before I walked in to a bookstore and saw a book with the words “Justice” and “Church” in the title. Having been in ministry for eighteen years—ten of those as a pastor at a church passionate about justice, I realized I had a pretty specific perspective about what kind of book would be most helpful. I wanted to be sure that any book that encouraged churches to engage in justice in a hands-on way would make a strong connection between justice and discipleship rather than simply justice and mission. A few nanoseconds later I realized that, given IJM’s experience with churches over the last decade, we should write that book. I was just at the right place at the right time.
Q: What key takeaway do you hope will make the biggest imprint on the mind and heart of the reader?
A: IJM learned early on that getting churches riled up about slavery, sex trafficking and other forms of violent oppression was not difficult. The hard part is coaching those churches to meaningful, enduring action. It’s not that churches lack the desire to act. What we’ve found over the years is that most churches simply lack a proven strategy to get them through the complexity, pain and darkness involved in engaging violent oppression. This book offers that proven strategy based on more than a decade of experience with churches who’ve found deep and lasting engagement.
Q: What have you found to be most effective in moving people from the sidelines of awareness, to the field, so-to-speak–from apathy to action?
A: One word: Hope. Hope is like a secret weapon. The easiest mistake to make is to simply pound people with statistics and horror stories. But the harsh truth of the problem alone usually serves to produce anger or despair. Anger may produce short bursts of activity, but is not effective fuel for a long journey. Even worse, despair is like inertia—making it even harder for us to take action. But hope is different. Hope motivates, hope increases momentum. At IJM we talk about a ratio of 10 to 1. For every one part stark reality of oppression, you need to inject 10 parts of rescue, restoration and transformation-based hope.
Q: In the book you say, “If we are risk averse, we will be faith poor.” What do you mean?
A: One of the central points in the first half of the book is the idea that faith is made up of two things: Belief and Trust. Most churches I’ve known are great at teaching belief. There are all kinds of resources out there that help us hone our understanding of what we believe about God. But most churches, including churches I’ve led, are not very good at teaching trust—simply because this is much more difficult to teach—and learn. Learning trust always involves risk. This is true in human relationships and it’s true in our relationship with God. As I have taken on appropriate risk and experienced God as faithful and sufficient in it, my trust has grown. Simply put the equation is Faith = Belief + Trust. If we are risk averse, we will be faith poor.
Q: As you’ve engaged with churches, what have you found to be the biggest misconception about how justice and discipleship relate to each other?
A: I think the extent to which many believers think about justice at all, they think of it as a mission of the church—something that we ought to do for those poor vulnerable people out there who are victimized by others. I do think there’s some truth to that. But what I’ve found over a couple of decades of engagement, is that there simply is no better place for me to be stretched, no better place for me to be forced to rely on the miraculous goodness and grace of God, than in the work of justice. There are so few places where my faith is really tested, where my trust in God is so stretched. This is why the work of justice is some of the richest soil for discipleship I’ve ever known.
Q: You speak about a type of maturity that has a “missional purpose.” Can you expound on this idea?
A: Sometimes in the church we think of spiritual maturity as simply an end in itself. But the scriptures are clear that God’s work to rescue and redeem us is not only because he loves us, but also because he has a purpose for our lives! We are invited, adopted into, the family of God so that we can join the family business—that is so that we can join God on his mission to planet earth. Our spiritual maturity is for this missional purpose.
Q: You talk about the relevance of “failure points”. Would you describe this concept for people or churches that are passionate about the battle for justice in our time?
A: For me, this is one of the keys to growing faith. In the book I make the comparison to weight training. In order to strengthen muscles, many schools of weight training encourage us to push our muscles to the failure point—the point at which our muscles cease to function. This was something of an “aha!” for me. For a long time I’d been looking for a way to describe what happens when we faithfully follow God into difficult situations, especially those outside our normal experience. Sometimes in those situations I’ve had the experience of coming to the end of my faith—the place where I was no longer sure that God was actually sovereign. This was especially true the first several times I encountered victims of sexual violence and heard their stories. The stark reality of that kind of suffering was challenging to contemplate, not just emotionally, but theologically. It forced all kinds of questions about God’s sovereignty, God’s goodness. It was again and again in those places, that counter-intuitively that God would actually prove to be both sovereign and good. These experienced deepened my faith perhaps more than any others in my life.
Q: What challenge would you issue to the church in terms of our impact in actually alleviating this kind of suffering in the first place?
A: Stories of rescue are both inspiring and hopeful. And rescue is utterly life-changing for survivors who are touched by that miracle. But isn’t our real hope that these children, women and men would never be victimized in the first place? As the global church awakens to this massive tragedy being perpetrated on our watch, its 2.2 billion members should form a transformational army that works to prevent the abuse of the vulnerable in the first place.
Q: Although the church is clearly called to defend the oppressed, it hasn’t always been actively engaged in issues of violent oppression.. Why do you think that is?
A: Violence is simply different from most other challenges the church confronts. As IJM’s founder Gary Haugen says, “Victims of violence aren’t suffering from bad luck or bad weather,” nor are they suffering because they don’t have a healthy church they can attend. They are suffering because of the intentional abuse of someone else. As Ecclesiastes 4:1 puts it, the oppressed have “no one to comfort them.” But “on the side of their oppressors, [is] power.” Confronting violent power is challenging. It produces feelings (such as fear) that can be uncomfortable.
Q: People often say that they are “only one person,” and they don’t know how they can make a difference. What advice would you give them about stepping out and getting started?
A: According to the CIA Fact Book, there are 2.2 billion Christians in the world. In the US alone, there are over 300,000 churches. Together we are more than a quorum. We are the hands and feet of the God of justice. And we are waking from our slumber. Let’s work to rouse the particular limb to which we are attached and shake off the cobwebs. This body is on a mission.
Q: What if churches were more collaborative in the area of justice, in what ways might that immediately and positively impact communities?
A: One of the strategies we present in the second half of the book is the idea of churches doing a thorough “Community Justice Assessment.” (IJM has a tool, a guide for this that is available for free.) One excellent collaborative strategy is for several churches in the same area to work together on conducting this assessment. Together they become the experts on issues of violence in their communities as well as the gaps in service/opportunities for ministry that exist.
Q: The term “social justice” has become a common expression. Do you believe there is a difference between social justice and biblical justice?
A: For those of us who take the scriptures seriously, there can be no doubt that God cares about justice. To quote scholar Christopher Wright (in his endorsement of The Just Church): Justice, “is something that every biblical genre talks about somewhere – in the law, the narratives, the prophets, the Psalms and wisdom literature, the gospels and epistles.” When people use the term “social justice,” they are generally referring to people acting justly in their interactions with each other and the world. We can pursue social justice for a variety of different reasons, including as a response to God’s call to justice. The distinctive of biblical justice, perhaps, has to do with motivation. We engage in justice not merely because we are kind people wanting to alleviate the suffering of others, but because we are disciples of a just God who hears the cries of the vulnerable and longs to mobilize his body to bring rescue. God calls us to this mission, but God also underwrites the mission. God meets us in this mission and God transforms us through this mission.
Q: If a church could do just one thing to begin an intentional process of moving toward being a more “just church” today, what would that be?
A: Reverse the spiral of isolation. That is to say, so many churches in the US (and in other more “developed” parts of the world) struggle with isolation. If we are isolated enough as to be largely unaware of injustice-related suffering altogether, then this lack of awareness will actually affect how they read the Scriptures. Because we don’t see this kind of suffering in the world, we don’t notice when we are reading about it in the Scriptures. Not noticing it in the Scriptures, we are not compelled to see it in the world. And the spiral accelerates. We need to reverse the spiral by taking a careful look at the Scriptures for their call to engage injustice in the world. And we need to take a hard look at the world to see the kind of suffering experienced by our neighbors. Having done that, I have little doubt that the God of justice will move us to action.