Principle Centered Ministry — Guiding Principles for Challenging Times

By Eddie Pipkin and Phil Maynard

With demonstrations happening in more than 140 American cities over the past week, coronavirus has been pushed off the front pages, and George Floyd’s name has become a rallying cry for justice and societal change. How will churches respond? It’s good that we offer prayers and promote unity with social media posts, but Jesus never settled for prayers and aphorisms. Jesus directly engaged the most pressing social challenges of his day. He directly called out the prevailing social notions, and he directly engaged with the people who were oppressed. He told stories of hope, but he followed up with action. We’ve been sharing this blog series on “guiding principles for challenging times,” and it just got even more timely because the times just got even more challenging. This week’s guiding principles are a twofer: 1) Be relevant; and 2) Service to the community that has impact includes not only Mercy Ministries but a focus on Social Justice Ministries.

In the “be relevant” category, one of the things that surveys tell us is that young people in particular are hungry for authentic dialogue about the issues that are dominating the news and culture. They want to know what the church has to say about these issues, because they want to engage the principles of their faith in decision-making in the real world, and these are not hypothetical explorations about acts of piety that play out in some abstract separate-from-the-rest-of-their-lives spiritual realm but in the daily, practical choices about their engagement in the communities in which they live and work.  If their faith can’t give them guidance about what to do when the country is convulsed with riots, what’s the point, they legitimately ask.

Therefore, any church that doesn’t directly address this topic of dramatic national conversation is failing the relevance test. How to address it is a complex topic (and we could have used any number of other adjectives there, like painful, disturbing, challenging, gut-wrenching, or uncomfortable). The Gospel is not unfamiliar with complex, gut-wrenching, uncomfortable topics. It is our sincere belief that the Gospel is the best filter available for addressing such topics. We spoke with one clergyperson who described this worry: she knows that most of the viewers of the current virtual worship are families with children – how does she deal forthrightly with issues of violence and racial injustice when children are a big part of the audience? That’s a legitimate concern, but the Gospel and the People of the Gospel are up to the task. It means we will have to dig deeper, squirm more often, anchor ourselves firmly in prayer, expand the circle of people involved in the conversation, work harder, and be willing to make mistakes. Not only can we do these things – we are called to do these things as disciples of Jesus.

As part of that process, let us resist the urge to make a perfunctory response (the two minute “prayer for unity,” slotted in as our obligatory acknowledgement of the news). Let us meet this moment with more courage and depth. Here are some ideas:

  • Clear messaging across social media platforms and in worship that commits us to justice, healing, reform, and community building. Be provocative in helping people confront their own attitudes and perspective.
  • Longer-form reflections, sermons, devotions, and articles that wrestle with these issues in forthright language.
  • An intentional platform for a diversity of voices and perspectives as part of our public worship. We should be actively promoting people of color to share their pain and perspectives.
  • Provide practical steps for people who want to respond positively to the pain, turmoil, and chaos unfolding around them.
  • We should employ the deep reservoir of images, music, poetry, and witness offered by the arts that can be integrated into worship and other virtual gatherings.
  • We should use our legitimacy as leaders to recommend other sources of ideas and analysis for our congregations to explore. We should challenge them to deepen their perspective by advocating specific resources for them to consider and discuss (books such as Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, as well as best-sellers White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist).
  • We should involve all levels of our leadership in discussing these issues and how our congregations can best respond effectively within our specific local contexts.
  • We should move beyond handwringing to give our faith communities active options for response. And for churches that truly want to be relevant, those options for active response will move beyond our buildings and engage the communities that surround us.

A fundamental part of this process is examining our outreach and missions focus. We have written a great deal about the balance between ministries of generosity and ministries of engagement / mercy ministries versus justice ministries. Most local congregations support ministries of generosity, which are ministries in which we donate things to give to other people in need (food, clothes, money, etc.). These are important forms of outreach that can help meet the immediate and pressing needs of people being overwhelmed by poverty or natural disasters. But the next step of discipleship is to structure these forms of outreach so that they are ministries of engagement, which means that we develop relationships with the people we are serving. We’re not just handing stuff out – we are establishing real, long-term relationships with the people we are helping. We are getting to know them as people, not just thinking of them as pitiable objects of our generosity.

But moving even more deeply into our understanding of discipleship, we are not content to conduct ministries of mercy (meeting the immediate needs of people) or even ministries of engagement (establishing real relationships with the people whom we are serving). We move fully into justice ministries, which is when we work actively to reform the underlying systems that cause people to live in poverty or face oppression and injustice in the first place. It is a fight for systemic change, and it is a deeper and more complex level of commitment (one that has been critical in the history of the world in the past 2,000 years as the saints that have come before us have rallied the power of the Gospel to change how people treat one another). Far fewer churches are engaged in justice ministries and now is the perfect time to be having that conversation.

This process begins with dialogue and education within a congregation, expanding to the community, and leading to options for action:

  • Forums for education, discussion, enlightenment, and debate (which can happen virtually within our current social isolation context).
  • Platforms in which people are encouraged to share their own personal experiences.
  • Seminars, workshops, and other educational events in which people are given an opportunity to more deeply explore social issues such as poverty, racism, and the criminal justice system.

These educational components and opportunities for dialogue can lead directly to ideas for active engagement:

  • Advocacy for local and national policy change in areas such as criminal justice, affordable housing, accessible health care, etc.
  • Hybrids of mercy and justice ministries that meet needs and offer immediate support for people dealing with the effects of broken social policies, such as food deserts, lack of affordable housing, lack of mental health resources, disparities in health care or child care, families with incarcerated members, families dealing with the effects of opioid crisis, etc.
  • Partnerships with other congregations in different socioeconomic or cultural contexts than our own, who may have more direct exposure to social justice issues. Partnerships with community organizations that are working for change.

There are as many possibilities for response as there are individual congregations, and we like to emphasize the idea that there is no “one size fits all” solution for congregations that are seeking ways to live out their discipleship. Every context is unique. Every community has its own needs. The key is to accept the challenge and figure out your community’s needs and your congregation’s unique gifts in responding to those needs.

Here is an article with some examples of the ways United Methodist congregations are responding (as well as links to powerful sermons on this topic and resources for books and more)>

How is your local congregation responding in this moment? How are you addressing the calls for transformative justice? How are you promoting and supporting justice ministries? Share your own stories and your concerns for the challenges that lie ahead.