Planning and Operating Ministries of Social Action
By Jerry R. Kirk and H. Deen Kaplan
Called to be salt and light in the world, churches and their members are increasingly launching into the waters of social action. By attempting to shape social policy locally and nationally on such controversial issues as racism, poverty, the environment, abortion, and pornography, Christians have greatly increased their visibility in the public-policy arena. While this deepening involvement has proven unsettling for many churches, we should not be surprised that God’s people, having witnessed the power of Christ’s transformation in their personal lives, desire to affect their communities in a similar manner.
Although most evangelical church members have heard countless sermons on personal righteousness from the Sunday pulpit, few have the same depth of familiarity with the call to be witnesses for righteousness and justice in the public arena. In the eyes of many, both within and outside the church, it is one thing to call one’s congregation to refrain from sin and quite another to suggest a policy for a whole community or nation.
How a church’s involvement in social action will be received in the broader community is a function first and foremost of the attitude believers bring to their efforts. A desire to serve, born of genuine humility before God, will bear good fruit even in the midst of hostility and opposition. On the other hand, a transparent attempt to assert raw power will publicly identify the church as one more interest group merely concerned with its share of the social and political pie. Christ is not honored when we foster such an impression.
Knowing Where to Stand
Churches that want to make good things happen in their communities and nation need to decide where to direct their resources of personnel, time, and money. These three general rules can guide a church beginning to survey specific community problems and issues:
* Begin where competent leadership already exists. Focus on problems for which committed lay people have already demonstrated both concern and expertise. Look for people who not only have the basic leadership skills but who also demonstrate a Christ-centered character. Such people must have made mature and thoughtful choices over an extended period of time. This is important, since leaders in social-action ministries will have their character weaknesses tested, both in the context of the church and more forcefully in the broader community in which the church desires to witness. Pick well and strive for excellence.
* Focus where people agree on the issues. Choose community problems for which some degree of consensus exists in the church. If a congregation’s leaders and most members cannot agree among themselves on the significance of a problem and the appropriate action to take, seldom will they make an impact on the community surrounding them. Explore where consensus exists and then plot a clear biblical course of action.
* Labor where the perseverance will stay strong. Become involved only with those problems you are willing to stay with over the long haul. Social change is a slow process that usually involves as many setbacks as advances. There are always at least two sides to every issue, and we can be sure our calls for change will encounter opposition. If churches truly desire to serve as the conscience of their communities, they need to pick issues for which their commitment has staying power. They’ll need a stick-to-it attitude that can transcend the discouragements of the next election, the next adverse policy decision, and the next inevitable setback.
Spreading the Word
Having chosen an important social issue to address and called forth mature leaders to help carry the message, the congregation then faces the rewarding and difficult task of communicating its message to the public. In our experience of combating sexual violence and pornography, we have found it advantageous to allow a diversity of strategies and methods. We should not assume we have the one true way of solving a particular problem.
Yet several general principles do apply to the most effective social-action planning done by churches:
* Do your homework. Clear information presented in a compelling manner wins respect. For instance, if we want to draw attention to the relationship between pornography in the community and an increase in sexual violence, we need to know whether such a relationship actually exists and what studies document the connection. Our credibility in the community on any social issue is a function of having done good homework.
* Educate to motivate. Communities seldom act without understanding why something is a problem and knowing exactly what they can do about it. Our responsibility is to educate and motivate the community to action, honestly but passionately.
This usually requires a good measure of creativity. With the growth of the media and communications technology, we are increasingly inundated with images of pain, injustice, and suffering from every corner of the world. These constant images have a desensitizing effect on many people.
* Organize concerned citizens. Organization makes the difference between an effective movement and an unfocused concern. Develop communication networks, task forces, and other structures that will allow you to mobilize people and resources quickly and effectively when action is needed.
* Build partnerships and alliances. By joining with others who share our desire for action on a particular issue, we bring additional insight to our cause and numbers to our ranks. In a pluralistic democracy, diversity is an asset when confronting social issues. Joining with others also helps hold us accountable to wise action, as our zeal is tempered by a variety of opinions.
Many people who may not be a part of the church community do share our concern for reduced violence, freedom of worship, or ending racism. One note of caution: If we ask others to be a part of our team, we must be prepared to respect their opinions and allow them to function as full partners in the decision-making process.
*Seek cooperation before confrontation. Civic or business leaders may disagree with a course of action we feel called to follow as we address a social problem. That doesn’t lessen our responsibility to seek dialogue, cooperation, and understanding. By demonstrating respect when principled differences arise, we earn respect for our approach. Sometimes confrontation in the form of a rally or boycott will be necessary. Such action, however, should only follow sincere, repeated attempts to have dialogue and collaboration.
* Utilize national expertise. Don’t reinvent the wheel. In almost every area of social importance, there are national organizations attempting to make good things happen. Find them and then utilize their expertise, assistance, resources, and counsel. Never be shy about asking for help.
* Stay focused on your issue. With issues of importance pressing on every side, it is easy for social-action ministries to lose focus and become involved in every hot issue of the day. Invariably, this dissipates energy and impact. In the worst instances, it can lead to attempts to preserve a ministry for the sake of the ministry, rather than solving the problems the ministry was chartered to address. There’s no shortage of sin and injustice permeating contemporary society. Difficult choices need to be made if deep and lasting impact is our goal.
Being Taken Seriously
We all want to be taken seriously, particularly because we believe Christ has given his people constructive insights into many social problems. Yet speaking, being heard, and being taken seriously are three different matters. The first is far easier than the second or third. A few basic guidelines can help ensure that we are taken seriously.
First, the church should diligently practice actions and policies it asks others to adopt. Those who have attempted to address a problem over time will have more respect when they advocate a public policy to solve it. For instance, as one of the nation’s largest providers of private hospitals, Roman Catholic officials have offered many respected insights related to health-care policy.
Second, we should choose our rhetoric carefully, being sure of a prophetic call before assuming one, and always matching our actions to our words. When necessary, threatened actions (such as letter-writing campaigns, political accountability, and boycotts) are better understated than overstated. Leaders in any field are taken seriously when they can fulfill their promises.
Third, focus on building relationships of trust that will last. Policies on every social issue are made by individuals, not institutions. Those individuals will listen to the voices they trust and respect. Sincerity, honesty, consistency, conviction, and a proven track record are keys here, as they are with any good relationship.
Participating in the Public Square
As we noted earlier, those called to operate ministries of social action usually face intense public scrutiny, particularly on controversial issues. At the same time, one of the best communication vehicles for our social efforts is the media.
*The role of the media. For the most part, reporters have a natural suspicion of all those who claim to offer the community a better way. Some of their skepticism is understandable, given the number of broken promises, inconsistent lives, and misstated facts they encounter daily.
In order to work with the media effectively, we must think first and speak second. Words in print or on audio- or videotape are difficult to rescind.
Second, we must always tell the truth. We shouldn’t exaggerate or pretend to know something we don’t. Both errors will weaken our integrity and credibility over the long run.
Third, we should choose and train spokespersons for our issue. Effective media communication is a learned skill, requiring training and practice.
On many issues, a lay person will make a better spokesperson than the pastor, whose “audience” is usually the church. In our communication with the broader community, we need to use terms that will be understood and applied to the whole community. Few of us fully understand doctors or lawyers when they use their own complex terminology. The church also has a language of its own, which seldom translates with the same impact and depth of understanding to the rest of the world.
*The role of the pastor. The pastor does have a pivotal role to play in enabling effective social action. He or she can lead the church by teaching the importance of being salt and light, in calling forth the gifts of interested lay people, and in drawing attention to their efforts. Church members will also need lots of encouragement as they confront injustice and evil around them. Changing the system is difficult and requires big doses of courage and perseverance, which the pastor can help provide.
In addition, pastors also have the powerful opportunity to help their members who are a part of the system understand the ways in which they can be agents of transformation from the inside. Many of these Christians feel lonely and isolated in their responsibilities.
Some pastors are understandably hesitant to lend their names and reputations to the vagaries of the public-policy and social-action arena. Their congregational members often disagree on the most effective course of action and hold distinctly varying political and social philosophies. While social-action ministry is never a substitute for preaching the good news of redemption, it should be viewed as a proper response to our message of salvation for all believers. If being salt and light is to have any meaning, we will have to take some difficult risks in these areas.
Ministries of social action come with a distinct set of pitfalls to avoid. By being aware of these pitfalls from the outset, we will find it easier to avoid serious mistakes.
Here are a few:
* Ignoring unethical behavior by staff or workers. It can be incredibly painful to receive a call from a media representative asking for comment on the local leader of a crusade against a social ill caught indulging in the behavior he or she was seeking to stop. No substitute exists for personal integrity and accountability. Social action often means combating sin, and we do well to remember that sin is seductive for the believer and unbeliever alike.
It is a deeply serious responsibility to attempt to speak on behalf of the church for a given social action. We represent Christ to the world in everything we say and do. Correspondingly, we damage not only ourselves but also the entire witness of the church when our personal behavior does not reflect the cause we advocate in the public forum. Those who lead and operate ministries of social action should surround themselves with strong partners who can provide oversight and who won’t hesitate to point out inconsistencies or dangers that may appear in their life or ministry.
* Using methods that don’t match our witness. We do not honor God by “winning” with methods or tactics that are not consistent with our role as His servants in the world. For Christians, the means to an end are as important as the goal itself.
Particularly in the political forum, it is easy to lose sight of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways our methods reflect on Christ. We do not have the option of inappropriately and unfairly vilifying those who oppose the objectives we are advocating. In a like manner, we must avoid the temptation to speak ill of believers or churches whose approach differs from our own. Many churches don’t agree on where action is appropriate, much less on the methods to use. We must demonstrate respect for differences.
* Supporting personalities over principles. Avoid supporting individuals, bright personalities, or political parties rather than principles. In civic leadership, few – if any – candidates or parties can lay exclusive claim to being God’s chosen representatives for a position. When we support principles of justice and righteousness that will benefit a community, we offer all those in responsibility the opportunity to participate in their achievement and benefits.
* Confusing the kingdom with politics. The government is not a substitute for the church, nor vice versa. Politics will not institute the kingdom of God, just as the church is not the appropriate institution to govern society. For some citizens, political or social victory is a means of control. Our responsibility remains consistent in the midst of the many battles that are a part of social action: first, to be of service to our communities, and second, to remind our governing leaders of their promises, commitments, and standards of justice. The church is painfully compromised when it functions merely as an extension of a secular party or individual.
* Being careless with funds. Maintain impeccable financial integrity, with outside checks and balances in place. Asserting communal benefit in public while privately cutting corners or seeking personal gain will destroy most ministries, including those involved in social action.
Making a Lasting Difference
In attempting constructive social action, we take risks in order to call forth positive change. While it is easy to become discouraged in the process of being witnesses for righteousness and justice in societies filled with far too much injustice and darkness, we should never lose hope. Just as we often see remarkable personal change after a lifetime of pain or sin, so too can we witness similar transformations in policies that don’t reflect the glory of God.
Two examples of Christians who have attempted change in social policy illustrate the attitudes that can characterize our own efforts. The first example involves a government official working inside the system as a member of a powerful national commission. Asked to express the reasons for his optimism in the face of so many losses on policies he was seeking to change, he noted: “The civil rights battle was an uphill battle. The battle against slavery was an uphill battle. All the battles that are worthwhile probably have, at one time or another, seemed like uphill battles. The question is whether you want to be remembered as having played a constructive role in those uphill battles or having avoided the fight altogether.”
The second example involves a retired Christian grocer in Oklahoma City who decided one day that God had called him to do something about pornography, sexual violence, and the safety of children in his community. Encouraged by their pastor, he and his wife started a ministry of social action named Citizens Concerned for Children and enlisted the support and sponsorship of local churches.
Initially, as is often the case, they were met with deep skepticism and hostility. Public officials didn’t believe their claims and hesitated on taking action. Even as the officials hesitated, they noticed the broad-based coalition, the reasoned approach, and the accurate statistics assembled by the group. The citizens involved also had a long track record of compassionate work with children in the community.
Five years later, officials in the city were vigorously enforcing their laws to the point where over 150 peep shows, adult bookstores, and other sexually oriented businesses either closed down or chose to leave town. The county’s rape rate plummeted by over 25 percent, and prostitutes were offered employment training. George Harper, the grocer with enough courage to attempt making a difference in his community, went to meet the Lord after a long bout with cancer. He left a powerful legacy of positive social change for the church and an honorable witness for his Lord.
Not all of us will experience the blessing of seeing quick fruit from our ministries of social action. Yet, our Lord reminds us again and again to be diligent in overcoming evil with good. Martin Luther King, Jr., once noted, “The time is always right to do what is right.” Ministries of social action are one powerful means to shine Christ’s light before the world.
“This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”
Article “Planning and Operating Ministries of Social Action” excerpted from “Leadership Handbook of Practical Theology, Vol.2”. Article written by Jerry R. Kirk and H. Deen Kaplan.