April 10, 2008
Live from Shift: Deep Justice vs. Shallow Service
Social activism is gaining popularity with evangelicals, but is it making any difference?
Kara Powell spoke during the final session at Shift this afternoon. Powell is the director of the Center for Youth and Family Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary. She began by bursting a pretty big bubble. Many churches have gotten involved in short term missions trips (STMs) that often involve a service project in a developing country. But are these trips making any real difference?
The research isn't encouraging. Powell shared about how those being served by North American church groups often feel demoralized by our service, and how many wished these churches would simply send the funds so they could do the work themselves. On the flip side, evidence suggests these trips are having a minimal impact on students as well. In an article she wrote called "If We Send Them, Will They Grow?" she concluded that students who go on STMs are not more likely to become long-term missionaries, and it doesn't impact their materialistic lifestyles.
Powell said a lot of our local and international efforts toward the poor are really a placebo effect. They make us feel better about ourselves, but they're not really impacting people the way we'd like to believe. What's the answer? She believes we need to shift from shallow service to "deep justice."
After tracing the importance of justice as a theme in the Old and New Testaments she laid out the difference between serving the poor and seeking justice. "Service is giving someone a glass of cold water who needs it. Justice is asking why the person needs a glass of cold water." Service is good, she says, because it addresses real needs. But seeking justice means fixing the system that created the problem in the first place.
Our churches tend to approach service as an event - buying gifts for poor kids at Christmas, feeding the homeless, going to Mexico to build a house. Again, these are worthwhile things. But justice isn't an event, it's a lifestyle. She defined justice as simply "righting wrongs." Toward this end students at her church are engaging issues like sex trafficking, HIV/Aids, and modern-day slavery.
Powell's talk was very piercing. Is your church forming people to merely serve, or to be a people of justice? My sense is that if we pursue the goal of "deep justice" we may see an awakening in many evangelical churches. But if it remains simply events of service then social justice will be just the latest trend that will pass out of popularity like WWJD bracelets.