Speaking to a group of Baptists at a recent Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia general assembly, George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, challenged churchgoers to engage in social justice ministries that help the poor, empower the oppressed and bring healing to the brokenhearted.
One of the more profound things he said was that if churches did commit to social justice, there is a good chance that more young adults would also re-engage with the local church.
For churches that are struggling in reaching this age group, this sermon was a breath of fresh air.
More significant, I think Mason is on to something larger than just encouraging a particular age group to grow closer to God.
The Roman Catholic Church is recognizing how popular it is to do social justice in partnership with young people.
Pope Francis, named after the saint who gave his whole life to help the poor, has revitalized the church, energized people of all ages and garnered some unique ecumenical attention.
But the more startling statistics are related to Catholic seminaries.
According to a recent Religion News Service article by Cathy Lynn Grossman, there are a higher percentage of candidates for the priesthood in seminaries than at any other time in the last two decades.
Young people are getting excited about ministry, and local churches are rediscovering their skill sets for outreach and missions.
This trend echoes and affirms Mason’s point. When local churches plug into the needs of local communities, they are able to join the very presence of Christ already at work in the lives of neighbors and neighborhoods.
It is an ingredient for revival for all age groups and for the church as a whole.
This call to social justice is reminiscent of the prophetic message of many of the Old Testament prophets and, of course, Jesus.
Micah’s message to Israel in Micah 6:8 was this: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Jesus gave a similar warning in Luke 23:23: “Woe to you … for you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”
It’s not enough to merely come to the building to worship, hear good preaching and enjoy intimate fellowship.
Each and every church is called to reach out to its local community and partner with the community to provide for the needs of the many.
God gives us opportunities to help those in need, and we turn around and give locals the opportunity to help one another.
It’s a mutual partnership of finding where God is at work, not a presumption that we know what people need to meet God.
This is something I learned in pastoral care classes. Our instructors told us that we couldn’t assume that we know what people need when they come to us for help.
Rather, most people know what they need. We need to listen and help people find the resources that will best fill those needs.
Doing work that promotes social justice and helping people in the local community on a community’s own terms is a basis for hope.
It’s born out of a conviction that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and that we don’t need to fear the world. Rather, we need to join God where God is already at work.
My predecessor at Trinity Baptist Church in Conyers, Ga., Sonny Gallman, often said, “God is already at work redeeming those in the world; it’s our job to let people see it for themselves.”
I am delighted that Pope Francis’ leadership over the past few months, and that my Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ, have put social justice back in its proper place as a priority for the church. It is refreshing, vibrant and Spirit-inspired.
Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Vero Beach, Florida.