How You Too Can Build on Your Pandemic Compassion with BOTH Spiritual Justice AND Social Justice
By Tyler McKenzie
It’s been over a year since the pandemic made its presence known in Louisville, Kentucky. It has been, without rival, the most challenging season of ministry I’ve experienced. It has stretched our staff, resources, creativity, energy, and patience. We’ve dealt with people dying, members leaving, staff tapping out, and a city in need. Yet somehow, as the smoke begins to clear and we evaluate a year we would all like to forget, our church has progressed. Our God has been faithful.
I’m thankful that shortly after our governor first asked Kentucky churches to stop gathering in person, we celebrated Easter. It reminded us at Northeast Christian Church that COVID-19 could not put Jesus back in the grave. Resurrection life is ours now and forever. In the first few months, this was the refrain we sewed into the hearts of our church:
“We would never pray for this, but our church was made for this!”
In March 2020, we made two strategic decisions.
First, we decided our chief priority would be to develop a community service plan instead of a weekend service plan. Many churches scrambled to challenge government or go online when physical gatherings were suspended. Our chief concern was coming up with a breathtaking plan to meet our city’s needs. This meant disproportionately investing our resources toward helping our city, sometimes at the expense of weekend worship services.
Second, we decided to cut expenses as deeply as possible so our financial resources could flow outward. We froze ministry spending. We halted a construction project. I kid you not, we even turned off the HVAC in the office.There were June days it felt like a sauna! Our only rule was that we would do everything we could not to lay off staff.
We believe God honored these two decisions. There’s not enough space here to share all the stories! We transformed our empty worship center into a food pantry. We launched a small-business mentorship program. We conducted a teacher appreciation drive. We added an 11th partner school. We created a love-your-neighbor movement that went semi-viral online. We helped open a food mart in a food desert. We started a 24/7 prayer chain. We supported an elder-youth match program, mental health providers, frontline workers, and church leaders serving in predominantly Black congregations that were suffering through racial unrest.
LOVE MEANS MORE WHEN PEOPLE ARE HURTING
Through all of these things, we discovered that love means more right now, because love means more when people are hurting. William Barclay, a 20th-century Scottish professor of biblical criticism, wrote, “Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.” We believe this is what we have seen. On the backside of this, our members are stronger. We’ve met thousands of needs. We have new partnerships with churches we never worked with before. Local media and government trust us. We have seen some of the most heart-swelling conversions. We’ve even seen a couple of our most prominent community leaders embrace Christ.
Early on, our leadership established four values for faithfulness during the pandemic:
- Love for Neighbor: We will focus on self-sacrifice, not self-preservation.
- Public Witness: We will prioritize those we’re trying to reach over those we’re trying to keep.
- Faithfulness to Truth: We will teach and live the hard truths no matter how unpopular.
- Mission over Method: Our methods must change and adapt. Our mission is unchanging and forever.
BOTH-AND, NOT EITHER-OR
People of the world may criticize our beliefs, but they should never criticize our compassion. I believe we have more moral authority, public trust, and relational currency in our city than ever before. And I know we aren’t the only ones. I’ve been inspired by how many churches have risen up in service to their communities—from testing sites to food pantries to racial reconciliation, facility sharing, childcare services, frontline appreciation, financial generosity, mental health support, and simple acts of neighborly love. In one of our country’s hardest hours, don’t believe the headlines! It has been the finest hour for many churches!
But now what? We must not relent! One of the mistakes evangelical churches can make is to dismiss the missional value of social action. Some churches fear it’s a slippery slope to the Social Gospel. Others see it as a waste unless it leads directly to conversions. Other churches swing the opposite direction and see it as the church’s primary role in the world. The classical evangelical position, though, has been a holistic recognition of the mutually beneficial value of both social action and spiritual conversion.
To speak plainly, it’s both-and, not either-or. Jesus’ kingdom establishes what I’ll call here spiritual justice (which is giving sinners what they don’t deserve, grace and forgiveness)AND social justice (which is giving “the least” what they do deserve, love and dignity). Jesus gave special attention to two groups—the spiritually lost and socially marginalized. This is why when he healed people of physical sickness, he also forgave their sins. There’s a social and spiritual healing. This is why he told parables like the lost sheep, coin, and son but also told parables about serving the “least of these.” It is why Luke recorded Jesus’ first public sermon about his anointing to minister to the poor, prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19) and his last sermon before the ascension about his disciples being witnesses to the world (Acts 1:7-8). It’s both-and not either-or.
The churches that continue to act in compassion and build on credibility earned during the pandemic will discover what we have, for the two fuel one another. As we evangelize the lost, we see people resurrected to unleash Jesus’ love on their neighborhoods . . . and as we build churches deeply concerned with social action, we will have a more fruitful evangelistic witness. Spiritual justice fuels social justice. Social justice fuels spiritual justice.
FIVE STEPS TO BUILD ON THE MOMENTUM
This understanding of the interrelationship of the two has grown our church in profound ways over the last six years. Here are five things we have learned that will help your church, no matter the size or locale, build on your pandemic compassion.
1. Start saying, “How can we help?” Stop saying, “Here’s what we do.” A friend visited the principal of a local school to offer help. She said, “My church would love to do a supply drive for you.” The principal walked her to a door and revealed a closet full of school supplies from other churches, “Thanks, but we have more than enough. That’s not what they need.” My friend replied, “Well, how can we help?” The principal lit up and had a slew of great ideas.
This is the key to taking the relationships you’ve built to the next level. Go to these local leaders and say, “We have enjoyed working with you. How can we help going forward?” Don’t assume you know what they need or what is best for them. Many churches want to serve on their own terms. Resist that. Serve on the terms of the people or group your church is offering to help. This will build goodwill with neighbors and community leaders.
A bonus of modeling this approach corporately is that it is also effective individually. Train your people to ask this question in their homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and friend groups. Challenge them to sense when their coworkers or friends are troubled and ask, “How can we help?” God will provide amazing opportunities for ministry. Challenge your students to regularly ask their parents, “How can I help?” They may need to help their mom lift her jaw off the floor!
2. Commit to long-game love over short-term growth. Resist the temptation to quantify your church’s success in serving outside the walls by merely counting “backsides and baptisms.” Find great leaders and organizations to partner with who serve the demographics you feel called to work with. Then make a long-term commitment. The longer you serve, the more trust you accumulate. Trust is the most valuable form of relational currency. When people trust you, they look to you in times of need and listen to you in times of uncertainty. No matter how compelling your evangelistic message is, it cannot escape your reputation. Your reputation is the platform from which you speak. By playing the long game, you build a reputation people admire.
3. Budget and recruit for it. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. If enhancing the relationships you’ve formed during the pandemic matters, you need to adjust your budget to reflect that. You may want to recruit some of your more gifted leaders to run with it. Maybe you need to take a leap of faith and hire someone new.
4. Unapologetically share stories of love and life change. This will make some uncomfortable, but please hear me out. We unapologetically tell stories of our love and generosity. Every week from stage, on social media, and in other venues we tell stories of how people are being loved and saved. We talk about the big checks we write and the big projects we do. We send press releases to local media. We leverage stories.
Why? Because, as I’ve said before, the American church has a public relations problem. When people hear the word church—especially those outside the church—they think of something and it’s usually not good. We are out to change that. We want to redefine our church around the love of Jesus. We want to earn for ourselves an honorable reputation. We see it as evangelism because we are changing people’s minds about the power and potential of the local church.
The biblical pushback we usually get comes from Matthew 6:1-4 where Jesus warns his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount to beware of practicing their righteousness before others to be seen by them. He uses almsgiving, prayer, and fasting as three examples. He even says that when we give, our left hand shouldn’t know what our right hand is doing. Seems pretty airtight, right? Only problem is that earlier in that same sermon, in Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus also taught, “Your light must shine before people in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (New American Standard Bible).
Hmm? So, which is it?
The important distinction here is motive. Is your motive to be seen by others? Or is your motive to see people glorify your heavenly Father? Is it about them seeing you or God? The difference is important. The latter is holy and the former is sinful. Make no mistake, we’re good at deceiving ourselves when it comes to our motives.
5. Train your people to share about Jesus. Our unique evangelism strategy is this: We always walk the walk and are ready to talk the talk when the opportunity is right. While that’s a catchy phrase—slick and rememberable—we made a big mistake in assuming our people would naturally know how to do this . . . to recognize “when the opportunity is right” and then know what to say next. We were wrong. Evangelism is required of Christians; unfortunately, it’s not comfortable or natural for most Christians. It’s important for every church, as they lean further into social action, to train their people how to identify opportunities to share their faith and how to do so in a way that is compelling, true, and authentic.
I’ll end by reminding you again what we’ve been reminding our church this year: We would never pray for this, but we were made for this. Historically, seasons of suffering are the times when the church has stepped up in peace, prayer, compassion, and hope. Let’s rise to the occasion. Let’s claim our moment.
Tyler McKenzie serves as lead pastor at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.