Posted by: Philip Rushton | May 9, 2011

Spheres of Justice: What exactly is the role of the local church in the work of social transformation?

One of the challenges I am wrestling with as a pastor is how to mobilize the church to engage with our community. We’ve talked a lot about the idea of cultural engagement as a church. I think we have the theology down. Yet, how do we actually go about doing this? What exactly is the role of the church in social transformation?

I think that one of the reasons I find this task of mobilizing the church for social engagement so overwhelming is that the are so many things we could be doing. Should we turn our chapel basement into a relief shelter? Should we start an after school program for disadvantaged children? Should we partner with Medical Teams International to provide a mobile dental clinic in our parking lot? Should we provide adult literacy training? These have all been ideas and recommendations that have been brought to my attention in the first six months since I started here. The needs are immense, the possibilities are endless, so what do we focus on? Where do we even start?

One of the things that I think we need to recognize is that the church, like any organization, cannot do all things well. Abraham Kuyper’s concept of “sphere sovereignty” is helpful in this respect. Kuyper had a grand vision for cultural engagement. He famously said, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'” Yet, while Kuyper thought the church should impact all spheres of society, he recognized that the institutional church could not impact all these spheres on its own.

Kuyper argues that the role of the institutional church is primarily to produce disciples that will take their faith into the various spheres of culture they are engaged in. For example, the church should produce redemptive film makers, but the church itself is not going to be able to produce feature films. Therefore, Kuyper makes an important distinction between the institutional church (the congregation meeting under its leaders) and the organic church (all believers living out their faith in the various spheres of society).

When it comes to social justice, then, we need to recognize that the institutional church will not be able to become all things to all people. We may not have the infrastructure and resources to become a full time emergency shelter, or an educational services provider; however, we can and should be encouraging people to partner with agencies and organizations that are able to meet these needs. For example, our master plan has a vision for developing an adult literacy program, but the local library already has a great program going. In that respect, perhaps our role should be partnering with the library rather than reinventing the wheel.

In fact, John Perkins, who is the guru of Christian social development, usually had to develop corporations that were distinct from the local congregation to operate the numerous social programs he developed for the poor. The institutional church would then equip and disciple people to partner with these social programs.

This does not mean that we give up on social relief and development as an institution. Caring for the poor falls more closely under the umbrella of the institutional church than film making does! There may be ways that our local church can help our community as an institution. We currently do that through our FISH food bank, and lay counseling service. It is important for us to look at what needs are being overlooked and how our gifts as a congregation can respond to those needs.

Yet we will not be able to do everything. A church in Everett, WA, for example, discovered that there were 30 foster children within a mile radius of their church. They also had a lot of retired grandparents who had time to invest in these kids. They ended up developing a safe house at the church for kids that were between foster homes – something the state could not provide. They saw an unmet need, assessed their gifts and resources and responded! However, when they presented their program at a recent ministry conference they emphasized that this was the extent of what they did for their community. They had a great foster kid program, but they could not sustain any other projects like food banks and literacy programs.

I think the way forward is for us to discern what we can and should do as an organization, and then encourage partnerships and personal social engagement in the areas outside of our ability. The institutional church will be able to do a couple of things really well, but the organic church will be able to have a huge impact. Therefore, I’m convinced that a large part of becoming a missional church is going to happen at a grass roots level. The real impact is going to happen when we as individuals and small groups seek to bring about transformation in the various spheres of society in which we are already engaged.


(These insights were sparked by Timothy Keller’s, Generous Justice, pg 144-146)


  1. Wow, almost too much all at once! I would agree that the church’s primary mission is to make DISCIPLES (not merely converts) and that as disciples, we (organic church) should be about ministry in our spheres of influence. I don’t think we have, for the most part, found our way to action beyond merely attending church functions (institution).
    However, I have seen great action through LCC but it really takes someone with a vision who can impart it to the members. In the past we have sent deputation teams to missions all over the world and they have come back transformed and excited to do missions here. I think it takes a clear vision that is communicated strongly with hope and a challenge to follow.
    Cast a vision, ask for commitment and see what God does through us!

  2. Hey Randy,

    Yes, I sort of unloaded a lot in this one. Welcome to my brain 🙂 The past few months have involved a lot of thinking, listening, praying about this issue!

    I’m excited to see where God leads us as we move forward as a church. I’m hopeful that God will continue to guide us and give us clarity to what he is calling us to. I appreciate your reminder of how he has done so in the past. This church does have a rich history of community engagement through things like the Sylvan Lodge, FISH, lay counseling and so on. I also know that a lot of people are engaged in personal endeavors through young life, the housing authority, cancer outreach, visiting ministries to shut ins etc. Christ, after all, is a sending God, the one who equips and calls us to follow him where he leads. As we continue to pray and listen he will have a purpose and mission for us here in Longview.

  3. Perhaps something we need to do more is to share our stories of missional engagement – create opportunities for us to talk about what God is doing in our lives and where he is calling us to serve in our various spheres.

    We often assume that our church is not active in the community, but how do we know that? This opportunity for story telling might function to inspire, encourage, keep us accountable, and spur us on to respond to God’s call in our lives.

    Churches often have missionary updates in the worship service from full time missionaries overseas – what if we had some of these updates from people who are serving God in their workplace or in their neighborhood every once and a while?

  4. Phil,

    It’s amazing how the Holy Spirit works! This was the subject of conversation at our Harambe meeting last week. How can we incorporate what we learn from our mission in inner-city Pasadena and bring it back here to our own community? How can or do we serve existing services in town? Where are our passions and how can we channel them to do God’s work in our community? It doesn’t have to be at our church. Although I would love to see an afterschool tutoring program at our church to help the desperately taxed public school system, it may be a better choice to help an existing program through providing volunteers that would be at a better location for the needy students. You mentioned adult literacy? A new branch of the library has opened in the Highlands. There’s a Parent Link program at St. Helens Elementary. I’m sure that both places would value volunteers. Migs Mason is a prime example of one who has long put her faith into action. She was a longtime volunteer in the Headstart program. For many years volunteered with the pre-schoolers showing great patience and compassion with the needy of our community.

    Jesus sent his disciples out to do ministry. There are so many opportunities to serve. We just need to seek them out.

  5. Hi Margaret,

    Thanks for your thoughts. It is helpful to know what the needs are and where we can partner with current programs. I think there may be a place for our church to host a couple of good programs here, but we also need to network and support things outside our walls. I think a big thing we can do as a church is make people aware of the needs in our communities. I’ve been thinking of having a centralized ‘volunteer match’ or resource section on our website for people to find where they can plug in.

  6. I’m glad were wrestling with this issue and am excited to see what develops. Two (rather broad) areas that I think have biggest needs are the Highlands and the Hispanic community.
    You’ve mentioned the idea of partnering with other agencies – what about partnering with other churches in those areas such as the Four Square Church or Highlands Baptist. I would think they would have a better feel for specific needs or ministries we could come alongside with them and help. (Doesn’t Harambe mean “Let’s get together and push”?) Besides helping others, it could go a long way in developing unity among believers.

    • Good ideas Stan. There is a partnership among churches that has started this year called Love INC (in the name of Christ). I’ve been in touch with the coordinator and have asked how we might be able to contribute or participate. The organization receives calls for needs in the community that fall through the cracks of some of the other social organizations. It is a great way for churches to partner and support each other. However, there may be other partnership opportunities that we need to explore as we move forward.

    • I agree with your two areas with biggest need (though I’d add employment as the number one but not sure how much LCC can help with that). I think partnering with the churches in the Highlands would be great. I’m sure they can use the help.

  7. Good thoughts Phil and others. For a long time I’ve struggled with what type of “mission” work, if any, is more important: working with the church, working with a religious group, or working with a non-religious group.

    Until recently I’ve worked with all three though obviously lately I’ve only worked with the latter two. I like working with non-religious groups because it’s a good demonstration to non-Christians that Christians are active in helping others in the community. Too often non-Christians see no active Christians involved in their projects and think it’s because Christians don’t care.

    On the other hand, working with a non-religious group God doesn’t get the glory in the end. When Habitat for Humanity builds a house people praise God, when SHARE builds a house people praise the secular organization even though Christians run it.

    • Hey Bruce,

      I appreciate how engaged and involved you’ve been. I think one of the ways God is glorified when Christians partner with secular organizations, is that those organizations see that Christians actually care to get involved. Simply having a presence and representation is important.

      The other important question to ask is what a Christian outreach might add or bring to the needs of our community that secular organizations cannot. Is there anything distinct about Christian social work from secular social work?

      I think it is significant that Christian outreach is sustained by a strong vision of God’s grace and love for people. Good Christian outreach also has the potential to be more holistic in outlook – caring for people both physically and spiritually – seeking to enfold people into a community of faith that will nurture them and so on.

      In your experience, what sort of ideas / motivations drive and sustain the vision of some of the secular organizations you’ve been a part of?

      • “Is there anything distinct about Christian social work from secular social work?”

        Over the years I’ve been involved in secular and Christian organizations dealing with the environment and housing. The environmental Christian organizations spent more time convincing non-Christians that Christians aren’t a bunch of loons and convincing Christians that just because “earth worshippers” are invovled doesn’t mean Christians should be against cleaner air.

        For housing I’ve found that unfortunately Christians have a well deserved reputation for not playing well with others. So those organizations tend to work on their own rather than with the entire housing community. And they tend to be more traditional so even less willing to adapt to changes than a secular organization. Ironically, the best religious charitable organization I worked with had an agnostic as executive director.

        On the plus side though they are a very public display of Christian love and kindness. And like you say it’s a more holistic approach and feeds people spiritually as well as physically.

        “In your experience, what sort of ideas / motivations drive and sustain the vision of some of the secular organizations you’ve been a part of?”

        As we’ve talked before I think the judeo-Christian value system is very much a part of our culture. For Christians and non-Christians alike. So their motivations to help are very similar though not because Christ wants them to but because Christians over generations in America (and Canada) have taught them to care for others.

        The one thing they do have in their favor is they are more focused on the specific mission. They don’t have to deal with different churches have requirements on who can participate and who can give money. They don’t have to deal with the political fine line of primarily it’s Democrats who support their mission while it’s primarily Republicans who support their organization.

        At least that’s been my experience. There are advantages and disadvantages to both and I struggle with which, if any, is better for a Christian to be involved with.

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