In the past five years, it seems that there has been more talk about social justice than I have ever heard before. I have seen a tremendous increase in interest in this topic among our high school and college students. If you spend any time on Facebook, you can see many students signed up for different social causes, trying to recruit you to increase their influence for that cause. A friend raised a concern: she saw a rise in social awareness, but not necessarily social justice. Facebook makes it easy to say you belong to a cause, but what does that actually mean?
For me, acts of social justice begin with Jesus’ Great Commandment in Matthew 22:36-40, that we are to love God first, and out of that flows loving service for others. We are to love other people, not just be aware of other people. I believe God knew that we would struggle with this, so He sent His son to be an example for us. Jesus called the disciples on the shore to drop their fishing nets and follow (Matthew 4:19-20). He did this, not so that they would show up to his next lecture on the importance of serving others, but so that they would follow Him, see His example, and do likewise. The rest of their time together, Jesus spent lots of time teaching, serving, and opening their eyes to the needs around them.
The words in Matthew 25:31 and following are vitally important in our understanding of what social justice looks like. I believe each of us needs to struggle with the words of Jesus in this passage and with understanding that our faith is tied to action. Certainly our salvation is a free gift, but God has called us, in thanksgiving, to respond to the needs all around us. As Christians, we can’t live without recognizing and responding to the needs of others. It is not acceptable to stay in our safe bubbles and be content with what happens within our 20 miles radius.
Willow Creek Church did an important study, using research and data to describe the stages of growth in a person’s faith maturity. Their results are reported in two books, Reveal and Follow Me. They found that those who stay focused on God’s Word and prayer, then practice those words in acts of service, are the ones who grow into deep faith maturity. I am not suggesting that we start to categorize people, but we do know that the Holy Spirit leads many people to and deeper in their faith through these three methods. Those who live out Matthew 22:37-39 are the ones who are growing deep in their faith.
Like me, you have read articles like this before and are still left with the question, “How do I get others to care about and act on social justice issues?” I sat down with one of our youth, Jon Frost, who is a great example for me of a student who goes to a deep level of action in caring for others. I am including part of my interview with him.
DB: What things in your life have changed your mindset toward making a difference in the lives of others?
Jon: The biggest influence on me has been my parents, who served together all the time and they really enjoyed it. There are also two verses from Scripture that have really helped shape me. Micah 6:8 says to act justly and to love mercy. I have tried experimenting with different parts of my life and what that would look like. I also remember a retreat speaker who talked about Revelations 3:16 and being lukewarm. I realized I was there, and it started me thinking on how to become more active with my faith.
DB: So how did you become more active in your faith?
Jon: The next year, I went on a mission trip and really felt like God was using me in a powerful way. I was watching some of my friends come back from spring break, full of regret and empty stories, while I was coming back filled with God’s powerful action in the lives of those around me. I have gotten to live with people devastated by hurricane Katrina, sit with homeless people in Chicago, walk the beaches of South Carolina telling people about Jesus, rebuild homes and lives with people in Mississippi, and see God making a difference in their lives. That kind of stuff changes a person in the core of who they are.
DB: Jon, I know you have been on over seven different mission trips. You have given up your spring breaks and even an entire summer to make a difference. What are the things you do in between those trips to grow spiritually and continue to make a difference in the lives of others?
Jon: I have learned to really seek God and to be in His Word. God has really changed me through His Word and the many wonderful experiences He has given me. I try and find small ways that I can make a difference for others. The needs in my own community are enormous, and if I start to think of the global needs, I can almost overwhelm myself to the point of doing nothing. That is why I need to focus on God and be obedient to His leading. Right now, God uses me and some other college kids to work concession games at Iowa State, to raise money for other youth to go on mission trips and conferences, because I have seen in my own life how those things can change people.
DB: What is the one piece of advice you would give to people that want to live out their faith?
Jon: That’s easy: stay focused on God’s Word and listen to Him. He will move you. Open your eyes and look for ways to serve people all around you. It starts with opening the door for people, being polite to others, and listening to their stories.
Jon is one of my youth who has really challenged me to think differently about ministry and my role in it. Every year, we have 20-24 students who participate in a fantasy football league. The prize for winning the league was a custom jersey from the winner’s team of choice, with the winners name on the back. Jon won the league and asked if, instead of buying the jersey, we could use that money toward purchasing Bibles for a ministry in Russia. Jon humbled me, as I was disappointed that I lost and didn’t get a Vikings jersey with Broten on the back.
I also know that Jon has been very blessed to have a church community come alongside him and encourage him to grow. He has also been in worship regularly and I know that the Spirit has used it to shape him. From Jon and a few other students who live their lives fighting for others, I have learned five key things about how they care and are active in social justice issues.
Put God First: Each of them has a very active faith life that includes spending time in God’s Word and prayer. Each of them knows what it means to be still and to listen to the Lord. Many of their big decisions in life have come through listening and wanting to follow God first. Willow Creek’s study points to this being a key to faith maturity.
Social Awareness and Knowledge: They have a larger global perspective than most of my other youth. They understand that all people in this world are Gods children, not just those who are American. As we have studied our world, I often hear from our kids, “I wasn’t even aware that this was going on around the world.” We are very sheltered and protected from the harsh realities of others in our world. We need to teach and show our church where and what hunger looks like. We need to know that there are little children being kidnapped and brainwashed to be killers. We need to be aware of other governments and what they are forcing their people to do. Without knowledge and awareness, its hard to expect action.
Stories and Testimonies:One of the best ways to help with social awareness and knowledge is to tell the stories of other people who either are making a difference in the lives of others or who need social justice. People like Jon need to be in front of parents and youth, telling his story and how he is trying to be faithful in the small things in life to make a difference. There are others like Zach Hunter, who at age sixteen became aware that slavery was still being practiced today and has dedicated his life to help end it. He has written a great book that should truly inspire youth that even at a young age you can make a difference. Our youth also need to hear stories of the oppressed. They need to see documentaries like “Invisible Children,” where three college students made a video on the conditions of Northern Uganda and children being forced to be soldiers. They need to hear stories of Scripture, where God used small acts of obedience in powerful ways.
Experience: I stand before parents each year and tell them that, if there is only one thing you and/or your child should do this year, it is a mission trip. I have seen how it changes people, not always drastically, but in small ways each time. When I listen to those who are serving as missionaries, going into church work, or living their lives to serve others, in almost every case, mission trips or community service has played a major role in their development. It helps them see God at work, gives them a greater global awareness, and teaches them first hand the stories of those with whom they work. I also believe that once a year experiences are not the best way to change their lens and how they look at life, but we need to provide monthly opportunities to serve in our own community. In Jon’s life, it was through the experiences where God’s Word in scripture really started to stick and change his lifes ambition.
Pick and Stick: I have personally seen the benefit of responding to a need that God has laid in front of us and committing to that need. When hurricane Katrina hit, we adopted the city of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and pledged that we would be there for the long term. We kept that promise and sent over 30 different mission teams, over three years, involved in the lives of over 300 different families and homes. Each year, our senior high students go back to Villa Mainero, Mexico; what started as meeting the needs of others has become family. Our youth have grown to love Pastor Ulysis’ family so much that, when they discovered how little money they have, the youth pledged to raise $200 a month out of their own pockets to send to his family so that he has more time to be a pastor to Villa Mainero. The commitment to one thing really helps develop deeper relationships, which helps us to act in deeper love.
One of the great joys in my ministry is to have youth like Jon; God has given me a great opportunity to challenge him to grow, and now He is challenging me to grow and stretch. It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed with all the hurt and despair in the world and that is why we need to continue to be in God’s Word and searching for direction through it. Our students and parents need to see us modeling service to others and see the joy of obedience in our lives.
We need to focus on a life of following Jesus and the life He lived responding to the needs of the oppressed around him. We need to observe the needs of those whom God puts in our path and to be active in meeting those needs. What a great picture it is to have a conversation with God at life’s end about all the different people that God put into our path and to celebrate how He used our obedience and the impact that it had. May we help our students and families stay in God’s Word and pray and listen for where He wants us, teach a bigger global perspective of God and His kingdom, share stories that inspire and motivate us to action, and be active in obedience to Gods call in our lives.