According to the California Teacher’s Association website, generation Z is the generation that “while they may be named for the last letter of the alphabet, they’ll soon be at the forefront of solving the worst environmental, social and economic problems in history.”[i] This generation, born in the mid 90’s, or current middle and high school students, are supposed to be the ones that fix all our problems. This is the generation that will recognize the damage we have done to the planet and to each other and rise up and fix it. This is a perspective by many secular leaders, and is a calling that Christian and non-Christian kids are trying to live into. With social action being all the rage right now the church has been able to find common purpose with our culture to expand God’s Kingdom.
But is social action and world change really the goal of the youth worker? Is mobilizing an army of young people to enact lasting social change what we are called to do?
Justice is part of the calling of all Christians.
Throughout the Old and New Testaments we get the picture that a true and whole faith cannot escape the call for God’s people to live into their faith and be about God’s heart for our broken world. In the book of Micah, when God’s people had all their great religious practices, the prophet makes it very clear that the application of their faith was in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. We cannot love God on one hand and stand by while the poor are being oppressed. James says a similar thing in his book as he declares that faith without works is dead. Our faith shows itself in the way we live it out. True religion is caring for widows and orphans.
It is encouraging to see our culture have a heightened awareness and call for justice. To move past compassion ministries and work toward fixing the systems that keep people in systemic poverty is a mighty task. This is also one of the tasks of the Church. Christians in power must use their power to stand up for those without it. This desire for justice is also the desire of our culture. Civil rights, worker’s rights, going green, fair trade; these are cultural desires that are good and can easily be partnered with because it is also the heart of God.
Justice is about POWER, and our students don't really have any.
The problem with calling students to social action and justice ministry is that these terms are too vague and tend to be just a feel good sport dealing with ideas and concepts that have no real touch points for them. In our area, students love wearing Toms shoes, drinking fair trade coffee, drinking Ethos water, boycotting Wal-Mart, and shopping at American Apparel. These are the markers of students who “care” and who are “making a difference.” In many cases these are token gestures that carry zero weight into other and all areas of their lives. This is because justice and lasting social change is a job for people with power. Students have no real power to stop hunger, make fair trade happen, stand up for homeless rights, or racial discrimination. It is people with real power who can transform unjust systems, not students with too much disposable income.
Thankfully God has already been calling people and organizations to work for justice and for social change. God has called people of power and influence. God has collected money and resources. And God has been and will continue to enact lasting influence in the specific places those people are called. And because justice is the heart of God and should be our heart’s also, we have the opportunity to partner with organizations that are doing great work and will continue to do great work. International Justice Mission, World Vision, and our Community Food Bank, are three places where our students get to work alongside people who are enacting social change we have chosen to partner with. And because these organizations are established and here for the long haul, any involvement we have with them strengthens their ministry and does in fact help enact social change.
When we took students to Mexico for our annual mission trip we worked really hard to retrain our students’ thinking. We are not the great white church who is going to help the poor Mexican church and change the lives and community with our week of good works and testimonies. Rather we were invited to partner with what God is already doing. God was already at work in the community where we served. God was already using people to transform that community. We simply got the pleasure of working alongside our sisters and brothers in Christ, encouraging one another as they worked toward lasting social change.
Justice for our students must happen on their campus.
Social action and Justice that students can fight for is the injustice that happens on their campuses every day. They can use their social power to stand up for the little guy, to confront bullies, and to speak up and for those who are marginalized on their campus. This kind of social justice and social action actually costs students something real, their social status. If our focus was to have students work toward social change and justice, their campus needs to be the laboratory for their faith to take action. Their campus is where they are to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God. Their campus is where their faith must be lived out in action.
So is social action and justice is our calling?I would argue that the answer is no. It is the fruit of our calling, but should not be the focus. We are called by God to make disciples. We have been called by God to walk with students through this short season of their lives and to partner with God to help solidify and own their faith, and to begin to discern their unique calling. And like good missionaries we will use any and all places, stories, and values where our cultural values and desires match the values and desires of God. Some people call this a thin place, a place where the veil between the sacred and secular is especially thin. Right now, social action and justice get to be that place where we can partner with culture and use it as a common story with our cultural context as a compelling way to tell the Gospel Story.
Christians have done this from the beginning. In the book of Acts we see Stephen use Old Testament history to communicate the Gospel to his Jewish audience. Paul uses a local poet and an unknown alter on Mars Hill to communicate a knowable God. In recent history, Josh McDowell used the power of logic and reason, when logic and reason were king to communicate that we don’t have a blind faith, but a reasonable faith. Even Audio Adrenaline made an impact and used the growing place for music and Rock ‘N Roll to highlight that Jesus came to give us an abundant life and Christianity is not a boring, saying no to everything fun, sort of religion. And now in our current context, social action and justice is the thin place. It is the place where cultural values touch our spiritual values and we can use that as a place to communicate the gospel of a God who sees and loves the poor and oppressed, and calls his people to do the same.
Just like in the past, the thin place is not the Goal. Old Testament history, local poets and artists, logic and reason, Christian music, and even social action is not the goal. The goal is for students to give their hearts to Jesus Christ and experience personal transformation and to live into their unique calling. For students to do this, they need to be a part of a ministry and a church that provides a well balanced diet of teaching, experiences, community and action.
Service projects and mission trips are a vital part of the youth ministry diet. They are an important part, but only a part. These trips and opportunities provide experiences for students to explore their calling as God’s people and solidify their faith as their own. The body of Christ is made up of many different parts and students need to see a vital Christian life lived out in many arenas. Vital faith is lived out in normal jobs like the ones many of our volunteer staff have, it is lived out as missions, overseas and local, it is lived out in activism, it is lived out in compassion ministries, and it is lived out in vacation bible school. A vital faith that is lived out in action happens in whatever context God places us. Exposing students to themany different ways vital faith is lived out is a tool to achieve the goal of helping students have a true and vital faith that is lived out in the unique way God has made them and called them.
It is great that students want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, to be about saving the planet, stopping injustice, and we need to celebrate these values because they are the cultural values that align with our Christian values. But unless hearts are yielded to Christ and transformed by Him, then the result is still dead faith. Social action and world change are real places we can use to present a Gospel that is powerful and relevant. A holistic Gospel that not only causes lasting transformation personally, but locally and globally.