Social Ministry: Why and How?
Social ministry is grounded in two related sources: Jesus and Scripture. Jesus as God Incarnate reveals God’s lavish love, offering unconditional grace for all people and total forgiveness for our sins and shortcomings. Jesus shows us how precious all human beings are to God, including both those we honor and despise. He willingly gave his life on the cross for all.
As people who have been transformed by God’s love, we have a heightened commitment to serve others, others who are priceless in God’s eyes. Furthermore, Jesus’ ministry provides a model for our “social ministry.” The four Gospels show a Messiah who reached out to the marginalized, despised people of his society. He healed and restored the excluded to community. His grace gives us the impetus to do likewise.
Social ministry is deeply entrenched in Scripture. In the Old Testament God’s laws for Israel sought to assure the well-being of the vulnerable folk of that society, the widows, orphans, and foreigners who were of special concern to God. Prophets such as Isaiah, Amos, and Micah castigated the powerful people in their society for exploiting and oppressing the poor and called for fair treatment of them. Psalm 72 describes the good king as one who judges with God’s righteousness and rules with justice and fairness the poor and the needy. God and God’s spokespersons demanded a society based on compassion, inclusion, and fairness for all.
How do we do social ministry? There are two broad approaches. One stresses charitable activities such as food pantries, meeting emergency needs of people, and responding to major disasters. Charity is necessary and essential in many situations. It relieves people in emergency situations. It is rewarding to those who give. But it is incomplete. The second approach is to work for justice. Justice seeks equity for and participation by all people. It works to change structures of society which condemn people to discrimination and deprivation. Justice is harder and slower to attain. It often is controversial. It raises the difficult question of whether this is a ministry of Christians as individuals or congregations or even denominations. It is essential, however, as an integral part of “social ministry.”
Professor of History, emeritus
Concordia University, Nebraska