Talking about Justice: Tips for Pastors

February 1st, 2011
This article is featured in the Holy Conversation (Feb/Mar/Apr 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

Social justice can be an intimidating concept for pastors to address in the local congregation. I recently traveled with twenty-two other United Methodist pastors to learn about our denomination's advocacy of justice issues. Through conversation with General Board of Church and Society staff and other leaders including the Rev. Jim Wallis, Congressman Rev. Emanuel Cleaver, and Congressman James E. Clyburn, we identified user-friendly ways pastors can show church members and friends how to respond as they hear God calling them to advocate for justice both locally and globally.

I was challenged as social justice came to life for me and my fellow pastors, but I learned that starting conversations about justice does not have to be complicated. There are many techniques and tools right at our fingertips to use in bringing justice to life for our congregations.

Start with Biblical Foundations

Help congregants explore and reflect on scriptures that inspire us to seek justice. The prophets are a great place to start. The words of Micah 6:8, for example, speak to each of us the bold question, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Sermons and Bible studies focusing on these passages demonstrate to congregants that justice is central to our faith.

Displaying such Bible verses on banners in the worship space, church mailings, and websites remind church members and the public of the role the church should play in justice advocacy. Making social justice connect with the Word of God and the local church must be an active priority for all who desire to share their witness in a church for the world to see.

Use Your Denominational Resources

The United Methodist Social Creed was updated at the 2008 General Conference to be more user-friendly for communal reading—and even singing—in worship. The more methodically arranged UMC Social Principles address contemporary concerns in the Nurturing, Social, Economic, Political, and World Communities plus Natural World topics.

A clearly designed chart (or again even a colorful banner) illustrating the six areas of the Social Principles might also be created and referred to often. Sunday school classes and small groups can study the Social Principles to discuss how biblical mandates can be applied to our modern social context.

These affirmations can be powerful signs to people on the fringes of Christianity that our faith is active and connected to doing good works in the world. They will see that the church offers countless ways to serve as social justice advocates and make a real difference in helping  heal the pain,  balance the inequality, and work against oppressive injustice that is present all around us.

Use the News

A current news headline tells of how a federal crackdown on child prostitution resulted in 884 arrests. Such headlines can serve as a “hot off the press” wake-up call pastors can share to help their people understand modern-day injustices like human trafficking. Pastors can connect the issue with Scripture and then ask, “Now what?” encouraging the people to respond as to what they hear God leading them to do, personally or communally.  

Whenever there is a disaster like Hurricane Katrina or the Haitian earthquake, pastors can point people to the UMCOR Advance that has likely been set up to collect such gifts, guaranteed to be 100% directed to the need—with no middleman. If your church isn’t in the habit of organizing mission trips, responding to such a well-publicized need may be a good place to start.

During the 2010 oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the congregations I pastor held a prayer vigil and fasted for a week. Feeling the need for the community to remember and to pray for a resolution to this manmade disaster and its toll on the social fabric, doors were flung open, signs posted, and all were invited to participate.

Involve the Children

Yes, children can, and should, experience being advocates of justice!  While youth and adults fasted and prayed, children were invited to draw pictures of what was happening in the Gulf, and every week the worship bulletin covers displayed their visual efforts.

Children can be involved in deciding where their Sunday school offering might go.  In one church, the children chose to work against hunger by donating their money to the Heifer Project, buying chickens for people in a distant land as they took a stand against hunger. The highlight was when a real chicken arrived during the children’s message! Everyone in the congregation rejoiced with the children as all were connected, and as all joined in advocating for food sufficiency for people beyond their own church walls.  

Bullying has become epidemic throughout our country, and teaching respect and equality can begin in the nursery and preschool classes, using creative methods to spark discussion. Puppet shows and skits can demonstrate the pain that bullying causes. Refer to the Bible and talk about how God expects us to treat each other.

Take Action

Raising congregations’ awareness of social justice issues may begin with talk, but once we know, we must, as God’s people, be able to hear people’s cries for help and then respond.

Partner with local agencies like food pantries or domestic abuse shelters to learn how your congregation can help. Participate in a Habitat for Humanity build. Sign your church up for the Change the World weekend at to participate in a world-wide, Connection-wide effort to address hunger crises on May 15-16, 2011.

Whether you start by sharing an unsettling news event during a sermon, by discussing the Social Principles, by lifting a hammer or feeding the hungry alongside thousands of other people of faith—start somewhere. Start TODAY.  God requires it of us all.  

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