Does Social Justice Contribute to Church Decline?

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S. F. Moore, E.T. Bethell, and J.S. Gale are not the names of trivia questions in the history of world Christianity game board. And yet their ordinary well-manicured graves, along with 145 other foreign missionaries nestled at Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery in Seoul, South Korea, were the genesis of explosive evangelism in the late 19th and early 20th century. These men and women turned a once-hermited country into one of the leading producers of some of the largest churches in the world and a huge missionary movement.        

Sponsored by Resonate Global Mission, eighteen ethnic leaders from North American churches traveled to learn about Christianity on the Korean peninsula. The first place we visited were these 148 missionary graves. Missionaries, according to one brochure, “abandoned promising careers ... profoundly influenced Korean society not only by establishing hospitals and schools, but by affecting the intangible values, thus contributing to the abolition of the class hierarchy in old Korea.” These missionaries began by addressing issues of social justice along with evangelism.

This struck me as new information. It reminded me of the history of social justice in the U.S., especially in my own African American community. Social justice in the United States was clearly connected to the church’s evangelism efforts, from the abolition of slavery and Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. I was surprised and excited to see that the missionaries to Korea also kept justice and evangelism together — and that this approach laid the groundwork for missional expansion.

S.F. Moore (1860-1906), a Presbyterian medical doctor, helped build the first hospital in Korea to use Western medical practices. Moore saw a butcher, a member of the class that was considered lowest class in Korea at that time, afflicted with typhoid fever, and was moved to help him. He made decision to preach the Gospel to the butchers, along with assisting them medically. Moore’s fight against the common discrimination against butchers earned him the title “the helper of the butcher’s freedom movement.”

Koreans were suffering under Japanese rule in the 19th century, when E.T. Bethell (1872-1909) came to Korea as a newspaper reporter. He started Daehan Mail Shinbo, which in English was called the Greater Korean Daily News. The goal of his paper was to hire writers and reporters to lead an independence movement against Japan’s colonial rule of Korea. The articles sparked widespread defiance and courage to rise up against tyranny. Sadly, Bethell did not live long to see the fruit of his advocacy and agitation.

Author John Bunyan’s Pilgrim's Progress was a best seller in the world except Korea. J.S. Gale (1863-1937), a Canadian Presbyterian, came to Korea in 1888. He translated the book into Korean, which became the second most read book behind the Bible. As the first pastor of his church, he chose members from the lowest social classes to be his elders. He based qualifications on spiritual maturity, not social status. In addition, he fought to contextualize the Gospel in Korean culture, rather than replicating the Christianity of the Western world.  

I attended one of the seven services at Yoido Full-Gospel Church, which has 800,000 members, in Seoul. It is the largest church in the world. The church provided translation in eight languages and broadcasted around the world. Korea sends more missionaries around the world than any other country, with Nigeria a close second. 

Our team also attended a small migrant church service in the working class side of Seoul where eight languages were translated without headphones. It was beautiful. This church provided free shelter to migrant members working in nearby factories. They came from Cameroon, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Dr. Myunghee Lee, an ambitious Korean woman with disabilities who attended Calvin Seminary, started the church. She too had a vision for holding social justice and evangelism together. I think she followed the footsteps of those missionaries before her who knew justice and evangelism are not opposed to each other, but are rather two parts of bringing a holistic gospel that changes lives, social conditions, and entire nations.

“Churches that get involved in social justice decline in membership.” It’s said so often in the U.S. that this statement is often accepted as if it were a truism. But the story of Korea, and the story of the African-American community in the U.S., tells a very different story.

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This is a wonderful story, little known and very timely.

Participant

Great stories!  Moore's will be perfect for a Micah 6:8 sermon illustration next week - God's good timing :-)  Even better because there are lots of butchers in our church. Thank-you!

Community Builder

My guess is that not all declared to be "social justice" is alike. Early 20th century forced sterilization motivated by social Darwinism in the name of improving the race would likely have been labeled "social justice". The temperance movement flush on the moral victory of abolition surely considered themselves the vanguard of social justice as it was all about stopping violence against women and children by prohibiting alcohol. Prohibition was repealed and alcohol is still a primary factor in campus rape and domestic violence but no one wants to talk about it. I see (not in this article) a lot of pulling selective texts from OT prophets without much larger discussion of popular idolatry and covenant forgetfulness that the prophets majored in in the rest of their ignored writings. If we are go make an association between "social justice" and church growth we might look at the PCUSA getting rapidly older and whiter (https://juicyecumenism.com/2018/06/05/presbyterians-face-steep-decline-general-assembly-approaches/) and say "you're not doing it right". 

I doubt that there are many (any?) in the church who would object to the type of work outlined here. The church has spoken out on human rights and established hospitals since the beginning. There is concern over "social justice" when defined as political advocacy especially when it appears to be closely wed to a secular ideology or political party i.e. statements often made by the likes of Franklin Graham or Jim Wallis. 

Participant

I would have liked if there were more N American examples here.

Churches have their own particular, cultural character, and certainly their own histories. So the N American church, and even more so, the Dutch Reformed (that is CRC and RCA) also have their experiences. In N America, Methodists have historically been in the forefront of combining social mission and gospel mission; we might add the Salvation Army. So why not ourselves? Is it that we lack a social vision? or perhaps it is that we lack an evangelistic mission. When we conceive of ourselves as a community, the whole faithful church, then the question of social action is one about what some of us do, a faction. Without evangelism, it's all politics. The church in Korea grows because it transforms and so empowers the cast aside; the church in S India grows because it transforms and empowers those who once were untouchable; the church in the Deep South grew because it transformed and empowered the lives of African Americans.

Or to borrow from Paul, justice is a branch that needs to be connected to the Vine, otherwise, no matter how green it is today, it will soon enough wither and be cast aside. Gospel hope powers justice.

 

 

 

Community Builder

Part of the difficulty is the recent colonization and cultural polarization of the term "social justice". I've got it on my bulletin head and I won't surrender it to the ideological civil war happening now in the North American church.

Consider the evangelical movement in Latin America that has gone one over the last 40 years. It's commonly known that when Latin American men convert to be "evangelicos" there is a marked improvement in the lives of women and children over the pre-conversion situation of nominal Catholicism. The men stop drinking, gambling and fooling around with other women. What this means is that they hold down day jobs and their income goes into the home to support their wife and children. Their children get a better education and do better with this support and you get the John Wesley effect that the next generation achieves an appreciable uptick in socio-economic performance.

There are downsides to this often from a tradition like ours. There are legalisms that develop along the lines of "women can't wear lipstick or slacks and men can't wear shorts or consume alcohol" but if we're talking "social justice" and thinking along improvements in violence in the home, treatment of women and children, basic income, nutrition, healthcare and the lift out of generational poverty the "evangelicos" are clear winners even if they also at the same time tend to cement other non-progressive visions such as traditional gender roles and some facile but selectively productive legalisms.