Social Justice or Discipleship?


By Jake Kircher

Social Justice or Discipleship?Is your youth ministry more social justice focused? Or are you more discipleship focused?

The church down the street from me is definitely more focused on social justice. Their weekly youth meetings are built around local community service projects, or getting together to make meals to bring to the local food shelter. They do a huge mission trip every summer where they take over 100 students to another country to serve the poor and needy. However, when it comes to discipleship and Biblical teaching, they are what many would refer to as “Jesus lite.” And “Jesus lite” may actually be a generous description.

On the other side of town, there is a church that is more focused on discipleship. Their weekly meetings consist of an in-depth Bible study where students are supposed to memorize a key verse every week. Teens are also encouraged to meet one-on-one with another peer to pray together and hold one another accountable to basic Christian disciplines. For this church, there really isn’t much community engagement or service opportunities as they put more focus on studying apologetics and making sure students are solid theologically.

So, which one is more like your youth ministry approach?

Honestly, I hope you answered neither because both are a distortion of the Biblical understanding of both social justice and discipleship.

Consider what the International Standard Biblical Encyclopedia says about this idea under the listing for justice (emphasis mine):

The original Hebrew and Greek words are the same as those rendered “righteousness.” [aka discipleship) It must be constantly borne in mind that the two ideas are essentially the same.

When it comes to social justice and discipleship, it’s not an either/or conversation. In fact, if you had talked an ancient Jew about these two ideas as being distinct and individual actions, they would have looked at you like you had two heads. Doing one without the other waters them both down and distorts their value from a Biblical perspective. It’s crucial for faith development that we help our students see discipleship and social justice as a both/and conversation.

For the church that emphasizes discipleship and Biblical study, James 2:14-20 address this issue as he bluntly writes that “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” It’s fantastic to be helping our students develop their theology and deepen their Biblical literacy. However, if you’re not at the same time teaching them to serve and get involved with God’s redemptive work on the earth, you’re merely creating academic scholars of scripture and theology, not disciples.

For the church that emphasizes social Jesus and leaves Jesus and a Biblical narrative out of the conversation, they would be wise to consider Jesus’ own words found in Matthew 7:22-23. “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.’” Once again, it’s fantastic to be helping the poor, feeding the hungry and rescuing the enslaved. However, if we leave Jesus and His Word out of it, our deeds can easily become vain and selfish as we work our way to being a “good” Christian, which is impossible to ever become.

So, where does your ministry place more of an emphasis, on discipling students or engaging in social justice? My hope is that your answer is equally both!