Let’s hear it for the social ministry committee! You know, those dedicated folk in every congregation who make it their business to minister to homebound members, to raise awareness of, as well as funds and volunteers for, benevolent causes, and to strengthen the connection between the congregation and the social ministry of the church. In many places, their efforts are largely apolitical. Viewed from our current perspective of social ministry as “justice-making,”1 their efforts may even seem tame. Of course, many in our pews wonder when the church got into the business of “justice-making.” When the ELCA released its social statement on capital punishment2, parishioners repeatedly asked me when the church had given up on the Gospel and gone into politics. While this reaction may shock us today, reviewing the history of Lutheran social ministry reveals that there has been a shift in emphasis. Our focus has, in fact, changed. Still, while the church and its leaders may have moved to a new emphasis of social ministry, many in our pews, unaware of any change, continue to hold former understandings. Recognizing that meeting people where they are is an essential part of preaching, we devote the first portion of this essay to sketching the historical landscape of this shift in emphasis. We then turn to practical suggestions for preaching on issues of justice.
In the twentieth century, a change occurred in the Lutheran approach to social ministry. In the nineteenth century, Lutheran social ministry was aimed at maintaining the moral life and caring for those who fell through the cracks of society. Lutheran leaders were concerned with religious indifference and family hardship, not socialism.3 For example, the General Synod, which comprised three-fifths of American Lutheranism, focused its social ministry on temperance and “inner missions.” As the twentieth century began, Lutherans wonderfully supported orphanages, hospitals, immigrant missions, and deaconess homes.4 “Nevertheless, with few exceptions Lutherans set themselves apart from the Social Gospel, which aimed at reforming social structures and not just binding victims’ wounds.”5 Deeply suspicious of the optimistic theology of the Social Gospel, which depended on a corporate interpretation of sin and the possibility of eradication through collective social reform, Lutherans were also uncomfortable with the requirement that church bodies participate directly in social reform.6 Thus, in 1917, the newly formed United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA) created a standing committee on temperance and social service.7 After the passage of the 18th amendment, the church altered this focus and created a Committee on Moral and Social Welfare.8
By the 1930’s, though Lutherans continued to understand social ministry as the activity of citizens inspired by the Gospel, the church was confronted by members’ growing desire for help in addressing social questions raised by the continuing economic crisis of depression and international instability.9 “Economic depression…revealed major weaknesses in the institutions of private industry and government. As Lutherans moved outside their ethnic and religious circles, they began to view citizenship as a more demanding matter and to expect greater help from their church in sorting out issues and in responding in light of faith.”10 In response, Lutheran church bodies created boards to investigate these issues. For example, in 1933, the National Lutheran Council, comprised of the ULCA and Augustana Synod, created a Committee on Social Trends. The American Lutheran Synod established the Commission on Social Relations in 1934.11 “Although Lutherans were expressing a churchwide sense of responsibility for American life, they were hesitant about the implications of their tradition for ethical judgments about the social order.”12
As the twentieth century progressed, both Augustana and Union Seminaries served as vehicles for moving American Lutheranism’s understanding of social ministry from “inner missions” to “justice making.” Alvin Daniel Mattson, who studied at Yale where he became acquainted with Social Gospel advocates, aligned himself with the leftist thought within liberal Protestantism during his tenure at Augustana Seminary and as chair of the Augustana Synod’s 1936 Commission on Morals and Social Problems. Mattson’s “legacy to the more than one thousand students who passed through his classroom heightened their sensitivity to issues of social injustice while also leaving them with the riddle of determining what constitutes God’s will or manifests the kingdom in the struggle for justice.”13Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, who offered voices of dissent within Protestant Liberalism, made Union Seminary “a catalyst for future leaders in social ministry in both the ULCA and LCA.”14 During the late 1940’s through the 1950’s, Niebuhr’s influence moved beyond the seminary through the eighty columns he wrote for The Lutheran. By this time, “Lutheran self‑consciousness over the German church’s acquiescence to Hitler and the new threat posed by atomic weaponry had increased the stakes for a Lutheran social ethic.”15
With the formation of the LCA in 1963, the predecessor bodies (ULCA and the Augustana Synod) needed to determine how to incorporate their previous social statements. The election of John Kennedy as President ushered in a “resurgence of political liberalism.”16 The church could not ignore the energy around the civil rights movement. Between 1963‑1967, William Lazareth and Joseph Sittler, both members of the LCA’s Board of Social Ministry, articulated opposing views of whether the LCA should take a directive role in the church’s response to social issues. Sittler, who was concerned for the integrity and therefore the responsiveness of Christian faith, spoke against guidelines, which could hamper the inventiveness of Christian love in particular circumstances.17 Lazareth was concerned with how such ethical wisdom emerges. For Lazareth the framework of Christian ethics does not lie within the individual response to God’s action through faith, but rather in the way God structures human community.18 Lazareth therefore worked to lessen the divide between the sacred and secular realms, arguing that, particularly in a pluralistic society, the church’s social ministry will often take the form of working together for human justice under the law with other civic-minded groups, both voluntary and governmental.19 This view counters an American Protestant ethic common even among Lutherans, which required a Christianizing of the social order before social problems could be solved.20 Lazareth’s stance became operative and the LCA began making statements on race relations, poverty, capital punishment, and Vietnam. Thus, by the 1960’s, justice language was incorporated into the social statements of our predecessor church bodies. This is certainly clear in the ALC’s statement on the relationship of church and state.21 An examination of our church’s social statements reveals that this emphasis has continued in the ELCA.
The shift in the church’s understanding of social ministry reflects a change in the relationship of faith and culture, or at least a shift in our understanding of that relationship. In the twenty-first century, the Christian direction of culture is highly ambiguous at best.22 The church no longer stands securely at the center of society. Rather than being a Christian society, contemporary culture is characterized by a variety of moralities that include historic religions, new forms of religious life, and secular alternatives to religion.23For many today, Christianity implies a nominal life that is above all else personal and private. In his much-publicized book, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, Richard John Neuhaus argues that we are facing a crisis in our society because faith has become so privatized that religious discourse has been increasingly excluded from our public life.24 Faith has become so personalized, individualized, and de-materialized that society’s need for public discipline, once met by religion, is now provided by the values of advanced global capitalization.25 Contentment and gratitude are replaced by desire and want. Faithfulness is measured by success. Character is reduced to image. As Christian and cultural values diverge, the church’s social ministry moves from caring for those who have fallen through the cracks of a “Christian society” to working to make society more just.
Despite the church’s best efforts at providing leadership, resources and strategies for discussing social ministry and helping congregations to understand this shift, thereby empowering them to become communities of justice, the challenge is great. Church social statements are not something that pastors can easily rally their congregation’s interest around—unless, of course, people read something shocking about a statement in the newspaper. Furthermore, many in our congregations continue to regard American society as a “Christian nation” and hold tightly to a doctrine of the separation of church and state that understands public policy as an inappropriate topic for preaching. Preachers must therefore carefully consider how they will lead their congregations to embrace their calling to be communities of justice. Effective preachers of social justice remind us of six realities:
First, as preachers lead their faith communities to take a more active role in justice making, we must be mindful that much of their resistance to justice making comes from the church itself. As our previous discussion has shown, our parishioners’ notions that public policy has no place in the pulpit and that social ministry means caring for those who fall through the cracks are things that their church taught them. This historical perspective may make preachers more patient and understanding with their people.
Second, before an effective preacher attempts to be a prophet among God’s people, she first shows herself to also be their pastor. Effective preachers understand people before criticizing them, love people even as they are challenging and correcting them. Effective preachers are also careful not to compartmentalize their ministry, reserving their pastoral selves for one-to-one encounters while hauling hell fire and brimstone into the pulpit and the committee meeting.
Third, effective preachers are clear about the purpose of preaching. From a Lutheran perspective, the purpose of all preaching is to proclaim Jesus Christ and not a public policy agenda. The essential good news is that, in Jesus Christ, our loving God joins us in our suffering and brings us to new life. At the same time, preachers must be clear that Christ’s life and love are meant for all people, indeed for the whole world, and not just for individuals privately. Lutheran theology also reminds us that, before we call people to respond, we boldly proclaim the good news that in Christ God is gracious and reconciling. This good news frees us from thinking that we can and must persuade God to work for our good or that we must build the realm of God by our energy and will. Rather than something we must do to demonstrate our faithfulness, justice making is an essential part of our faithful response to the Gospel.
Fourth, effective preachers generally name issues of public policy as they arise naturally from the scriptures read and heard in worship. Congregations are often more receptive to issues of public ministry when they grow out of the scripture read in worship than they are when scripture is imposed on a public policy issue in order to justify its proclamation. While the realities of our world may necessitate preaching on a specific situation or issue, effective preachers make clear that social ministry is our biblically based response to the Gospel and not the preacher’s personal agenda.
Fifth, effective preachers exercise extreme care when they name any single public policy as Christian. Lutheran social ethics does not lead in a specific ideological direction, if that is taken to mean a fairly detailed blueprint for public policy.26 A Lutheran understanding of God’s will and our response is never that simple. More challenging is the call to discover and discern both God’s will and our response within the Christian community. Rather than using the pulpit to persuade parishioners to buy into a prepackaged public policy agenda, effective preachers lift up the realm of God breaking into our lives and our world in the person of Jesus Christ. In response to this good news, effective preachers lead their communities of faith to consider, corporately as well as individually, how they will in thanks and praise respond to this good news at all levels of our common life.
Sixth, when preaching on issues of public policy, our hearers embrace images and stories more readily than concepts or statistics. Images have the power to effect deep changes in people. Walter Brueggemann reminds us of the power of images to move us outward by embodying an alternative vision of reality and giving us another world to enter.27 The more we turn to the picture language of the poet and the storyteller, the more we will be able to preach in a way that invites people to respond from their heart as well as from their head.
That Christian preachers are called to proclaim God’s justice and mercy is undeniable. The question we are called to consider is how we will preach justice as our response to God’s grace.
1 See, for example. the ELCA social teaching statement, “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” adopted at the second biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, August 28-September 4, 1991.
2 “A Social Statement on the Death Penalty,” a social practice statement adopted by the second biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, August 28-September 4, 1991.
3Christa R. Klein and Christian D. von Dehsen, Politics and Policy: The Genesis and Theology of Social Statements in the Lutheran Church in America (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989), p. 9.
4 Ibid., p. 10.
6Ibid., p. 11.
7Ibid., p. 16.
8Ibid., p. 21.
9Ibid., p. 26.
10Ibid., p. 27.
11Ibid., p. 26.
12Ibid., pp. 27-28.
13Ibid., p. 30.
14Ibid., p. 32.
15Ibid., p. 33.
16Ibid., p. 43.
17Ibid., p. 49.
19Ibid., p. 65.
21“Church-State Relations in the USA: A Statement of The American Lutheran Church,” adopted October 21, 1978 by the Ninth General Convention of the American Lutheran Church. See especially D.4.
22In the following discussion, I am indebted to my previous work published in Craig A. Satterlee, Ambrose of Milan’s Method of Mystagogical Preaching (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 312-317.
23James F. Gustafson, “The Sectarian Temptation: Reflections on Theology, the Church, and the University,” CTSA Proceedings 40 (1985): 83.
24Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984).
25Roger Clapp, “At the Intersection of Eucharist and Capital: On the Future of Liturgical Worship,” 2000 Annual Meeting of the North American Academy of Liturgy, January 4, 2000, Tampa, Florida.
26Robert Benne, “Lutheran Ethics: Perennial Themes and Contemporary Challenges,” in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, eds. Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), p. 18.
27Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), esp. pp. 79-110.