The Questions That Lead To Social Justice

Originally published August 15, 2011.

How were your summer mission projects?  As you are reflecting on the details you will and will not do again, I ask you to mix in some of these thoughts from a dynamic teen I’ve never met but am intrigued by.

“I believe that ministries that encourage honest questions and sustainable practices will inevitably cultivate in their students an engagement with social justice work.”

Sally Rymer, a teen, said this challenging statement for Immerse Journal (January/February 2011).  When you know who Sally Rymer is this statement will have even more meaning.  She was the first high school student chosen to be an intern for International Justice Mission.  And this didn’t happen during her senior year because she spent her senior year in India purposely to continue her anti-trafficking efforts.  You can follow her story at


In this article from Immerse Journal written by Mike King, the most basic question Sally challenges every youth worker to ask is: “What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?”  If this question is free to be explored, the obvious answer to Sally is to pursue justice here on earth.  This is where faith meets actions.  But what is justice here on earth?  This is a large question that many teens, even unchurched teens, are asking.  Are you, as a youth minister, providing opportunities for them to wrestle with this question?


MTV, in their attempt to try to reconnect with the younger generation they have lost (my opinion), has created MTV Act.  MTV Act is a blog to help direct Millennials who wonder about social justice issues but don’t know how to get started.  As MTV ACT’s Jason Rzepka explained at the release of MTV Act, there’s a 1/9/90 rule they are hoping to effectively change: 1 percent of activists are highly engaged, starting rallies and leading charitable drives; 9 percent are involved in a limited way, signing petitions and sharing news articles with friends; and 90 percent are disengaged.  (, February 9, 2011)  As our life calling is to help shape teens’ faith which should automatically lead to action, I hope that our youth ministries are full of these 9 percenters as well as 1 percenters–in percents much larger than single digits.  What you did this summer with your mission projects is a great start because even the best conversations about social justice are essentially useless if they are not accompanied by action.  You provided the action.

Unfortunately social justice is not as simple as planning a summer mission project.  And planning those are not simple!  To question what is justice here on earth leads to discomfort, unanswered big questions, and what is called social justice fatigue, something that is real.  But we must still pursue this question with our teens.

Our lives as leaders play a much larger role in this than just teaching or planning.  As Sally said, “When students come to you looking for answers about the sweatshops where their clothes were made or how to reduce their environmental impact, you should be able to point them toward answers and solutions.  The point is not to guilt students into changing habits but to infuse them with such a passion for social justice that they can’t help but become better caretakers of God’s creation.”  Amen and amen.

This passion, this worldview, hopefully comes from us.  Hopefully that is why they have come to you with these questions.  As youth leaders of teens who are asking such questions, we must live this before we teach this. What tugs at our heart as a follower of Jesus?  And how will that tug affect our decisions?  Do we consume excessively?  Do we think about what ends up in the landfills?  Do our decisions affect our lives so there is some discomfort?

I hesitate so to add anything more to your plate and/or to challenge you to even more discomfort.  And honestly I’m not sure I’m all here on this one.  But this article from six months ago still haunts me to push myself out on this wild frontier.  It haunts me to pass it on to you too.

We already experience discomfort, even heartbreak, due to our love for teens.  We are living a tough life.  But a whole heart after Jesus should also affect us in our lives outside of our role as youth worker.  As Sally also challenges, “What does it mean to be a well-off Christian in an unjust world?” is one question we should spend a lifetime answering ourselves. Do you?

To quote Sally again, “Engaging with justice will inevitably bring about a whole new set of questions regarding the effectiveness of their efforts and God’s intentions for the oppressed (and oppressors). Youth ministries should cultivate environments where students can safely consider these questions by exploring biblical texts, the lives of other Christians and current information about today’s social justice issues.” These questions are not easy and often they get harder the more you delve into them. Such as, “What makes the poor remain in poverty?” and “How do my consumption habits affect the environment?”  These can’t be answered in one 30-minute sermon.

This may also not be answered in short term mission trips.  More and more voices are speaking out that these short term mission trips are really “slum tourism.”  A Kenyan student now in the U.S. published an article in the New York Times about this that drew a lot of attention.  He wrote, “Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really ‘seen’ something–and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before.” This is a challenging read. You may want to plan a vision trip instead of a mission trip.  Be inspired more about this by reading this.

I don’t know if these tough questions can be ever succinctly answered.  But maybe a youth ministry can provide a place for such discussion that will pursue justice here on earth.  You never know if you may have a rising Sally Rymer in your group.

Interesting note from Sally in the Immerse Journal article which I will leave you with. She mentions that to be a follower of Jesus is to be political.  That is not something most youth ministries want to become, and some youth ministries steer clear of politics completely.  Sally defines these questions that get raised as political questions and to quote Sally, “To be a follower of Jesus is to be political; it is to work toward a better, more just world.”  What would happen if your youth ministry became political?