Faith, Risk, Discipleship, Justice and Joy

The Church Church bookA review of Jim Martin’s new book, The Just Church.

“My faith, my theology, my life experience, simply could not accomodate Marta’s story. I wanted to unlearn what I’d just heard–to purge it from my mind. But that was impossible. I racked my brain for some comforting thought, some idea, some theological construct, some passage of Scripture that would quench the fire of emotion raging in my chest. I was uncomfortable with the level of anger I was feeling–rage, even–toward anyone who would destroy the lives of children like the ones in the pictures before me. But at the failure point, there is no such help, no easy answer. The faith I had brought with me to Peru simply failed” (The Just Church, p. 39).

So Jim Martin describes his first up-close encounter with violent injustice. What he describes is remarkably similar to the first time I heard the stories: Stories that begin with someone’s dignity being ripped away by someone more powerful and end with the hopeful response of God’s people resulting in rescue and rehabilitation.

This book is for gatherings of Christians at any stage of a justice journey who want fuel, wise guidance and even a map to help them along the way. You might be a church member who is simply wondering how issues of injustice relate to your faith. You might be the “social justice” person who is seeking a biblical basis for your concern. You might be a church leader who wants to explore issues of injustice together with others at your church. Or perhaps you’ve been leading your church to engage injustice for years and are wondering where to go next.

Allow me to briefly describe my background so that you have some idea of the perspective I brought to this book. I’ve been a supporter of IJM since hearing Gary Haugen, IJM President, speak in 2008. Since then I’ve attended annual Global Prayer Gatherings and have also participated in many advocacy activities. I’ve also read most of the books produced by IJM staff. At the same time, I’ve struggled to appreciate certain aspects of IJM’s work and culture. Thus I came to this book assuming that I’ve heard most of it already, that I’d agree with most of it and feel ambiguous about some of it.

This was not my experience. One of my concerns from early on in my involvement with IJM has been, “isn’t this justice stuff something churches should be doing? Why do people have to leave their church and go work for an NGO to do justice in Jesus’ name?” After reading The Just Church, I have a new answer: they don’t! The book infused me with hope as I realized there is so much more possibility for a church to get involved in the work of justice than I had imagined.

The first half of the book revolves around the interesection of faith, discipleship and justice. Jim describes two character attributes that rarely exist simultaneously but that are both necessary for sustainable justice ministry: courage and humility. We learn how faith grows most readily when we are willing to take risks together. We also learn that engaging in justice work as a church does not require neglecting discipleship; in fact, the work of helping victims and survivors of violent oppression happens to also be fertile ground for discipleship. My own experience agrees with Jim’s realization that we have at least as much to gain when we move towards folks much more vulnerable than ourselves as they do.

The second half of the book is devoted to providing a clear path for churches wishing to embark on sustainable, meaningful service to the most vulnerable among us, whether on the other side of the world, within that church’s local community, or even within the church itself. A wealth of practical, helpful material is provided along with wise advice informed by years of helping many churches along this journey. Each chapter in the book concludes with questions for reflection that I found very helpful in processing the material and teasing out its relevance for me.

I appreciated the connection Jim drew between justice and discipleship. The fact that justice work just happens to be fertile ground for discipleship is good news both to those who care about discipleship and to those who care about justice. The news should relieve a major hesitation church leaders could have when considering getting involved in bringing justice to the vulnerable.

Having come from a church that had more than its fair share of struggles with our own pride, I also appreciate Jim’s challenge early in the book to demonstrate both courage and humility. The two attributes rarely coexist, he says, but both are crucial when embarking on a justice journey. Victims and survivors of violent abuses deserve helpers who are both willing to take risks but also well-prepared, cooperative and open to learning from others.

Finally, anyone interested in making steps towards doing justice work will find the second half of the book and the appendices incredibly practical and helpful. These chapters are filled with wise and practical advice gleaned from years of helping churches through a process of encountering, exploring, and engaging in justice work. Far from a rigid, linear prescription, Jim acknowledges that each church’s journey will look different. He is clear, however, about some crucial things he believes need to take place before making important transitions. He also provides concrete examples for those who need help getting started. I will personally benefit from the reading lists and surveys of scripture found in the appendices.

If you’re interested in the connections between risk, faith, justice, discipleship and joy, I recommend this book to you. Likewise, if you’re wanting to build a biblical foundation for doing justice in Jesus’ name, I recommend it to you. If you’re part of a church curious about or looking to do something about the great injustice you see abroad or in your own community, I especially recommend it to you.

Note: I was given a free copy of the book by the publisher for the purpose of review. I was not required to write a positive review. 

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