Balancing Justice and Evangelism in Church Planting

By Peter Meier   |   September 15, 2016

A couple weeks ago, I had an email exchange with my friend, Dr. Mike Gibson of Christ Lutheran in Costa Mesa. Mike had attended the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference in Los Angeles. I also attended a CCDA conference in Minneapolis several years ago. We discovered that we both had the same experience at these conferences.

We wept.

We wept because we realized how much we Lutherans, with our emphasis on pure Gospel proclamation, have missed when it comes to community development. We, and our congregations, seem to have missed this part of outreach and church planting. We repented. We connected. And we determined to do something. More about that action point later.

In early August, I took part in the Church Planting Leadership Fellowship, a gathering of denomination and network church planting leaders from across North America. Ed Stetzer and Daniel Im convene this peer group twice a year, featuring church planting leaders who represent around 75% of all North American church planting in a given year. It’s one of a number of ways we work to stay current in the church multiplication world.

The topic this time was Justice and Mercy Ministry in Church Planting.

It seems, Ed observed, that the more pastors are engaged in social concerns, the less they seem to be engaged in reaching new people through church planting. It seems that our forefathers in some cases lost gospel proclamation and missions as they focused on social ministry and justice. As evangelical Christians, we have an obligation to proclaim the Gospel and plant churches, but you can’t love Jesus and not love justice. You can’t ignore the example set by Jesus himself when it comes to showing mercy and justice.

A key question for participants at this gathering was, How can we birth movements that are deeply engaged in the lives of hurting people without falling into an exclusive social ministry trap, finding ourselves drawn away from Gospel proclamation? How can we find the ideal balance between justice and evangelism?

Several urban church planters from around the nation shared their own experience and best practices. Here are 15 takeaways I want to share. They’re good for church planters, as well as pastors and leaders of established congregations.

1.       Jesus is already present in the neighborhood; our task is to reveal him to others.

2.       Satan will attack planter’s lives in many ways. Spiritual warfare in the city is real.

3.       Churches are never neutral. They can contribute toward justice or injustice.

4.       Diversity never happens without being intentional. It’s natural to gravitate toward people like ourselves. Who is in your community? Do you actually reflect that? Who don’t you see? Who is on your leadership teams? That sets your DNA.

5.       Church planting can be unjust. Many urban churches today want to reach the young adults, the hip and cool people, the downtown urban professionals. This can increase segregation. Unjust church planting benefits from gentrification. Who is being displaced by our use of this property?

6.       Unjust church planting dismisses grass-roots leadership. Who has been in the neighborhood for generations, who has served and lived there for a long time? Have a conversation with them. Who are the churches who are nearby? Do they know you’re planning to plant in the area? What input might they have? What kind of legitimate partnerships can be forged with neighborhood service organizations? Remember, we’re on mission together.

7.       The best leaders are needed in the hardest places. Church Planting suffers when done by people with big hearts but without catalytic leadership ability. We need leaders who love to serve and are passionate about justice, but who are also passionate about mobilizing for mission, reproducing disciples and leaders. Who are your strongest multiplying leaders?

8.       Never separate justice from evangelism. The Gospel is good news for today, for the city. Are you working to plant a church or working to start a non-profit? How do these really come together? Define your priorities. Churches must lead in social justice partnered with Gospel proclamation.

9.       Two non-negotiables for church planting in the city: (1) The context determines the strategy. Don’t compromise on diversity because of your love for a particular model. (2) Everyone has a seat, is welcome. Everyone has equal worth.

10.   Mercy ministry is the greatest untapped missionary tool available to missionaries today, and the marketplace is the greatest untapped mission location. Evangelism and mercy ministry/compassion must go hand in hand.

11.   Mercy ministry is not merely handing things out, which is not merciful or just. Mercy is ministry to broken people in broken places (urban, suburban, rural). It’s what Jesus did, Matthew 9:35ff. Church planters see communities the way Jesus did.

12.   Things won’t be perfect until Jesus returns, Revelation 21:1-4. We need to engage in holistic well-being, while realizing what it means to suffer ongoing injustice. We work towards restoration, but sometimes Jesus’ return is our only real hope.

13.   Biblical justice is the Gospel working itself into community issues. The Peace of Christ is brought as far as the curse is found. Black lives, white lives, blue lives, African, Asian, Muslim defines “the other,” each of whom need justice and peace. Jesus brings the gospel, His perfect peace to all of us.

14.   The Asset-based approach (What is right? What are you good at? What is God already doing here through those who are already here?) is key to our efforts. The Needs-based approach (What’s wrong here? What needs fixing? What do you need?) is not helpful long-term.

15.   Take it slow. Identify existing services and ministries and partner with them. Consider your capacity. Celebrate successes. Often initial interest in serving the city is high, but fades away quickly when people realize the complexity.

How do these impact your mission work? 

Now for the action point. I’m wondering how many of our Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod congregations are engaging in CCDA / ABCD efforts? We know that many of our LINC ministries are. Might we come together in some way to share stories and practices? Mike and I would like to begin t facilitate those connections, thinking that CCDA and church planting, justice and gospel outreach, are naturally connected.

If you’re engaged, or would like to connect with us on this topic, please let me, or Mike know! We’ll follow up!

Moment Extras

Questions for Discussion

  1. How have you observed Jesus’ presence in your neighborhood? Take a walk and look for evidence.
  2. Where do you observe spiritual warfare in your neighborhood? Can you identify the false idols of your city?
  3. How is your church contributing toward justice? Toward injustice?
  4. How do justice and Gospel outreach come together for your church and community?
  5. Are you aware of Christian Community Development? Asset Based Community Development? How might these be helpful in balancing justice and evangelistic efforts?

Resources You Can Use

Asset Based Community Develop Institute. Free resources, videos, tools, and Asset Based Community Development training materials to download.

Building Communities From the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets, John P. Kretzmann and John L. McNight. This guide outlines what local communities can do to start their own journeys down the path of asset-based development.

Christian Community Development Association. A network of Christians working to see people and communities holistically restored. “We believe that God wants to restore us not only to right relationship with Himself but also with our own true selves, our families and our communities. Not just spiritually, but emotionally, physically, economically, and socially. Not by offering mercy alone, but by under-girding mercy with justice.”

The Church as Movement: Starting and Sustaining Missional-Incarnational Communities. JD Woodward and Dan White, Jr. Church planting which pays attention to the grassroots work of movement: discipleship, community formation, and mission.

7 Creative Models for Community Ministry. Joy Skjegstad. Ideas and action for churches who want to engage in community ministry.

Evangelism and Social Justice, article by Randy Newman. Do mercy ministries replace, partner with, pave the way for, or flow out of evangelism?

Mission Moments is the e-newsletter sent by the Center for U.S. Missions to bring information and encouragement to all who desire to share God's great love in Jesus Christ with others. Permission is given to copy this article for distribution within your congregation or organization. Please credit the author and the Center for United States Missions. For more information contact the Center at (952)-221-0362, or visit our website:

Center for U.S. Missions – Contact Information 

Email us at: | Rev. Dr. Peter Meier, Executive Director;  | Rev. Michael Ruhl, Director of Training;  | Kathy Meier, Coordinator;  | Mil Behnken, Office Manager;