This is part one of a two part series. Come back next week to read part two.
I grew up in a pocket of the Midwest where there were more pigs than people. My hometown was rural, middle-class, and predominantly white. A slow and stable life was the ideal everyone sought to experience. It was quite compelling at times. In my home church, spirituality was very similar. The pace and essence of community and discipleship reflected the small-town values in a beautiful and genuine way. The older (and busier) I get, the more I appreciate the slowness, simplicity, and stability of my home church.
Unfortunately, there was a shadow side to the spirituality and discipleship of my upbringing. In an effort to maintain stability and consistency, outside pressures and ideas were often pushed against. When issues of society and culture surfaced, such as poverty or injustice, they were never discussed in church settings.
Recognizing and addressing these problems threatened the peaceful lives people worked to maintain. This inadvertently led to avoiding the practical and physical struggles that many vulnerable people in our world, and even in our small town, experienced. I had no theological framework to think about the social problems and issues around me.
It was believed that the role of the Christian wasn’t to solve social problems; it was to save souls. For those who were advocating for the poor and vulnerable in our town, they were seen as too progressive or liberal, not focused on the things God cared about. I was taught that if I wanted to be a faithful Christian, I should focus on the Bible and evangelism. Focusing on mercy and justice would lead to a slippery slope of no longer being gospel-centered.
When I left my small town and entered college, this lack of a theological framework for engaging social issues led to a deep crisis of faith for me. I was exposed to the injustice, poverty, racism, and systemic sin in our world. Yet, I was taught, both implicitly and explicitly, that God didn’t care about these things. I found myself in a dichotomy: either care about the Bible and evangelism or care about mercy and justice.
It was only later in my journey that I came to recognize that God’s care for the vulnerable is central to His character. Rather than pitting mercy and justice and the gospel and orthodoxy against one another, I learned that they are actually different sides of the same coin. Scripture is full of instances highlighting this.
Tim Keller identifies a “quartet of the vulnerable,” pointing to the orphan, the widow, the foreigner, and the poor. These groups lacked all social power in the ancient near east, making them susceptible to starvation and oppression. “Today this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless, and many single parents and elderly people.”* The vulnerable in society are a deep focus of God all throughout redemptive history.
In the Old Testament, God is the great advocate for the vulnerable. His chosen people were initially impoverished, vulnerable, and enslaved in Egypt, helpless to save themselves. In the midst of their hopeless state, God redeemed them from bondage and gave them their own land to dwell in. He not only cared about their spiritual freedom but also their physical flourishing.
*Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010), 4
Andy Norris is the Pastor of Outreach at Sojourn Midtown. Andy studied Religion at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa and then completed his Master’s of Divinity at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Before coming to Louisville, Andy worked in youth ministry, college ministry, and church planting, having planted and pastored a multi-ethnic church in central Iowa in 2016. Andy has a deep passion and calling for the work of reconciliation, justice, and kingdom diversity. He is married to Emily and they have four boys. Andy and his family live in the Shelby Park Neighborhood in Louisville, KY.