Editor’s note: This article in the series “Transitions: Helping churches and church leaders in changing times” is provided in partnership with the Center for Healthy Churches (chchurches.org).

Is advocacy in your church’s wheelhouse?

So what is advocacy? In physical terms, it’s the Body using its discerning eye and heart and its clear voice to look into and then speak up and speak out, especially for those within and without who lack the clout to effectively speak for themselves. It’s justice, in contrast to charity.

Members of a church located by a river heard thrashing in the water and frightened cries. Laying their hymnbooks aside, they ran outside, threw a line and pulled a drowning man out onto the bank.

They looked upstream and saw another flailing and pulled her out as she came downriver, then another and still another.

They spent the entire Sunday morning outside their walls instead of inside at worship, fishing for drowning people. They even formed a river rescue team and raised money for the victims.

But, having had enough of this, an old deacon stomped off upstream.

“Where are you going?” the people called. You know the answer.

The old deacon growled, “To find out who’s throwing them in.” And, we might add, to stop them.

The Body is used to using its hands and feet and pockets to rescue the perishing poor people in our perishing communities. We provide, give, donate and work. That’s in our wheelhouse.

But using the sharpened eye and a rising voice? Not so much. (Isn’t that odd? Discerning and speaking are what we do — on comfortable topics.)

We could even discuss whether or not it’s a church’s business to speak a word about why people are poor. Leaving that for a moment, we can certainly agree that for the most part, advocacy isn’t in our wheelhouse or our comfort zone.

But why not? Why not get to the root causes of poverty at home?

In medical terms, advocacy treats the disease while we’re easing the symptoms. For any charity your church gives to or provides, there’s corresponding advocacy:

  • Food pantry and Christmas baskets? Ask your city council member to come to the congregation and explain why people are going hungry in your community.

  • After-school reading program for poor kids? Tell your school board you want the public schools stronger and their teachers (your church members!) to feel supported.

  • Emergency assistance? Post online to call out the payday lender who dips into bank accounts before the rent is paid and the kids are fed.

  • Pulpit exchange with the black church down the street? Distribute a list of African-American-owned businesses for your congregation to patronize.

So, any church on mission should be advocating too, right? Or do we get muzzled by the few but vocal critics who frown and say we’ve crossed the line between preaching and meddling?

It doesn’t have to be. For every solo critic, there’s a quiet majority who like to see their church’s name in the paper, and many more outside our walls who are glad to see a church standing up for the poor. When the message comes as good news, not controversy, people are attracted and come.

We also don’t speak out in the public square because we’re used to leaving advocacy to others, usually some local or regional body. In Baptist life, we’ve excused ourselves from responsibility by defaulting to the denomination. There are pros and cons with that. Size matters, expertise counts, and a national message deserves national messengers.

But the downside is that we delay and miss local crises while waiting to organize critical mass. Messages get diluted down to say little of importance in deference to an unnecessarily broad consensus.

There are plenty of local needs begging for a timely word from the Lord. And they will go begging unless we speak up.

Pastors, find a powerful consensus in your church on a message and speak out. Church members, give your pastor some room to speak the Word without parsing his or her every word.

Why? Because of Luke 4:18. Jesus said, the first time he preached back home in Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to set the oppressed free…”

We should know that verse by heart, as well as we know John 3:16. “Anointed” — the Spirit’s very purpose for us is to bring good news, out in public, out among the poor. Advocacy really is in our wheelhouse after all. BT

sandersBy Chris Sanders

Chris Sanders is an attorney who consults with churches in matters of law, poverty and advocacy. He recently served as interim coordinator for the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship. He can be reached at csanders@chrissanderslaw.com.