The broadening agenda of young Christians

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Jonathan Merritt’s new book, A Faith of Our Own.

Some of today’s leading Christian entities and voices show new life as they support a broadening agenda. Still socially conservative on many issues, they feel called to attend to issues that most Christians haven’t championed in the past.

For example, the great majority of young Christians still believe that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. At the same time, interest in social justice issues is growing among all Christians (especially young people). According to in-depth research by LifeWay, 66 percent of young churchgoers claim that “social action is an extremely important part of their lives.” Yet, few believe they will see “a significant contribution” from current Christian leadership in addressing these issues.

So some are taking matters into their own hands through broader advocacy efforts. A great example is my friend Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. Tyler believes that “God abhors the shedding of innocent blood,” and he recognizes that nuclear weapons are unique vehicles for indiscriminate killing. If they are ever used in any circumstances, they will lead to massive loss of innocent life. Tyler believes Christians who value life and desire to follow a risen Jesus must oppose the existence of such weapons.

In 2009, he formed the Two Futures Project, a Christian organization fighting for the reduction and, ultimately, the abolition of nuclear weapons. And he is not a pie‑in‑the-sky dreamer on the margins. Tyler has gained support from Christian leaders, including the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Leith Anderson, megachurch icons Bill and Lynne Hybels and the editor in chief of Christianity Today, David Neff. What was viewed as a fringe “liberal” issue a generation ago is now finding traction among a diverse body of mainstream Christians.

This broadening agenda goes well beyond nuclear weapons. Bethany Hoang serves as director of the IJM Institute for International Justice Mission. IJM is a “human rights agency that secures justice for victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression.” Bethany believes her faith and the witness of Jesus Christ compel her to engage this work.

She writes, “This is witness. This is mission. Not merely to tell people that they can be raised from death to life, but to go to the places where death rules the day and let God use us to bring life, to show that Jesus has conquered all death.”

Organizations like Food for the Poor, World Vision, Compassion International and adoption groups like Bethany Christian Services are flourishing. Established organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals and publications like Christianity Today now address issues ranging from the sanctity of life to global poverty to environmental stewardship - issues that should transcend party politics.

The church is waking up to the inadequacies of a public witness where a few issues get all the attention and the others fall by the wayside. Should the church fight for the lives of the unborn? Absolutely. But can Christians afford to ignore the 3 million already-living who will die from preventable, water-related diseases this year? What of the tens of millions of orphans crying out from filthy beds in musty orphanages? How do we plan to address the plight of the poor in America’s inner cities and the systemic injustices of our education system? Does an embrace of the full Biblical witness lead us to a myopic agenda that pays these issues little more than lip service?

Today’s Christians know we can do better on a whole range of issues.

What Do You Think?

  • Have Christians begun to pursue a broader social agenda in recent years?
  • What social issues should transcend party politics?
  • What issues are most important to you as a Christian? Why?


Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer who has published over 300 articles in respected outlets such as USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor and This excerpt is copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Merritt. Reprinted by permission of FaithWords, New York, NY. All rights reserved. / Photo of Jonathan Merritt courtesy of the author.

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No one is going to argue against helping the poor in the many ways that we as Christians can and should. Where there is some concern is seeing it as the church’s job versus the individual Christian’s responsibility (as a new creation through Christ) in loving one’s neighbor. This might seem like semantics, but once churches become focused on social issues it often comes at the price of preaching God’s word faithfully, properly administering the sacraments, and seeing that proper church discipline is in practice. The slippery slope too often leads to Christian liberalism, better known as the Emergent church today. Deeds replace creeds and before you know it, a Christian church is hard to distinguish from Mormon, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, Universalism, or even volunteer groups gathered around a good cause. That is the danger I see when the wrong emphasis is placed on social issues as it relates to the local church.

Your individualist position against communal responsibility for helping the poor and working for social justice runs counter to the witness of Scripture.

Scripture presents numerous stories of God calling communities and nations to take responsibility for helping the poor and working for social justice, including the early Church in Acts which set up an entire class of ministry to administer the Church’s work in serving the poor, and the Old Testament Law which is designed to mitigate against the generational poverty we see increasing in our nation today.

Scripture also presents numerous statements, found throughout the chronology of Scriptural witness but particularly among the Prophets, where God makes clear that God judges communities and nations—not just individuals—for how they fulfilled their responsibility to serve the poor and work for social justice.

Bob / James,

I’m actually somewhere in between the two of you. I don’t believe it either/or but rather both/and. Yes, God calls communities into action and we definitely see this in the NT (esp in acts). This is often overlooked by American Christians.

But what if the church does not fulfill its responsibility? Are individuals followers of Jesus excused? No. Throughout Christian history we have seen individuals powerfully used of God to do the work of Christian ministry.

Should the Church be responsible for these sorts of things or should Christian individuals? The answer is yes.

It’s a bit more dicey when we talk about the public witness of the Church in terms of politics, as I discuss in the final chapter of my book. Would love to hear your reflections on that if either of you have read it.



Let us not forget that many of the examples of caring for the poor are believers taking care of one another, either within a congregation or across congregations, including the example of Acts 2:45 (mentioned by James’ reply to me) and Paul’s requests for a collection for the saints in Jerusalem (Romans 15:25-28, 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, 2 Corinthians 8-9, Galations 2:10). The church is taking care of the poor, but it’s different than the approach many suggest today when they talk about the church getting involved in regards to social justice. The sharing, giving, and helping is not done in a way to evangelize to the unsaved in the given examples. It is done to support the church, especially those being persecuted and unable to sustain themselves due to that persecution.

I guess I get a little nervous when I’ve seen up close a good 20+ years now of Christian churches in the US starting up social programs. The end results are too often not what we’d like to think they are. And worse, a popularly misguided approach to these initiatives is one of “Preach the Gospel, if necessary use words” motto. We love the pats on the back we get by unbelievers by taking this approach but miss the point that the church suddenly looks not much different than a Lions Club. Nothing wrong with Lions Club, but Christ’s bride it is not.

Jonathan, I haven’t read your book but you have my piqued interest. :)

The Gospel Coalition hosted a conversation with Tim Keller, D. A. Carson, and John Piper in which the very first question discussed was the concern that Bob raises here. In the first 3 minutes, Keller and Piper both give some interesting answers to this dilemma. For myself, I can only think that a widening of perspectives must be beneficial. Should we remain self-critical and aware of how our involvement impacts (positively or negatively) the community around us? Of course! But the urge to do good should be encouraged.

None of these efforts sound new to me. Rather, it appears that every generation discovers for itself how to live out the gospel and wonders if others that came before had been able to do the same.

They have.


P.S. It almost approaches what C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield called chronogical snobbery. I was as guilty of it when younger as anyone.


You’ve described the last chapter of Merritt’s book, in which he posits very likely that our children will need to react from our mistakes, and that we are very likely making them. You should read the book - it’s not what you think it is.


Again, to defend the book, Merritt is definitely not from the so-called “social gospel” crowd. It’s true that a lot of churches on the left push that in detriment to saving faith. But most churches are guilty of the opposite, preaching salvation without any care for other needs.

Starving men need Jesus, but maybe you want to feed them first.

You can’t dismiss social justice issues just because someone else isn’t doing it right.

Thanks, Intro. I was actually responding to this post, not the book. Never having read the book, I don’t feel qualified to comment on it. But I did read the post here at TC, and my comments are limited to responding to what the post says. As far as I know, Merrit’s book is the best thing since the canonization of Scripture.

As for our children reacting to our mistakes, it’s always been that way. Again, nothing new there. Our children will also do well to learn from our successes too.


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