Journey into Justice

Charles Kiser —  February 18, 2009 — 8 Comments

We want Storyline to be a community that works for justice.

Part of the reason we decided for a context in the city was because of its proximity to poverty and injustice. We wanted to be close enough to serve and love oppressed people, and even stand up for what was right before the powers that be.

We know that much. That much, in fact, has come to us pretty easily.

Discovering how to go about being that kind of community has been a much more difficult process.

I read somewhere recently about a distinction Brian McLaren made between justice and mercy. He said that mercy is caring for people who were made sick, for instance, when they drank polluted water from a nearby stream.

Working for justice, on the other hand, is going upstream to see who polluted the water and getting them to stop.

I love the analogy of the river. We’d do well to translate it into other contemporary metaphors of injustice.

McLaren’s definition of justice, however, seems to put forward a false distinction between justice and mercy. Justice in the Hebrew prophets seems to be both confrontational and merciful. Working for justice to “roll down like a river,” in Amos’ words, was both to uproot unjust rulers and to care for those in poverty.

To work for justice is both to care for people made sick by polluted water and also to stop the people who are polluting the water.

Here’s a million dollar question I’m wrestling with: what does it look like for Storyline to work for both facets of justice in a way that’s consistent with our values and style?

Last year I attended the National New Church Conference (aka Exponential) and listened to David Mills talk about conducting a “community needs assessment.”

The needs assessment entails networking with and interviewing social service organizations in the community for the sake of discerning deeper needs. Mills even suggested forming a separate nonprofit organization that would one day fill a niche in the community discovered by the needs assessment process.

I loved the idea and began to pursue it. But as I talked with my friends in Dallas who work in social services and community development, the idea didn’t gain much traction.

It began not to sit well with me either, but I could not put my finger on why.

Then it dawned on me: a needs assessment process and the development of a separate nonprofit for justice is an institutional way of working for justice.

It starts at the top — discerning needs from those who work with people in poverty, rather than discerning needs by serving and living among people at the bottom in a grassroots, relational way.

What would it look like to translate yet another institutional paradigm for ministry into a more organic one?

Perhaps we start by asking our Storyline people who live among the poor what needs they see in the lives of their neighbors. Then we seek to enter into relationship with them and serve them.

Perhaps we adopt their neighborhoods and even one day move into them.

Perhaps our justice ministry is not centralized but rather localized within our house churches such that each works for justice in ways that connect to its particular passions, gifts, neighbors and neighborhoods.

We’ll network with social service organizations not to discern needs but rather to ask for help with the needs we’re discovering because we’re involved relationally in the lives of hurting people.

These kinds of things are already happening within each house church in the Storyline Community, despite my sluggishness. The jobless are getting help with networking and resume development. Those on the cusp of being evicted are getting rent assistance from grassroots collections in the community. Those who need groceries for the week are getting them.

It seems I am, as always, one step behind what God is already doing.

When the time comes, as we’re in the thick of loving and serving people in such ways, house churches will begin to sniff out the larger, systemic forces that oppress our neighbors.

So we’ll collaborate with our friends in social services and community development and begin to bark and lay our lives on the line until things change on a systemic level.

God, of course, will be the one with the power to change systems of such scope.

What do you think of all this crazy talk? Help me translate. What would it look like for churches to work for justice in more organic ways?

Charles Kiser


I’m a pastor, missionary, and contextual theologian in Dallas, Texas. I’m committed to equipping and coaching Christians to start fresh expressions of Christian community in Dallas County — communities of hospitality, inclusion, justice, and healing.

8 responses to Journey into Justice


    I just keep thinking, “But what if the system beheads you before it changes?” and “I don’t remember it being pretty when God has made stubborn systems change–he demolished the Temple in Jerusalem and then he wiped out the Roman Empire. And I forgot to mention the flood.” It’s hard for me to look forward to “a better America” (or Australia) that God might bring out. Wouldn’t he just scrap it for a brand new creation?

    I’m getting too abstract, though. I like your post’s glimpse into stories that in subtle ways defeat the systems already as a testimony against them.

    God, bless the Storyline faith communities with your heart for mercy and justice and let Charles keep up bodily and blogily. Amen.


    Jason, you bring up a great point. I think we have to acknowledge that getting beheaded or should we say “crucified” is part of the risk of standing for justice. It is not always or even often exciting or fun work but we have to put our hope in the resurrection. If the system kills me, I still have the promise to be raised from the dead.


    I know this, bro, God can do something with the questions you are asking.

    I’ve learning that too many forms of benevolence and outreach provide for people’s needs, but they don’t change societies.
    I want to be about a form of justice that gives people their lives back.
    The questions you are asking seem to be about giving people a life.

    Keep seeking Jesus.


    Hi there —
    I go to church up here in Allen, and while I long to help the needy in some way its really hard to move into the “how” as you addressed. So I don’t have any answers for you, but I read a book that really spoke to me about this issue — called “Recipe for Life: How to Change Habits that Harm into Resources that Heal” by Graham Kerr and Treena Kerr. It moved me to action for a time, but I have trouble maintaining that level of committment. May God give us all eyes to see where/how to show His love.
    Thank you for your example in this ministry.


    I think the first and most obvious problem with the way we look at this issue of poverty and homelessness is that we perceive it as a problem.

    It’s not a problem. 1 + 1 is a problem.

    It’s a person with a story. A background full of hurt, confusion, broken relationships. It’s so much deeper than some financial situation, which is exactly why the issue of homelessness continues to increase. Because it’s easier to throw money, apartments, jobs at them than it is to REALLY get to know them. It’s easier to train them to weld than it is to spend hours per week hearing their heart, hugging them, and inviting them over for dinner.

    After traveling around for a year going to every city in America and meeting every sort of man and woman in every sort of need from every sort of background, here’s what I can say with certainty;

    love prevails.

    The greatest commandment works. As church planters and ministers, I think we tend to want to break it down and plan it it out. It’s almost as if we don’t do well with simplicity. Things must be more complex than love!

    The beautiful thing about God centered love for people is that is manifest itself in amazing ways. My love will manifest itself in the lives of the broken differently than your love will. That’s the beauty of what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 12 – we are all the body, and a different part. When each part loves, it loves in a different manner and through different strengths.

    It’s love.

    As for the “forces” you speak of, I’ve wrestled with that some myself. Marjorie and I do some art pertaining to injustice (actually, the very front page of a website has newspaper clipping that screams injustice – we did a little graphic over it). Outside of art and videos, my prayer is that God would use anything good I do pertaining to love and providing for those in need to shed some light onto the darker forces that are at work against those people in need.

    Love ya man.


    *the very front part of OUR website –

    This appears to be a shameless plug! ha! It’s not.


    I really appreciated the point you made about the “bottom up” approach as opposed to the “top down.” I formerly worked for a well-known ministry here in Dallas and we were constantly approached by people wanting to do their one-time service projects or “mission trips” with us. Usually they had an agenda already and we were just informed of what they planned to do with our neighbors and friends…as if they suddenly had all the answers and solutions without ever really having spent any significant time in the communities they were seeking to “help.” While I do not want to discredit their good hearts and genuine desire to serve, there were times these efforts came off as more patronizing than dignifying. The friends and neighbors we worked alongside in community building were not “service projects.” They were real people and real friends and real partners in working for change in our communities and in ourselves. There were relationships there that informed our work and our actions….and those relationships took time and trust. By living and working in the community, the needs we saw weren’t just THEIR problem…it was OUR problem. That wasn’t THEIR neighborhood…it was OUR neighborhood. That solidarity, that side-by-side fight for justice, that learning to understand and appreciate and love people very different from ourselves is crucial in real community building. It takes a very different kind of commitment than a one-time service project.


    I applaud what you’re doing. Keep up the great work.

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