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Preaching Justice Without the Gospel is Nothing More than Moralism

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Colin Kerr

Children’s Sunday school classes are notorious for bad biblical interpretation. We’ve all bemoaned the well-intentioned volunteer who teaches Bible lessons with an agenda for simply making well-behaved children. Every Bible story has moral lesson to them, usually something to the effect that God wants us to not hit our siblings, be nice to our peers, and share our toys. Nice lessons, but not exactly anything our non-Christian neighbors aren’t teaching their children either. Suffice it to say, Sunday school classes like this really aren’t teaching the Christian faith so much as they’re teaching Christian moralism.

Yet, many of us are only preaching to the adults a more sophisticated moralism. Sermons that preach justice are the adult version of bad children’s Sunday school classes. The scriptures we interpret have a moral lesson to them, usually something to the effect that God wants us to practice non-violent resistance (aka don’t hit our siblings), be radically inclusive (aka be nice to our peers), and work towards economic equality (aka share our toys). Nice lessons, but not exactly anything left-wing activists aren’t blogging about either. This kind of preaching isn’t teaching the Christian faith. No matter how just the cause we think we think the scripture is telling us we must do, this is still an exhortation to moralism.

Ironically, this is really the other side of the conservative moralistic coin that so many of us have outright rejected. We have rightly discerned that a steady diet of sermons extolling virtuous habits and condemning personal vices has not helped those in the pews. Droning on about sexual purity, modesty, temperance, and obeying authorities induces a culture of shame. Telling people to pray harder, read their bible more, and start sinning less becomes tiring. However, progressive moralism simply substitutes a different set of virtues and vices while telling congregants to check their privilege harder, listen to NPR more, and start consuming less. In the end both sides of the moralistic coin – conservative and progressive – are exhausting. Even as we may congratulate ourselves for speaking “prophetically,” our congregations slowly suffer under the weight of the obligations we have placed upon them.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was meant to destroy the moralism so endemic to our attempts of pursuing the divine. In the Bible, we see this in the running rhetorical battles between Jesus and the religious elites, but it is also a point Saint Paul has to make repeatedly in his letters to his burgeoning churches.

The antidote to moralism then is the gospel. The gospel consequently stands in opposition to moralism, even moralism drawn from the Bible and in service to justice.

The gospel does this by showing how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is substitutionary for us. This is often portrayed narrowly by our evangelical friends as a substitution for punishment or debt, where Jesus atones for the sin of humanity. Yet this misses the wider and more historical nature of substitution, and that is a substitution for our own efforts. We are never virtuous enough, whether those are the morals most prized by conservatives or progressives. We are always complicit in some sort of sin, whether those are vices are deeply personal of part of wider systemic injustices. Christ, however, is the new Adam, succeeding in every place where we could possibly fail. The futility of human moralism is substituted for the grace of God.

The gospel then, by way of the cross, heralds God’s victory over what would otherwise be a hopeless situation. This is a victory over my personal sin and our systemic injustices.

The only way our preaching of justice can move beyond sophisticated moralism is by always proclaiming the gospel alongside it, and articulating the substitutionary work of Christ on behalf of individuals, communities, and structures. Rather than being a counterfeit gospel that awkwardly parrots left-wing politics, our calls to the justice must flow from the countercultural implications of the gospel. Internalizing this foundational facet of the gospel allows me then to work for justice not out of a need to feel personally justified or become the agent of political salvation, but rather because I am gratefully responding to the reality I have already been justified before God and saved for the work of reconciliation.

Preaching the gospel at all times becomes both the cure for progressive moralism and the booster shot for our congregations in understanding unique nature of justice in Christian theology.

Once we do this, then can turn to the more difficult task of fixing children’s Sunday School classes.


Colin Kerr is the founding pastor of Parkside Church, a Presbyterian new church development. He previously spent eight years assisting historic congregations with church renewal strategies and planting a new multi-campus college ministry, which grew to become one of the largest Presbyterian college ministries in the nation. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina with his wife and daughter. His new book, Faith Hope Love: The Essentials of Christianity for the Curious, Confused and Skeptical, will be released this fall.

2018 National Gathering Ignite: Jason Santos

Jason Santos, Mission Coordinator for Christian Formation at Presbyterian Mission Agency, gives an Ignite presentation at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering.

His Ignite presentation is called “Killing Church Softly.” For the last half-century, we’ve increasingly formed our children and youth through developmentally-centered, age and stage, peer-oriented ministry programs that essentially removed them from the corporate life of the church–this ignite presentation highlights the failure of those efforts through generational and identity formation theory.

Instilling a Love for the Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarang Kang and Lynn Turnage are curating a blog series on faith formation. We’ll hear from various people who are involved in faith formation personally, professionally, and perseveringly. How has your faith been formed? How has your faith formed you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sarah Dianne Jones

My earliest memory is of being four years old in Sunday school. It was there that I not only learned about Noah and the ark, Moses and the burning bush, and the Easter story, but also the importance of sharing my animal crackers with my friends, the need to say please when asking for the out-of-reach toy, and how much fun it was to be at church. Growing up, the church supported and loved me in ways that I’m just now realizing instilled my love for the church.

It was at church that there was a community that cared – deeply cared – about the ways I was growing and learning. The congregation wanted to know about the latest book I was reading, read the “newspapers” that my friends and I made in Sunday School about the things that we were learning about, came to my school events, and taught me what it was to be fully surrounded and loved by a community in the name of Jesus Christ.

This community raised me up in the faith, and I went to college assured of my place in the church. I had given the church my whole self, and in exchange my whole self had been shaped by the church. College was my chance to figure out what kind of relationship church and I would have, and I jumped in feet first, full of excitement. In college, I engaged with multiple congregations, each of which offered different experiences that helped to expand and deepen my faith. It was in the moments of great joy that I could celebrate in community, and in the moments of pain I learned to lean on the faith of others to hold me up when my faith felt weak.

As college came to a close, I needed to find what was next. The natural next step was to participate in the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program, as it was a mission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that would offer intentional growth opportunities that I had yet to experience. What better way to spend more time thinking about vocational discernment and figuring out what my next steps were? I was thrilled to be matched with the Washington, D.C. site, but almost immediately after accepting the placement, my brain filled with questions.

Was my faith strong enough to do this? What about my experience? Will 22 years of living in the suburbs have prepared me at all to live in a city? Have mission trips, Vacation Bible Schools, Montreat conferences, and countless Bible studies prepared me to live into this experience in the way it deserves?

I needn’t have worried. My experiences had not given me a history in working in situations like I do now in DC, but that did not mean that I wasn’t prepared. My faith had been formed and tested by the same community that still loved me. It’s not perfect, but it never will be. The important part is that I have seen the evidence for a strong community to surround you. My YAV year could not have been as meaningful, challenging, and fulfilling had I not been reminded over and over again throughout my faith journey of my place in the community of Jesus Christ.


Sarah-Dianne Jones is a Birmingham, Alabama native who graduated from Maryville College in 2016. She is currently serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, DC, where she works with NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Living in a Constant State of Motion

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Erin Hayes Cook

Put away your Bible cassette tapes and overhead projectors: the future is now. Journalist and author Thomas L. Friedman pauses his life to hear the cultural significance of busyness in his latest book, Thank You for Being Late. What he hears is not what you expect. Friedman realizes that our technological innovations move faster than our society and institutions can adapt. We are left feeling exhilarated and left behind all at the same time.

Friedman interviews everyone from the CEO of Google X research and development lab, Eric “Astro” Teller, to his hometown’s mayor. What humans need to develop in this age of accelerations is dynamic stability. Teller points out, “there are some ways of being, like riding a bicycle, where you cannot stand still, but once you are moving it is actually easier. It is not our natural state. But humanity has to learn to exist in this state.” Yes, humans are adaptive creatures but we have never had to adapt so quickly and with such versatility.

Through Friedman’s colorful and thorough research, I’ve learned what many of us knew but could not put into words. The institution of the church needs to teach her leaders, people in the pews, and potential community members how to develop their adaptability skills. We no longer move at the pace of the printing press. It’s Twitter’s fault. How can we learn to share the gospel when the vehicles of human experience change so rapidly? Be ready to be moved by the Spirit wherever she blows. And get rid of the overhead projectors. I’m sure Apple will come out with an app for it next week.

Send this book to your pastor friends and those considering ministry. Anyone who enjoys a detailed read interwoven with human story will appreciate it. However, Thank You for Being Late would not lend itself to a book study in my opinion. If you’d like to use it as a teaching tool, I would suggest putting excerpts in a bible study or topical discussion.


Erin Hayes-Cook serves a multicultural PC(USA) church in the small city of Rahway, NJ. She believes her call is to be bridge between cultures and generations where she currently serves. Outside of ministry life you will find her at the CrossFit gym or looking for a new recipe.  

Greatest Hit: Why We Welcome Little Children to Worship

This fall, in addition to sharing reflections on “what is saving your ministry right now?”, we are also bringing back some of our most popular posts over the last couple of years. We hope these “greatest hits” will allow you new insight in this busy time of year. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

This post on children worship participation is one of our most popular posts in the history of the NEXT Church blog. We’ve updated it slightly below in hopes it becomes a fresh resource for you.

At Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, MN, children participate fully in worship. This includes teaching the congregation at the “children’s message” time, writing and leading the offering prayer each week, serving as our usher team once a month, leading our monthly food shelf collection, leading opening liturgy for Advent, sharing in serving communion, and as other ways as we can find to have them lead us and share their gifts from month to month.  Here is why… (the below is taken from their pew insert).

WHY WE WELCOME LITTLE CHILDREN TO WORSHIP… At the time of baptism, parents, godparents and the whole congregation promise to bring children to worship. Not to do so would be like sitting down to the family evening meal but excluding the kids. Sure their manners might be far from elegant, but we welcome them because they are part of the family. Being with family is how we learn to be family. Worship is no different. Young people giggle, they poke, they ask questions and they swing their legs because they are young children. Children learn about worship and how to participate by experience, by how they are welcomed into the community, by what they see big people doing.

WHAT IS WORSHIP? Worship is how we respond to God. When we gather in worship we all come together to encounter Christ, and we watch together for God’s presence in Scripture, our own lives, and the world around us. When we worship God, we are reminded that we belong to God’s love, and we are empowered by the Spirit to participate with God in loving and healing the world.

HOW DO YOUNG CHILDREN LEARN TO WORSHIP?

  • By being taught they have a place in the community of the church.
  • By seeing, hearing, feeling, even smelling, the sanctuary as a place of welcome and worship.
  • By being around other children in the worship space.
  • By watching how their significant adults sing, and make prayers and offerings.
  • By sharing prayers, communion, and worship leadership alongside adults.
  • By being given ways to watch for God’s presence in their own lives, and encouraged to share where they notice God and how they participate in God’s love.

ADULTS LEARN TO WORSHIP by “becoming like a child” (Mt. 18:3). Children notice, absorb and feel deeply. They respond freely. Children perceive God.  Children learn to worship from adults and adults learn to worship from children. Bringing a child to church can be frustrating. Their behavior can make it hard for parents and others to worship. Then again, many facets of parenting can be challenging. It’s the rewards that make it all worthwhile. While we do not want our children to be disruptive or hamper the worship of others, all of us together need to be reminded that children are not the church of the future. They are the church of the present and are to be treasured as such. Children and adults alike are able to watch for God, and participate in God’s love and healing.

SUGGESTIONS FOR ADULTS WITH CHILDREN

  • When possible, arrive in time to find a good place to sit. Let them sit next to the aisle, near a work station or in the front pews. Even let them stand on the pew next to you so that they can see.
  • Tell them before they come in what will happen in worship. Show them the parts of the service where they have an active role, and the parts where we all listen or watch others quietly.
  • Take advantage of the worship supplies and materials available at the door when you arrive, and bring them to your seat. Return bags and supplies to their place when you leave.
  • Worship with your child, guiding her or him through the service so they can feel what it is like to worship together.
  • Worship at home through saying Table Grace together, or Bedtime Prayers, or even, “God bless you.” Ask your kids questions about how they noticed God’s love in their day, and how they shared in it.
  • Remember that sometimes children just plain need to run around and play.  That’s why we provide a bright and safe Nursery space for your young child at any time during worship. Gather them back with you for Communion so they can experience God’s blessing.

SUGGESTIONS FOR ADULTS WITHOUT CHILDREN

  • Be helpful to parents of small children by not making them feel awkward or unwanted.
  • Acknowledge children by smiling, or nodding in their direction, to show your appreciation of them.
  • In fact, make a child’s presence a part of your worship by inviting their family to sit next to you, praying for them, taking an interest in them.
  • Make a special point of sharing the Peace of Christ with them when everyone else is greeting.
  • Find a young child before or after the service, make eye contact, introduce yourself, tell them you are glad to see them and will be looking for them next week.  You might just be the reason that family returns.

(adapted with permission and gratitude from pew insert by Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, St. Paul, MN)  

Looking for more? Here are more resources from NEXT: