As a parish pastor, I love the sanctuary. It holds a calming, quiet beauty. One may hear shooting in the streets but in the sanctuary people share the peace. Outside is abusive, vulgar language. Inside language is sacred. Outside is gross inequality. Inside everyone stands equal in confession and kneels equal at the altar. Outside is a maddening, chaotic pace. Inside is orderly, liturgical time. Outside are the words of politicians. Inside is the word of God. I resonate to the words of Psalm 84: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord….For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.”

Children of poverty are drawn to the sanctuary. They come, often without their parents or guardians. They come, with little encouragement or invitation. They come, often out of destructive, abusive households. They come because in the sanctuary they experience beauty, peacefulness, warmth, affirmation: the presence of God.

I am struck by the impact of the sanctuary on those who enter it. I have seen drunks, addicts, and criminals become subdued and attentive when they enter the sanctuary. Some fear it, as if they will be stricken by God for entering unworthy into a holy place. When congregants approach the altar for communion, I am moved to tears at times by the aggregate pain of the private lives made known to me as pastor. And I am struck by the hope, the determination, the trust in God that these congregants find in the sanctuary. How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts.

But the attraction of the sanctuary can become a seduction. The sanctuary can be exploited and used to create false catharsis instead of authentic hope. The liturgy can be a vehicle for entering a disembodied drama instead of an incarnational vision. The sanctuary may serve only as a comfortable substitute for the harsh realities outside its walls. A mystery religion may be the result, void of any power to impact the world as it is.

Biblical Understandings 

Biblically speaking, the preeminent activity of the church is in the public arena, not in the sanctuary. The Holy Spirit calls and gathers the church and sends the church into the world with the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit takes the church into the public arena so that the church can be the church. The explosive outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the subsequent narrative of the book of Acts are powerful descriptions of the emerging church engaging the public arena, witnessing to the resurrected Lord Jesus amidst prinicipalities and powers, and paying dearly for its witness through prosecution and imprisonment. To resist this summons to public life is to resist the Holy Spirit.

The church enters the public arena because it is mandated to do so by the Great Commission of Jesus. The church is sent by its Lord to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing . . . and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). This commission has nothing to do with church growth. The primary concern of the church in the public arena is not to find more members to fill the pews of the sanctuary. The church is sent into the public arena with the ethical imperatives of Jesus. The church is to proclaim the kingdom of God over against the kingdoms of the world. The church is to make disciples who actually live by and observe the teachings of the Lord.

The evangelistic mission of the church conforms to Jesus’s own mission. The Spirit of the Lord who anointed Jesus “to bring good news to the poor . . . to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18-19) sends the church into the public arena with the same mission as its Lord. The evangelistic proclamation of the church must be liberative, must offer good news to the poor, must be faithful to the ethics of Jesus. Evangelistic efforts that claim to flow from the Great Commission but ignore or violate the Sermon on the Mount are not only ignoble but also heretical.

The church focused only on self-preservation may indeed grow and prosper but it will do so at the cost of betraying its Lord and belying its identity. It may save its institutional life while losing its soul. It risks no longer being the church, becoming instead a pseudo-church, a corporate business that markets a product. In a revealing statement to a reporter, the senior pastor of a mega-church in suburban Phoenix was quoted as calling his congregants his “clientele.”

The church enters the public arena in order to be the church, in order to be true to itself, in order to be faithful to its Lord, in order to heed the summons of the Holy Spirit. The church faithfully enters what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls the “this-worldliness” of the public arena because God is encountered in the encounter with those who suffer in the world. Jesus was not born in a church but in a stable. Jesus died, not from a heart attack from too many high-cholesterol church dinners, but of crucifixion as an enemy of the Roman state. The public arena is God’s arena.

Public Leadership 

Who takes the local church into the public arena if not the pastor? If the pastoral leadership of the local church is resistant to a public arena ministry, even the best-intentioned laity will be blocked or deflated in their efforts to engage their congregation in public arena issues. The ambivalence, reluctance, or disdain of most clergy toward the public arena keeps most churches in the sanctuary. Clergy are perceptive enough to know that the public arena can get rough and tumble. The public arena is where you can get crucified. And so clergy stay in the sanctuary where they are comfortable and where their status is secure. In what is probably an honest gesture, Willow Creek and other megachurches have simply removed the cross as a symbol from their sanctuaries. Forget the public arena. It is easier to worship and adore the middle-class life of comfort and security.

Churches that have been seduced by civil religion—which promotes national enterprise rather than the ethical imperatives of Jesus—engage the public arena but usually do so to support capital punishment, military build-up, or other social policies that are punitive toward people in poverty, immigrants, and people of color. They are guided by servitude to the dominant culture, not by servanthood to the Sermon on the Mount. This response is nothing new. Historically, the church has often aligned itself with oppressive forces and crucified its Lord anew. Small wonder that many reflective persons would prefer to see the church stay in the sanctuary where it can remain irrelevant and do little harm.

This does not alter the summons of Jesus to the public arena, however. The Great Commission demands it. The Sermon on the Mount guides it. As St. Augustine says, “God has a work to do with us that cannot be done without us.” This work of God with us has to do not only with the sanctification of our inner being but with the salvation history of the world. In fact, both are interrelated. Any sanctification that precludes involvement in the world must be rendered suspect. Any involvement in the world that disregards sanctification is dangerous. The activity of God in the public arena is incarnational and co-creational. God’s work is done through human beings. There is no purity in this work, just as there is no purity in human beings. If the church awaits pure action, it will never act. If the church keeps one ear to the Sermon on the Mount and the other ear to the cries of suffering humanity, perhaps it will learn to act in ways that contribute to God’s salvation history. If not, God will find other servants than the church for the work that must be done. God’s activity in the world is certainly not limited to what the church does or fails to do.

Works of Mercy 

What is the nature of the church’s work in the public arena? I recall meeting with a group of bishops and judicatory leaders in Erie, Pennsylvania, to encourage their support of an emerging congregation-based community organization affiliated with the Gamaliel Foundation. One of the bishops was resistant and suspicious. He said, “The role of the church in society is not to engage systemic injustice but to fill in the gaps.” This view is, of course, the practical, working theology of most churches in the United States whose social ministry, if it exists at all, is devoted to food pantries, homeless shelters, or walk-a-thons to generate money for this or that cause.

Now, clearly some merit lies in such an approach. The Parable of the Last Judgment directs us to a charity based on personalism and compassion. The hungry must be fed. The homeless must be sheltered. The works of mercy are central to the teachings of Jesus. When we engage in a personal ministry of mercy, we have an opportunity to learn from those who suffer. We move beneath tidy statistics to the complexities of the human dimension. We begin to see how systems are designed to benefit the prosperous and to keep the poor down. Our prejudices and false assumptions are challenged. We learn to see the world in a new way—from the perspective of those at the bottom. This view can be quite threatening to us. We cling to our fragile security and try to preserve a safe distance. The works of mercy reveal our own need for mercy, our own limitations, our own poverty of spirit. Benefit can be found in these revelations.

On the other hand, the works of mercy are considerably limited if they are done without regard to systemic injustice. Society is pleased to have the church exhaust itself in being merciful toward the casualties of unjust systems. I recall a friend of mine who was asked to go to Guatemala to work with homeless children. At first, she was drawn by compassion to accept this offer. But then she learned that this charitable effort was being funded by the ruling families of Guatemala. The children being served were those whose parents had been disappeared and murdered by right-wing death squads who were supported by the ruling families. The wealthy wanted to assuage their guilty consciences by providing for children whom they had helped to orphan. The director of the shelter for children made it clear to my friend that any critique of this arrangement would be unacceptable.

This prevailing protocol surrounds much of what passes for charity in the United States. Those providing direct services to the poor are often reliant on the financial contributions of wealthy donors. Providers cannot risk offending such donors by asking hard questions or challenging unjust systems. The Christians who are so generous with food baskets at Thanksgiving or with presents for the poor at Christmas often vote into office politicians whose policies ignore or crush those living in poverty. A kind of pseudo-innocence permeates this behavior. It makes me feel good to be charitable, but I don’t really want to understand or challenge the systemic causes of poverty.

The works of mercy can degenerate into merciless works when wrought, not by a doer of good, but by a do-gooder. The do-gooder operates out of condescension. The do-gooder is always “for” the other and not “with” the other. The do-gooder seeks to help while secretly despising the one who is helped. The do-gooder needs the powerlessness of the other in order to feel powerful. The do-gooder basks in the gratitude of those who are helped. The do-gooder needs to be needed. The self-identity and sense of importance of the do-gooder are enhanced by his or her role in tending to the misery of others. The do-gooder gathers tragic stories to tell to entranced audiences at social gatherings. The do-gooder has much at stake in keeping things as they are. If the powerless were empowered, what would the do-gooder do?

Alternative Options 

So what are the options for churches that are not enthralled by a do-gooder mentality? Many congregations often turn to advocacy. They are at the side of the one in need. They speak on behalf of the powerless. They enter into the maze of systems. But such advocates at best bring about exceptions to the rule. They are able to create individual justice for the moment but lack the power to create the systemic justice that is lasting. Advocates do not change systems.

Action by resolution is another means by which some churches seek to engage the public arena. These resolutions may be heatedly debated on the convention floors of denominational assemblies. The problem is that such resolutions usually state what others should do, whether it be government or corporate America, without setting forth what the church will do. Little in the way of conscience or courage comes out of these resolutions. Unless a public policy resolution is attached to a judicatory budget, it usually matters little how the vote goes. The same holds true for church social statements—all too often the church deludes itself into imagining it has now taken a bold and courageous stand.

For people of faith who are alert to the limitations of direct service, advocacy, church resolutions, and church statements, a vital alternative remains. Congregation-based community organizing offers a faithful and effective vehicle for seeking justice in the public arena.

This article was excerpted from Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001). Copyright © 2001 Augsburg Fortress. Used by permission. All rights reserved. To order, visit or call 1-800-328-4648.