The Church and Social Responsibility: Where Do We Go from Here

by Dana W. Wilbanks

Dr. Wilbanks is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Iliff School of theology in Denver.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 3, 1974, pp. 363-366. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Church leaders have not given adequate attention to the local congregation as a vital context for addressing social issues. Unless these issues are placed in the context of worship or of debate on the budget, members are effectively educated to regard them as unimportant.

Our years of warfare in Indochina and, more recently, the Watergate affair have ushered in a period of national self-examination and self-criticism. Not just radical critics but establishment types too have begun to ask, Where did we go wrong? So we sharpen our analytic tools and try to discover what those disastrous experiences tell us about ourselves as a people and a nation. But we in the church need also to ask what Vietnam and Watergate have taught us about ourselves. While it is true that many denominational bodies and leaders protested vigorously against our government’s Indochina policy, it is all too evident that by and large the local churches failed to confront the theological and moral issues of the war.

As we probe the reasons for this failure, we must, I believe, shift the focus of our criticism from the rank-and-file membership of the churches to the clergy, professors and denominational bureaucrats. In the past decade church leaders often voiced cynicism or even a sense of futility about involving local churches in social action. Socially concerned clergy were encouraged to look elsewhere for support of their concerns -- the implication being that significant social action occurs almost anywhere but in the church. Local church silence on the issues of Indochina, then, was practically foreordained.

A Participatory Model

What I am saying is that church leaders have not given adequate attention to the local congregation as a significant context for addressing social issues. At the heart of their negligence is a misunderstanding or false estimate of the importance of education for social responsibility. They seem to view education in terms of setting up additional classes to provide members with more information about issues. If this is education, its influence will be minimal. However, if we accept the thesis of certain religious educators that it is the total church experience which is the chief educational influence on members, we have a crucial clue to development of various styles of social action within local parishes. For then education is not merely the function of the Sunday morning church school or the weekly study groups, but of all of church life. Worship educates, the budget educates, business meetings educate. The priorities and emphases that are embodied in the dynamics of congregational life educate members to a particular understanding of the Christian faith. A class may deal with U.S. policy in Indochina, but unless this issue is placed in the context of worship or of debate or the budget, members are effectively educated to regard it as relatively unimportant.

The constructive implication here is that we need to structure social issues and social action more organically into the life of the congregation. To do so will require special appreciation of the church’s subtle and symbolic influences on its members consciences. For example, in the heat of domestic uproar over the Vietnam war, one congregation in Denver set aside the hours 9:30 A.M. to noon on Memorial Day Sunday for a church community discussion of the war. Probably more important than anything that was said that Sunday morning was the symbolic impact of this event. By devoting prime time to a consideration of the issue, the church communicated to its members that this war was of central importance for Christians.

Grass-Roots Decision-Making

There are hopeful signs that local church members are of a mind to become more seriously involved. The rebellion of local churches against denominational programs and priorities certainly has its negative dimensions and implications, but it may also indicate that the members are ready and willing both to exercise greater initiative in developing their own programs and priorities and to participate in making decisions about the congregation’s life. In other words, the grass-roots mood evident in American society is affecting our churches too. It affords significant opportunities for the clergy to devise means by which members can deal with social issues in the local church context.

The key concept here is member participation. The local church must more intentionally structure its life so that it becomes a decision making community in which members have a large voice. This is hardly a utopian idea, because the local church already functions as such a community. Decisions -- about budgets, for example, or about organizational and programming priorities -- are constantly being made in committee and congregational meetings, and these determine the style of church life, for they crucially affect members’ perception of what the church is all about.

The first step in improving the church’s responsiveness to social issues, then, is to get them on its agenda. Introduce social issues into the planning phase of church life. Bring them before the congregational boards and committees. Include the social action dimension in the preparation of annual budgets. If social responsibility is indeed an area of the church’s mission, it should be reflected in the structures and processes of the church’s life.

The emphasis in this pattern is on the concrete rather than on the abstract or theoretical. Concrete proposals become the occasion for educating members about social responsibility. For example, they are not asked to deal with racism in general, but to deal with proposals for countering racism in their own communities -- not simply to react to denominational directives but to consider a specific course of action available to them where they live. Perhaps it is only through such experiences at the local level that members can become aware of the value of and the need far wider church initiatives. Unfortunately, pastors or boards sometimes attempt to write social causes into budgets in a surreptitious way. Instead, church leaders ought surely to open the doors wide to member participation in decisions about the church’s response to social issues. For members will hardly learn how to deal with social issues in light of the faith except through the experience of participating in decision-making in the context of the church.

In this participatory model, leadership is exceedingly important. Pastors must function not only as initiators and facilitators of member participation in decision-making, but -- even more important -- as interpreters of issues from the perspective of Christian faith and ethics. They need to be able to explain to members what is happening in processes of debate and resolution; and to do that in the midst of an often emotional give-and-take is much more difficult than preparing a sermon on a social issue. Hence this interpretive task requires leaders who have internalized theological knowledge in their own life style. It requires leaders who know how to show members the functional relation of Christian faith to the issues under discussion. It requires leaders who can view conflict among members as an occasion for growth rather than as a threat. Finally, this task requires leaders who are willing to risk the defeat of their own views. Not that I believe that a pastor, if he is to be an effective interpreter, must refrain from voicing his own convictions. I do believe, however, that parishioners will listen to and value the pastor’s direct expression of his views if he submits them in the context of honest dialogue rather than through pronouncements.

The Church as Moral Educator

There are good reasons to be hopeful that the church can function better than in the past as a community for the moral education of persons. For one thing, the church is a continuing community relationship for many members. Many group involvements are transient; people tend to move from group to group according to their shifting needs and interests. In the church, however, membership is more likely to be a cradle-to-grave affair. Hence the church enjoys a unique opportunity to exercise a moral influence on members through the priorities and experiences embodied in its own ongoing existence. If we want members to regard social responsibility as a crucial dimension of the Christian life, we should be willing to lay the groundwork for long-range influence on them as well as to respond to immediate issues. In part, local church people’s lack of responsiveness to immediate issues such as the Indochina war represents an earlier failure to provide for social issues in the dynamics of congregational life. The way to deal with dualism is not by attacking members’ stupidity or insensitivity, but by overcoming the dualism implicit in the way most members currently experience the church.

There is a second reason why the church is uniquely equipped to be a moral educator. In our society there are numerous groups and communities that are concerned with individual growth and interpersonal relationships, and also numerous groups that are concerned with social action in the community. But few are the groups and communities that are concerned with all these dimensions of human life. The church, however, is such a community -- at least potentially. The faith by which the church lives is centered in God who brings human beings to fulfillment through the fellowship of persons in a community of justice and reconciliation. The church is called to embody the concern for individuals, interpersonal relations and social justice, for in the Christian life these are not distinct and separate but integrally related dimensions. Their integration into the life of the church so they hang together is the challenge for church leaders, and the opportunity. It may provide the governing rationale for church planning and programming. The question is not one of either pastoral care or social action, but: How can the two be organically related in the dynamics of congregational life in faithfulness to God, for whom love and justice are inseparable?

A Community of Conviction and Concern

That membership in the local church today grows out of conviction (rather than out of the drive for conformity that prevailed a decade or so ago) is a hopeful sign. In reaction to the fragmented, depersonalized, hectic style of the secular city, people are seeking community and evincing interest in a chosen discipline for their lives. Here are profound opportunities for local churches. If the temptation is to look upon the church as a haven of togetherness in a hostile or indifferent society, the church need not succumb. Rather, it can become a community of conviction, participation, personal relationships and discipline, in which men and women can reorient themselves to the world through the rediscovery of its center in the gracious activity of God. Also integral to the life of this community is a reorientation to responsible participation in society through concrete opportunities for deliberation and action.

A single model for structuring social responsibility into the life of the local church is neither necessary nor desirable. The model will depend on particular church polities, on the size and nature of the community in which the church is situated, and on the distinctive characteristics of the congregation itself. The crucial need is to open up avenues for participation and to bring social issues to the center of the church’s agenda, together with its other vital functions. Thus members can actually experience the relation of the church to social issues.

An experiential base for all this is the task. The opportunity for learning about the church’s responsibility in society can be structured into the dynamics of congregational life. The short-range results may be disappointing to socially concerned clergy. But the groundwork is being laid for longer. range influence on the lives of members and on the local church itself. With social responsibility built into its self-understanding, the church need not again find itself so unprepared and ill equipped to respond to critically important issues like the Indo-china war. We need leaders who are willing to develop the expertise and accept the responsibility for working with a group of persons in the local church to cultivate patterns of decision-making that lead to a greater acceptance of the church’s mission in society.