Pursuing Justice: Righteousness in Relationships
Ken Wytsma talks about justice, leadership, and the culture of collaboration
I understand that the Justice Conference had humble beginnings over 10 years ago. It now serves as a global gathering place for those pursuing justice in their communities. How did this all come about?
I was part of a group in Bend, Oregon that was doing a lot of advocacy work. We wanted to organize an event where we could go deep with our thoughts and bring people together. Our first conference in 2011 had 1,200 attendees! There was such a hunger in the Church at that time and we wanted to help people find their way outside of the Church.
The common experience with people was, “My church is doing a lot of programs for church people. But I have a heart for the poor, vulnerable, marginalized and I don’t know what to do with that.”
Our first conference was birthed through leadership and language, and relationships that proved helpful for people that sought more social engagement.
Was there a specific objective you were hoping to achieve when you started the conferences?
In the 1990s and 2000s, it was amazing how many people would hear “justice” and say, “You’re on a slippery slope, you’re gonna lose the Gospel, you’re going towards the social gospel.”
So in the early days, one of the main things was to educate awareness. We often talk about our relationship with God, and do not really engage what that looks like in society.
“This generation grew up hungrier for justice – demanding that of their churches.”
Do you see it improving now? You’ve mentioned how the Church has technically removed justice from the Gospel.
I think theologically, that conversation is still important. Justice is something that churches need to do. I think in the last 10 years, there has been a remarkable shift.
Churches in America are stepping away from just sending missionaries for short-term missions and are now wrestling with what it means for their respective communities. Social media increased globalization. This generation grew up hungrier for justice — demanding that of their churches. We have also seen a lot of movements, big organizations like International Justice Mission, World Vision, celebrities like Bono and the One Campaign. We had a lot of things happening at the same time.
That shifted the moral vocabulary of the Church to not just think of righteousness as purity, but to think of righteousness as my relationships with others. That is — people who may not be like me or live in my country or tread in the same economic stream.
This edition of Champions is being themed ‘Convergence.’ What does Kingdom convergence, in light of justice, mean to you?
I like the word ‘collaboration’. In the English Bible, Paul says you are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. In Greek, it translates as ‘you all’ — God poured out the Spirit on ‘you all.’ I think Christians are beginning to realize that the Holy Spirit is bestowed on a community to hold them together in a powerful way that otherwise would not exist.
Church, the original word that Paul used in the New Testament, was ‘ekklesia,’ the Greek word for assembly or a gathering. And that is all it meant. The group of people that gathered to stone Paul was an ‘ekklesia.’ In the same way, ‘baptize’ was a common word which meant ‘to be immersed.’ Paul took it and used it in a very Christian way.
Similarly ‘collaboration’ is a simple word. But if we start praying over it and using it in a Kingdom way, it would communicate much of what Paul was getting at. We aren’t supposed to just sit together in a room looking at a screen or hearing music, but we are to grow in deep collaboration — the body of Christ growing in interdependence where we give and take.
As the Church, every part that exists should have a role in the Kingdom.
Ken Wytsma is known for his depth of insight and ability to think deeply about faith, life and leadership.
This article has been adapted from Champions Vol. III.