John Alan Turner

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach, Facilitator

Social Service vs. Social Action

In June of 1982 a group of Christians gathered together in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Their goal was to explore and explain their reasons for believing that Christians ought to be both socially and politically involved. Eventually, a report was published, and embedded in that report is something I think may help us continue our dialog here. They drew a distinction between social service and social action -- stating that Christianity, when it is internalized and lived out, compels us to engage in both forms of social engagement.

Social Service

  • Relieving human need
  • Philanthropic activity
  • Seeking to minister to individuals and families
  • Works of mercy

Social Action

  • Removing the causes of human need
  • Political and economic activity
  • Seeking to transform the structures of society
  • The quest for justice

The report went on to describe social action (political involvement) this way:

"It looks beyond persons to structures, beyond the rehabilitation of prison inmates to the reform of the prison system, beyond improving factory conditions to securing a more participatory role for the workers, beyond caring for the poor to improving -- and when necessary transforming -- the economic system (whatever it may be) and the political system (again, whatever it may be), until it facilitates their liberation from poverty and oppression."

In other words, sometimes poverty is the result of poor choices on the part of the impoverished person. Or it may just be a case of bad luck. In those cases, we should reach out and attempt to alleviate that person's suffering. But there are other times when poverty is the result of corrupt politicians, racist legislation and entrenched evil. In those cases, we must do more than attempt to alleviate an individual's suffering; we must work to change the system that produces poverty.

That will require political involvement.

Perhaps this practical example will help. There is an intersection near my house that seemed to have an unusual amount of traffic accidents. Two approaches could have been taken. We could have canvassed the area, going door-to-door or calling house-to-house, warning people about the intersection and begging them to be careful. Or we could go to the city government and ask that a traffic signal be installed.

Which of those possible solutions would wisdom inspire?

It's always good to feed the hungry; it's better -- if possible -- to eliminate the causes of hunger.

In this way, love and wisdom and compassion and strategic thinking combine to make us that much more effective.

Does this distinction help? How is it different from the way you've viewed political involvement in the past?