Missional Justice: Q/A with Jeremy Tam

Jeremy Tam oversees the missional justice ministry at Watermark Community Church in Hong Kong. He has a Juris Doctor degree from Western University and he is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity degree from Moody Theological Seminary. In our conversation below, he shares how his local church engages in mercy ministry and social justice pursuits in their surrounding community.

You have a unique background, Jeremy. Will you begin by telling us a bit about yourself and how you gained a personal awareness of God’s active interest in the area of social injustice?

I'm a Canadian who was born in Taiwan, raised in the U.S. and British Hong Kong, and studied and worked in Canada. I'm currently living back in Hong Kong, where my main role is being a husband to my wife, Julie. I got interested in social justice while studying at law school and working for International Justice Mission, a global anti-slavery organisation, where I learned first-hand that God is a God of justice. In this realm, Gary Haugen’s book, Good News About Injustice, was highly formative for me.

How did Watermark Community Church's missional justice ministry begin? 

The ministry began about a year after the church was founded, based on the vision that the church should begin to focus on areas of mercy and justice as it became more established. The idea of pursuing mercy and justice was there from the outset, but it was a matter of getting the church plant settled first before branching outwards, and seeing God provide the right personnel to begin engaging in this area. The idea of missional justice arose from the realisation that biblical justice was never independent of God’s mission. We wanted to ensure that loving the poor always included telling them about Jesus Christ.

What aspects of justice does your local church focus on?

Generally speaking, we focus on social justice, in the sense of people in society who are marginalised and vulnerable in some way, taking our model from God’s particular concern for the quartet of the vulnerable (e.g. Zech. 7:9-10; cf. Ps. 146:7-9, James 1:27). At present, we focus on red-light districts, at-risk youth, and inner city minorities.

How did you settle on these aspects of justice?

We began by simply looking around our neighbourhood to see what needs existed. Knowing that we could not focus on everything, guidelines were developed over time to help clarify what kinds of ministries to support, and how to evaluate that support. Currently, we use the fourfold criteria of grassroots (historic or present involvement from Watermark members), proximate (serves Watermark’s neighbourhood or the city in general), holistic (engages a variety of resources beyond finances), and sustainable (potential to grow in long-term partnership). Our present areas of focus developed very organically, as God presented opportunities and established connections in and through the church.

What does the ministry look like practically? What does the church do?

Our current model is to support and partner with frontline ministries that have experience and expertise in particular areas of justice. Generally, we do not run “in-house” programs, but seek to mobilise a range of church resources to meet the needs of our mission partners, such as volunteers, finances, in-kind donations, and venue space. Undergirding all of these resources is a commitment to raising awareness and praying for our partners. A number of Watermark members also serve as staff or key volunteers in these ministries.

Our ministry to at-risk youth and children focuses primarily on teen moms, investing in them through platforms like support groups and camps. Another marginalised group in the city is the Nepali community, for which our mission partner has a comprehensive program, ranging from youth group to sewing skills training. The red-light district ministry involves building relationships with the women and men who live in sexual exploitation, and helping them to leave the industry. A key commonality among these differing mission partners is that the gospel and evangelism are central to their ministry philosophies.

Our model is certainly a work-in-progress, and our hope is to truly take ownership of these areas that God has led us to. There is much more growth that we wish to see, and we are continuing to explore how to better partner with these ministries. We are also open to new areas of justice, and are currently exploring the connection between our ministry to teen moms and the issue of adoption and foster care.

How many church members do you have and how many are involved in the justice ministry?

Our average Sunday service attendance is 200, and we have approximately 100 signed members. Approximately 15 serve regularly with our partners, while more will be involved in their own justice ministries and through specific appeals for support throughout the year.

How did/do you cultivate a concern for justice and mercy in the hearts of the people in your church?

Over the years, we have occasionally preached specific sermons that involved the theology of justice and mercy. Every year, we hold a special multi-week offering for our mission partners, which inherently involves awareness-raising. We will also spotlight these partners and deliver ministry updates throughout the course of the year. Above all, prayer and perseverance in continuing to seek justice in my own ministry, as I cannot wholeheartedly advocate something that is not flourishing in my own life.

What percentage of the church’s budget do you dedicate to mercy and justice ministry?

We do not currently dedicate a percentage of the church’s budget; instead, we establish financial giving goals for our annual special offering.

What lessons have you learned or what mistakes have you made through your ministry efforts?

An early lesson I learned was to not assume that the average Christian understands or appreciates the foundational connection between following Christ and doing justice. This is not to demean people’s experiences and abilities, but to appreciate that people are at different stages of their spiritual journeys, such that there may be normal and expected gaps in their understanding of biblical justice. Justice advocates have often had a life-changing or paradigm-altering experience, which we cannot necessarily expect others to also have experienced. This may seem obvious, but it was something that I needed to be reminded of so that I would not grow to become disillusioned, self-righteous, or judgmental. 

A related lesson is that God taught me patience. Depending on the demographics of a church, social injustice issues may be far-removed from the average member’s life. Most of the local churches that I have been a part of have been relatively wealthy or centred in areas of relative affluence. It takes significant effort for anyone to appreciate what lies beyond the regular rhythms of their lives. It takes time to cultivate culture.

Another key lesson I learned was to not just present people with a list of needs. There are enough petitions and appeals that the average person receives. One thing that really helped to catalyse our current missional justice work was a single project, originating from a non-staff member, that the whole church rallied around. I realised that it was much more effective to present our people with a couple things that we thought God had placed into the hands of the church, helping them to understand an issue or cause in greater depth.

How would you describe the relationship between missional justice and the gospel? 

My conviction is that biblical justice is inseparable from God’s mission to bring restoration and reconciliation to His creation, which is necessarily relevant to the gospel. While the salvation that Jesus attained on the cross is eternally good news for all humanity, his day-to-day life displayed God’s particular interest in the vulnerable groups of society (Matt. 11:4-5). He explicitly condemned those who blatantly neglected justice (Luke 11:42). He taught that our mercy was to transcend all kinds of societal barriers (Luke 10:25-37, cf. Gal. 6:10).

Therefore, the gospel isn’t merely good news that God saves the soul from spiritual poverty into a disembodied heavenly experience, but good news that God saves the entire being from all poverty and restores it to wholeness. When God’s kingdom is consummated in the new creation, he will do that in its fullness. In the meantime, missional justice is a crucial way in which God shows that his kingdom is both already present and will one day be fully realised. As Christians embody the life of the Kingdom, we call ourselves and others to live under the rule of Jesus, the just and merciful King.

What advice would you give to a pastor who wants to begin a social justice ministry?

Pray and ask God to show you what to pursue, and don’t feel like you need to figure everything out in a particular period of time. Your social justice ministry will certainly change and evolve over time, so just start somewhere! One great way to begin is by looking for passions that are already present within the members of the church and coming alongside them to fan those flames. Certainly, this helps fulfill our calling to equip the saints (Eph. 4:11-16), but it helps you to develop a team of justice advocates who will be able to exhort others and model justice to them. For many observers, it may be more persuasive to see a non-staff member seeking justice, rather than a “professional” church leader. They will probably be able to relate to the former much better than the latter. 

Missional justice is a lifelong journey, so be prepared to persevere. Ultimately, look to a God who is the ultimate justice advocate, the one who is always on the frontlines. Strive tirelessly for justice but don’t bear the weight of injustice. God doesn’t need us to change the world; we simply get the amazing privilege of being a part of His work.