A Framework for Social Healing

A Framework for Social Healing

Andrew Sears



This material provides an introduction to a vision of “Social Healing” as a way to transform ourselves, our churches and our society to address injustice and bring the Gospel to our communities and the world.  Hopefully, this material will help us to better understand our own church cultures and how to foster minority cultures within our church communities to develop communities that can more effectively address injustice.


Inwardly Strong and Outwardly StrongChurch Cultures

One of the most significant splits in the “Church” is that between churches focused on inward needs of the congregation and churches focused primarily on the outward needs of the “world.” While both inward and outward church cultures can be strongly focused on evangelizing those outside the church, the key distinction between these two groups is to what extent felt needs of the world beyond just the congregation are being met. Many would characterize this difference in churches as falling across racial lines (this is often the case); however, it is much more commonly correlated to a “class” or income-level difference. For those who are economically disadvantaged, this issue is especially important because there are often basic needs that need to be met before they can enter a church community.  While there has been much focus on church division across racial and socio-economic lines, this difference between churches/ministries focused inwardly on their church attendees needs and those focused outwardly on the world’s needs seems in many ways to be the key dividing issue. While I recognize that the language “inward” and “outward” can imply value judgments, that is not what is intended and clearly both church models have great value but also have areas to grow.  I have yet to come up with better language, and have kept the current language because it is helpful in indicating how each side can learn from the other.  The table below defines what constitutes an inward or outward church.


       Inwardly-Strong Culture            Outwardly-Strong Culture


General Characteristics                                         General Characteristics

Perception: primary problem is personal

Perception: primary problem is social/systemic

Focus inwardly on needs of church attendees

Focus outwardly on needs of the community and or the “world”

Needs addressed: spiritual, emotional

Needs addressed: physical, economic, spiritual

Focus on getting saved/sanctified ourselves

Focus on helping others

Focus on evangelism

Focus on social justice

Personal growth model: inner-healing

Personal growth model: ethnic identity development

Focus on where we are: the real

Focus on where we should be: the ideal

Focus on personal growth

Focus on challenging others, systems and society

Primarily value psychological health in leaders

   and being in touch with personal brokenness

Primarily value life experience in leaders and

  being in touch with the world’s brokenness



       Inwardly-Strong Culture            Outwardly-Strong Culture


Individual Action/Egalitarian Leadership

Collective Action/Strong Leadership

Less than 1/3 of resources focused outward on

   needs of others (often less than 10%)

More than 1/3 of resources focused outward on

   needs of others (often more than 50%)



Primary Defense                                                    Primary Defense

Avoid social healing

Avoid personal healing

“I didn’t cause the injustice.”

“They caused it. They are responsible.”

Do not see how their personal role contributes to social injustice

Do not see how failure to forgive hurts us more than it hurts others


Primary Sins                                                           Primary Sins

Denial of the pain of others and injustice

Denial our own pain and need for healing

Pride and failure to learn about injustice

Failure to let go of anger and forgive


Consequences of Sins                                              Consequences of Sins

Church perpetuates injustice

Church divides from broken relationships

Church is sheltered from reality and suffering

Individuals burn out and leave ministry/Jesus



The failure of the two sides to talk across these differences and understand each other on these issues is one of the most significant sources of the church dividing and losing its effectiveness. Too often, the result is that the inwardly-strong church is unaware of injustice and can unknowingly perpetuate injustice. The outwardly-strong church too often “burns out” from too much work or divides again and again into different “camps” that will not talk to each other. Very rarely do people from these two sides come together and learn from each other, and even more rarely do people from these two sides stay within the same community. The result is that neither side learns from the other, when what they most need is to learn from each other. What is needed is an approach that combines the strengths of both perspectives and finds the middle ground—the “social healing” approach. Social healing” is the process of stepping into deep relationships in another culture in a way that provides us with perspective on our own culture, healing of our culture’s brokenness in ourselves and structures/systems, while appreciating and growing into the strengths of the other cultures.



Inwardly-strong church cultures are not motivated to bring social healing because they are not exposed to social injustice on a daily basis. In addition, since people in the church are not able to see how the church can be involved in perpetuating social injustice, they have the attitude “I didn’t cause it, so I’m not responsible.”  This results in an attitude that social justice is only for those “called to it,” and others can disregard the issues it brings up because the church assumes it is not perpetuating social injustice. Because inwardly-strong churches have this perspective, social justice proponents in an inward-church context are often accused of being “guilt-based” or too idealistic when they suggest that their church should explore these issues.  When these types of conversations happen too frequently, the church can become a hostile environment for those called to social justice as a vocation, when they actually try to pursue their calling. Usually the result is that social justice proponents learn to keep silent about their opinions, and the possibility of a “collective wrong” or of corporate responsibility of the church is not seriously considered. This is largely because inwardly-strong churches do not have a framework to recognize a collective wrong/sin. If the church were able to see its involvement in a collective sin, no one would deny that it should be addressed, but collective sins are essentially “invisible” to inward-focused churches because of a lack of learning that would provide tools and a framework to see these issues.


The outwardly-strong church cultures need to grow in forgiveness and to see how failure to forgive only hurts ourselves. Because outwardly-strong churches are most often experiencing injustice—whether racism, classism or other forms of injustice—forgiveness is particularly important. It has often been observed that those involved in social justice have an unusually high occurrence of heart attacks. While some of this justifiably could be attributed to spiritual attack, medical science has shown conclusively that anger and unforgiveness are two of the leading causes of heart attacks. In addition, outwardly-strong churches and communities too often are weakened by splits from relational fallouts and personal burnouts largely because of the lack of focus on personal healing. In addition to spiritual attack, these churches are often experiencing social injustice directly which contributes to the stress causing these disasters. But the outwardly-strong church too often is missing the tools and framework for personal and relational healing. This causes the personal sin of unforgiveness to either be “invisible” or an issue that cannot be addressed no matter how hard we try.


Because the inwardly-strong and outwardly-strong communities rarely communicate, they fail to learn from each other. Too often, inwardly-strong churches fail to see their role in enabling societal dysfunction and increasing the need for social healing, and the outwardly-strong ministries fail to recognize interpersonal dysfunction, to forgive and to seek personal healing. Here we see that personal healing is not enough—whatever side of the oppression you are on—because if the oppressed group forgives (or the oppressing group repents) without actual social change, then the church (both oppressors and the oppressed) will continue to perpetuate the cycle of injustice. Social change is also not enough, because even if injustice is addressed, if we continue to live in anger and not forgive, we will continue to be divided and feel the personal consequences of our unforgiveness. True reconciliation involves both forgiveness and change, but before we can do that we must first understand each other. While we can forgive without seeing change, and we can change without being forgiven, true reconciliation involves both forgiveness and change.


A major barrier to helpful conversations between inward- and outward-focused communities is that these two groups have very different understandings of what personal growth and “health” look like, which creates one of the primary breakdowns in communication.  The inwardly-strong church often has an individual/personal framework/tools and understands the need for healing on an individual level, which may involve counseling, inner-healing, conflict resolution and an individual relationship with God.  Most often, a key part of the healing process on a personal level involves naming the offense and forgiving it.   Because of this, a common breakdown occurs when an inward-focused/personal healing-focused individual encounters someone with a strong “racial anger” resulting from past racism, and they dismiss and/or avoid the angry individual because the disproportionate anger is seen as “unhealthy,” a sign of not forgiving past hurts.


The outwardly-strong church often has a collective/social framework and understands the need for healing on a social or systemic level, which may involve social service programs, changing legal/economic systems, re-prioritizing/redistributing Church budgets/resources, a collective relationship with God as the body of Christ which could lead to collective action to influence public policy, business decisions, etc.  The primary personal growth model in these churches is the ethnic identity development process, which helps individuals gain a positive ethnic identity and relate to other cultures in a “healthy” way.  This is because, for someone who may have their deepest personal wounds as the result of racism, the ethnic identity process is the primary way to heal that wound, to go through a personal healing journey!  Because of this perspective, a majority culture individual that is not very far in his or her ethnic identity development process is viewed as being “unhealthy” and usually will be dismissed or “shut down" because of their lack of understanding of other cultures.  As each side (inward and outward) dismisses or more actively rejects other, they both become more angry and distant, sadly validating the negative stereotypes that each one has of the other!


What we see here is that each side shuts down the other and ignores them as being unhealthy.  Individuals on both sides fail to understand how to grow using the tools and methods that the other side brings.  What outwardly-strong churches most need is the forgiveness that can come through counseling and an inner-healing process.  What inwardly-strong churches most need is a change in perspective and a radical heart transformation that comes through the ethnic identity development process and getting in touch with the world’s brokenness. 


The social healing approach combines the best of the social justice and inner-healing traditions in a way that brings healing that involves both forgiveness and change. With inner-healing and personal growth, the key issue is whether a person is intimately in touch with their own needs and brokenness and working on personal healing.  With social justice the key issue of credibility is whether a person is intimately in touch with the world/community’s needs and brokenness and whether they are working on their part of addressing that social brokenness.  The social healing approach requires that people be intimately in touch with both their personal brokenness and the world’s brokenness and are actively working on healing in both areas.  The goal of inner-healing and social healing is not just that we can find healing ourselves, but also that we can become more effective at loving others and bringing healing to the world.


As we choose to take down our boundaries and become more in touch with the world’s brokenness, we are exposed to a new level of fire and intensity in our walk with God.  Social healing combines the “fire” that comes from being in touch with the world’s brokenness with God’s purifying process of inner-healing.  The result of this combination of “fire” from the intensity of the world’s brokenness and the purifying power of inner-healing is that we grow and are cleansed to new levels of purity and closeness with God.  Social healing is a way to intentionally engage with God’s refining fire as we engage with the world and find increased healing ourselves.


For an inwardly-strong church, it may be helpful to view the path to social healing as being similar in ways to inner-healing. The path of social healing can be a fairly painful path that involves uncovering new truths about ourselves and society in a way that will result in a radical heart change that will correct our roles in societal dysfunction. The primary way this can happen is through church members seeking deep relationships with people who have the outwardly-strong perspective and to ask them to teach, disciple and challenge them in that other perspective.  This will ultimately bring people through an ethnic/cultural identity development process and they learn to relate with those that have experienced social injustice because of their race, class or for other reasons. This process also involves having the inwardly-strong church invite strong teaching and discipling from the outwardly-strong perspective.


In the same way that a church which wants to take inner-healing seriously needs to encourage participation throughout the church body, social healing requires people at all levels in the church and especially leaders to be engaged in this process. With inner-healing, this does not mean that everyone in the church has a calling to pursue inner-healing as a vocation, and the same applies to social healing. For social healing to work effectively, people at all levels of the church need to be challenged to engage in dealing with their role in social brokenness. With leaders this is especially important because (like with inner-healing), people cannot lead others to a place they have not been themselves. Just as it is important for people to be in touch with their own issues and brokenness, it is also important for them to continue their process of healing by understanding their role in social brokenness. To really bridge the gaps between these two groups as a leader, it is most helpful to be fully in a community that understands social justice and a community that understands inner-healing. Social healing goes much beyond the simple strategy of “go find a friend of a different race,” not just because it requires a level of depth of relationship. Social healing will affect how we relate to everyone, just like inner-healing does, and it will also result in collective change, such as a group changing their priorities and strategies as they realize their collective role in social dysfunction.


The primary cause of a church culture initially becoming inward or outward is the degree to which church members and leaders have personally experienced injustice. Churches with many members that have not experienced intense societal injustice will usually be disproportionately inward, and churches with members and leaders that have experienced significant injustice will generally be disproportionately outward. There are two primary causes for this difference, the first is that those who have experienced injustice are very aware of the pain and injustice that exists in the world and that Jesus always modeled meeting both physical and spiritual needs.  Secondly, those who have experienced injustice often better understand those who are economically disadvantaged and this is especially important because there are often basic needs that need to be met before economically disadvantaged people can enter a church community. In addition, churches that turn disproportionately outward can also do so because individuals in the church fail to get healing for the wounds of the injustices that they have suffered; these individuals can be avoiding their own pain by focusing on the pain of others thus increasing the outward-focus of the church. The path of social healing is one which leads both inward- and outward-sided to find more balance and the chance to see both personal and societal redemption and transformation. 


Often we pray and pray to break inherited generational sins (within our family) when often some of the most significant generational sins are those inherited by our culture and society. While this praying can make it possible for God to change us as individuals, unless we are willing to go through the process of Him changing our social brokenness through social healing, then generational sins of our culture and society are likely to stay with us!  That process of social healing is what I believe God is calling us into.



A Roadmap for Social Healing


The whole purpose of social healing is to transform ourselves, our churches and our society so that we can more effectively carry out the Gospel which includes addressing injustice.  The foundation of the vision for social healing is that both the individual and the collective perspectives are important and valid and provide different but complementary views on the world.  Similarly social healing also involves engaging both the “head” and “heart” to bring healing.  The “head” uses reason to understand the truth of injustice and how structural change can help address systemic injustice.  The “heart” provides emotional understanding and a spiritual perspective that provides the foundation of our culture.  When these perspectives are combined they provide four elements of pursuing social healing by combining the individual and collective perspectives with the understanding that is brought by combining our head knowledge with heart transformation as shown below.

The challenge in pursuing social healing is that everyone has their primary “language” that they prefer to use and have the strongest background in.  Because of this, as people approach understanding injustice and reconciliation, they often are limited to one particular perspective in their understanding of injustice.  Someone with a strong background in one perspective will be able to fairly quickly see the issues from that perspective, while they may have a much harder time seeing issues that are revealed in other perspectives.  This occurs because of a lack of language, tools and experience in using that other perspective. 


For many people, their strongest “language” is the individual-head perspective (academic and personal action), and may be most comfortable in just learning about injustice.  Others may have a first language of the individual-heart perspective (counseling, psychology and mercy ministry), may have a strong understanding of “inner-healing,” and may most quickly be able to relate to concepts of cultural identity development.  Those whose first language is the head-collective perspective (sociology, government and justice systems) may be quick to understand the structural changes needed to address injustice.  Finally, those who have the heart-collective perspective (artists, leaders and prophets) may best understand the concepts of how to transform our cultural understanding to address injustice. 


Therefore, a major challenge in making progress in social healing is that to understand each other, we must all grow in languages and tools that may not be our primary languages and tools.  If we only have the language and tools for a given perspective, then we are likely to not be able to make progress in other areas.  If we take too much of an individualistic approach toward social justice then we may be able to make some progress, but the momentum of collective structures and culture will limit that progress.  In addition, if we only work to transform structures and culture without moving individuals towards personally learning and growing, then that progress will be limited by those very individuals’ remaining stuck in an insular perspective, opposing structural change. 


The goal of gaining these perspectives is to experience social healing in ourselves, in our churches and in our society.  An often used analogy for an individual experiencing growth through inner-healing is that growth is like peeling the layers of an onion where as we peel away one layer through growth, we are able to see the next deeper layer.  This analogy of the layers of growth could also be extended toward a church experiencing social healing.  As the church grows in social healing our understanding of “what the problem is” will also grow and we will encounter deeper layers of issues.  The following is a visual diagram of the layers that a church encounters when pursuing social healing. 


As shown in the diagram, each of the four core approaches to addressing injustice (Charity, Relational Ministry, Systemic Transformation and Cultural Integration) corresponds to the four perspectives (Academic Learning, Personal Growth, Systemic Progress, Cultural Integration).  The following is a summary of each layer of growth that a church can experience in pursuing social healing. 

·        Denial: At this level, a church will either deny that there is a problem or deny that loving the poor and addressing injustice in this world is an essential part of the Gospel.

·        Guilt: At this level, a church will recognize that a key part of the Gospel is loving the poor and addressing injustice, but either will not know how to effectively do that or will not devote resources to address injustice. 

·        Charity: At this level, a church will work to address injustice primarily through service activities where the “giver” can give from a relational distance.  While charity can help meet immediate needs, the lack of depth of relationship makes it not very effective in bringing a spiritual transformation.

·        Relational Ministry: At this level, a church may still value service activities, but will attempt do them in ways that develop deeper relationships with those being served.  In this model of ministry, those doing the ministry will grow and learn from those receiving ministry as much as they are serving and they will find healing for their own cultural brokenness.  For relational ministry to be effective, those ministering will need to be able to meet others where they are in their own culture (to be ready to be the ones that “stretch” rather than needing the other person to do so).  In other words, those ministering will need to grow in their own cultural identity development process to be effective.  The most helpful perspective at this level is the Personal Growth Perspective to bring individual cultural healing through a cultural identity development process.  A big challenge at this level is for people growing in their cultural identity to not be marginalized from the larger church community, as they may be greatly outnumbered by those who are not aware of, or sensitive to, this key growth stage.

·        Systemic Transformation: At this level, a church will address systems, structures and priorities within the church to bring healing to individual and collective cultural brokenness within the church, and it begins to consider and address its role in collective brokenness outside of the church.  This may involve recognition of systemic barriers to minority leaders or other injustices within the church.  There is recognition that systemic brokenness is perpetuated by more than just the sum of individual actions and culture, and church leaders will respond in ways that address the roots of the issues.  At this level the church develops systems, priorities and resources to enable all church members to experience social healing.  In addition, the church will become effective at serving the poor and addressing systemic injustice outside the church. The most helpful perspective at this level is the Systemic Progress Perspective to understand how our strategy and structures as a church can be transformed to help us be more effective in addressing injustice.  Starting this systemic transformation process enables the dominant culture within the church to be challenged to help move toward cultural transformation in the next stage. 

·       Cultural Transformation: At this level, a church will recognize the limitations and brokenness of its own collective culture.  It will recognize the need to integrate the Godly strengths of other cultures while retaining the Godly strengths of its own culture.  It will learn to recognize how the church culture can be hostile to other groups and seek healing for this collective sin and cultural brokenness.  The church will recognize that while some of this can be addressed individually through individuals going through a cultural identity process, it will also recognize that the collective culture itself needs to be addressed as well changes to systems within the church.  At this level, the church adopts a value that all church members should pursue social healing themselves even if they may not be called to social justice or reconciliation as a vocation.  The most helpful perspective at this level is the Cultural Growth Perspective by understanding and healing our collective cultural brokenness within a church community.


Often the reason for communication breakdowns in discussions about social justice and reconciliation is that some people may only be able to perceive the outer layers of the “onion,” while others see the more core issues.  One person may be thinking “Of course I get all this because I know we need to love people who are different from us, and we need to love the poor” but not see much urgency to these issues because they are only able to perceive the outer layers of the “onion.”  Another person may understand more core layers of systemic abuse happening against groups and wonder why others do not see it as very significant.


In order to make progress in all four areas, it is helpful to provide a common basis and language for understanding the issues across these four perspectives, as follows in the four documents described below.  The four areas shown in the quadrants provide a roadmap for understanding Social Healing across these perspectives:

  • “Social Healing and the Cultural Identity Development Process” uses the Social Healing perspective examines how individuals can go through a heart transformation and healing their individual cultural brokenness by growing in their own social identity.  A good book that takes the personal growth perspective and presents the ethnic identity development process is “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria”
  • “Social Healing and Church Strategy” uses the Systemic Progress perspective to examine how our strategy and structures as a church can be transformed to help us be more effective in addressing injustice.  A good book for understanding systemic issues within the overall Church in the USA is Divided by Faith.
  • “Social Healing and contemporary majority-culture churches” uses the Systemic Progress perspective examines the collective culture within one contemporary evangelical church with a majority culture, and provides perspective on areas of potential collective growth.  Two good books for providing perspective on how church culture may fit within the global Body of Christ are The Next Christendom and Fire from Heaven.

While each of these documents can promote learning, if people just read them, then they are never actually leaving the Academic Learning Perspective.  The limitation of all these documents is that they are only a roadmap.  To actually move out of the Academic Learning Perspective requires that people actually go engage the process being described in every section.  Personal growth in relating cross culturally only happens by engaging in your own cultural identity development process, not just by reading or hearing about that process.  Systemic growth only happens by pursuing structural change, not just by learning about systemic problems and solutions.  Cultural growth happens by transforming a culture by integrating the Godly strengths into our collective culture, not just by learning about other cultures.  Social Healing involves actually going down the road in all four areas to address injustice through academic learning, personal growth, systemic change and cultural transformation.  The following sections will hopefully provide more clarity to this vision of pursuing Social Healing.

Faith (for Content):