“One of them, an expert in the Law, tested him with this question, ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.’” (Matthew 22:36-40)
The Church today lives with a dualistic outlook on life. Mainly through Western culture and the influence of modernism brought about by the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, we have all but accepted the separation of the physical and spiritual.
Subconsciously or consciously, science governs our natural world—the things we can see, hear, taste, and smell. Conversely, God and religion are relegated and best understood in relationship to the supernatural world, the cosmos, and heaven. We are living in a time of the “Great Divorce,” where we have logically separated the spiritual and physical realms.1 This idea, although mainly Western in its origins, has spread throughout the Christian world, as well as world cultures, largely on the coattails of modernity.
This “Great Divorce” has profoundly impacted how the Church views and participates in evangelism. Evangelism is seen as a spiritual discipline and is thus relegated to the spiritual world. Moreover, evangelism is reduced to the core of proclamation and more pointedly what we call the “evangel” or the “good news,” which is God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, living a sinless life, taking our place in the death-price of sin, becoming a sacrifice on the cross, resurrected on the third day by the power of the Father God, and offering salvation to those who believe and receive.
While this evangel message is precious and central to the core of who we are as followers of Jesus Christ, we have done great injustice to the Kingdom of God by seeing it affecting only the spiritual standing of a person or community.
Consequently, the Church develops tools and methods for evangelism which focus solely on telling the story, but not on the rest of the story. We are keen on people hearing and responding to the gospel, but less interested in the impact that the gospel has on their lives, families, and communities. Furthermore, our evangelistic approaches become focused on a “once and done” strategy of proclaiming and quickly moving on to our next targets.
I propose that a better way is evangelism to the whole person. It is the biblical way. We best make Jesus known by word and by deed. Our proclamation is the evangel story. However, our demonstration of God’s love and concern for people and their struggles in life is a validation of our proclamation.
Consequently, our passion for seeing people come to a saving faith in Christ Jesus is entwined and inseparable with our compassion for them as people and their situations. In taking this view, God’s redemptive work through Christ on the cross then has something to say and impacts all areas of our lives.
The Social Gospel
There may be a rising fear that I am advocating a social gospel. However, let me put that to rest by stating the gospel is social and we have nothing to fear. Jesus came “preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease among the people” (Matthew 4:23). He also “went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (Acts 10:38).
“Social” refers to human society and organization, both individually and collectively. Jesus had no problem entering into our “social” world, demonstrating God’s love and proclaiming the kingdom. It is only our distorted duality that desires to separate the gospel from the social. In short, the gospel is concerned with the social as well as the physical, spiritual, and emotional.
The term “social gospel” stems from late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Protestant Christianity that wanted to address the perceived increase of social issues (i.e., poverty, alcoholism, slums) in the developing world. It was an attempt to take the Body of Christ outside the walls of the church building and into the streets, communities, and even government to address the social problems of the day. It is often characterized in the USA by men like Charles Sheldon (In His Steps, 1897) and Walter Rauschenbusch (Christianity and the Social Crises, 1907).
From a theological perspective, social gospel advocates were largely post-millenialists who believed the second coming of Christ could not come until the world rid itself of most of its social evils by the Church’s efforts and participation in reform. In the USA, they helped push for mandatory education, enactment of child labor laws, and public health measures. They became set against pre-millenialists and the more conservative elements of Christianity residing mainly in the rural southern United States and became identified more liberal both politically and religiously.2
In twentieth-century missions the struggle for and against the social gospel became a topic of concern as well. How was the Church to respond to social problems and evils of the world while at the same time holding forth the evangel? Early on, missionary theologians such as Roland Allen (Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? 1912) promoted a strong emphasis on the gospel with non-hierarchical local church and leadership development. His writings continued to grow in influence even after his death in the mid-century and are held in high esteem today.
The tone was set for the continuation of the struggle for evangelism and missions early on and has thus continued throughout the latter half of the twentieth century and now into the new millennium. On the one hand was pure evangelism where the gospel is proclaimed, people respond or reject, and then those who believe are gathered into groups to form a church. This has been classified as the conservative, “evangelical” method.
On the other hand is the action-oriented evangelism and missions whereby demonstration is given priority over proclamation, and the gospel is measured more by the effect that it has upon society more so than individual conversion. This approach has led to differing interpretations of basic Christian tenets such as salvation and is expressed in movements such as liberation theology. This has been generally classified as the liberal method.
I surmise that the majority of evangelical and mission-minded believers, as well as practitioners, are somewhere between these two stereotype extremes. I also propose that the true biblical models of evangelism and missions are not an “either/or” of these two, but rather a “both/and.” However, due to our mainly Western dualistic worldview, it is difficult for us not to take sides on an issue like this.
This point is reflected even in the common questions we ask about evangelism and missions in regards to proclamation and demonstration:
- Does holistic missions lead to evangelism? The answer is simple: it cannot be holistic missions if it does not lead to evangelism. Evangelism and missions to the whole person is to the physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual. If we have to ask this question, we are already approaching our answer from a dualistic mindset and will have trouble grasping evangelism to the whole person.
- How do we maintain a balance between word and deed? Our dualism leads us to attempt to measure things such as time spent in compartmentalized sections such as deeds and proclamation. However, if we look at the biblical model, we do not find the same questions being asked. Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus wake up and say to his disciples, “Guys, today we are just going out to heal people with no preaching.” Conversely, neither does he say, “Guys, today we are just going out to preach and not heal.” His whole ministry, words and deed, was one message: the Kingdom of God is at hand.
- How can “human needs” ministries such as disaster relief and community development lead to the main thing (evangelism)? All followers of Jesus Christ, no matter what their gifts or vocations, are to be about the Father’s business of making his name known among the nations. No matter what our jobs, no matter where we are, and no matter who we encounter or how, we are witnesses to the saving grace of our Lord Jesus. Our witness is everything about us inclusive of our words and our deeds. There is no time of the day when we are not witnesses. Our dualistic culture and mindset errantly strive to get us to separate these functions. In God’s economy, who we are and what we do is to be his design and seamlessly integrated into his overall plan of bringing the nations to himself.
Life Experiences and Examples
My family and I have been involved in community development and disaster relief ministries for over twenty years. We have seen and testify to the simple method of making Christ known in word and deed. We have helped establish agriculture projects that have addressed food security and income generation among some of the poorest of the poor in Asia. Each of these agriculture ministries have led to life-on-life relationships (individual and community) and faith-sharing with ensuing discipleship encounters. All of these encounters have been out of the “as you go” context, and in a few cases, have led to church multiplication.
We have also worked with healthcare and water concerns. In the course of helping communities achieve health goals, literacy, better access to safe drinking, and usable household water, our witness in word and deed have led to kingdom encounters with individuals and even whole communities at times.
Needless to say, not every human needs ministry project that we implemented has led to a church being established or a single conversion. However, every human needs ministry project has led to a witness, in word and deed, for the kingdom.
A Better Way
As the Body of Christ enters into the twenty-first century, my hope is that we find a better way, a more biblical way, in regard to evangelism and missions. I pray that we learn to take off the blinders of modern dualism and see the world through the eyes of Jesus, having a passion for souls inseparable from a compassion for people.
We need not adhere to or promote the social gospel, Paul’s gospel, or the gospel as we understand it from our dualistic worldview; rather, we need to promote the whole gospel as found in the Bible and in the heart of God. Evangelism (and missions) that reaches out in word and deed, without having to seek a balance, but with the understanding that all we say and do is for the growth of the kingdom, is truly evangelism as an integrated whole.
1. Myers, Bryant L. 1999. Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. Maryknoll, New York, USA: Orbis Books, 5.
2. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008. Chicago, Illinois, USA: Encyclopedia Britannica Incorportated.