The Mission of God
Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative
Evangelism and social involvement: Chicken or egg? Another way the issue is sometimes framed is this: Surely the best way to achieve social change and all the good objectives we have for society on the basis of what we know God wants (justice, integrity, compassion, care for His creation, etc.) is by vigorous evangelism. The more Christians there are, the better it will be for society. So if you want to change society, do evangelism. Then those who become Christians will do the social action part. I have often heard this as an argument for prioritizing evangelism over social action, and it sounds very plausible, but it has some serious flaws. Again, let me emphasize that what follows is in no way intended to deny that evangelism is utterly vital but rather to deny that it can carry the weight of obedience to the rest of the Bible’s commands regarding our social responsibilities in the world.
First (and I think I owe this point to John Stott), there is flawed logic in the assertion that says, if you are a Christian, you should not spend time doing social action. Instead give all your time to evangelism because the best way to change society is to multiply the number of Christians. The logic is flawed because (1) all those new Christians will, following the same advice, give time only to evangelism, so who is going to be engaging in the social engagement side of mission? And (2) you ought to be engaging in social action since you yourself are the product of someone else’s evangelism. So by your own logic you should be the one to get involved in the social activity you are so readily transferring to the fruit of your own evangelistic efforts. In other words, the argument becomes an infinite regress in which real social engagement as part of Christian mission in the world is conveniently postponed from one generation of converts to the next, with each one feeling a spurious justification for passing the buck.
Second, this view overlooks the importance of example. We all tend to imitate those who have most influenced us. If someone comes to faith through the effort of a Christian or church that endorses only the evangelistic mandate and has a negative and nonengaged attitude to all things social, cultural, economic or political, then the likelihood is that the new convert will imbibe, consciously or otherwise, the same dichotomized attitude. We teach as we were taught. We reflect the kind of mission that moved us into faith. Evangelism that offers a safe long-term personal exit strategy from the world rather than a missional engagement with the world, is likely to produce Christians and churches that have little cutting edge in the surrounding culture and little incentive as to how or why they ought to have such things anyway. Evangelism that multiplies Christians who are only interested in more evangelism but who are not wrestling with the challenge of being salt and light in the working world around them may boost church growth statistics. But we should not pretend that it is an adequate way, let alone the best way, to fulfill the rest of our biblical obligations in society.
Third, and tragically, this view is simply not borne out in the history of Christian mission. Now of course there is such a thing as conversion uplift. That is, the fact that when people become Christians from very poor and deprived backgrounds, they tend to shed some harmful habits (e.g., squandering resources on gambling, alcohol, etc.) and acquire some positive ones (such as a new sense of personal worth and the dignity of work, caring for others, providing for their family, honesty, etc.). The effect can contribute to an upward social drift and can certainly benefit a community if enough people are affected in this way.
However, there are other instances where rapid conversion of whole communities to a pietistic gospel that sings the songs of Zion to come but demands no radical concern for the social, political, ethnic and cultural implications of the whole biblical faith here and now has led to massive and embarrassing dissonance between statistics and reality. Some of the states in northeast India, such as Nagaland, are held up as outstanding examples of the success of late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century evangelism. Whole tribes were converted. The state is recorded to be around 90 percent Christian. Yet it has now become one of the most corrupt states in the Indian Union and is riddled with problems of gambling and drugs among the younger generation. Naga students at the Union Biblical Seminary, where I taught in the 1980s, would tell me this as proof of the fact that merely successful evangelism does not always result in lasting social transformation. Others will point with desperate and baffled sadness at the tragic irony of Rwanda—one of the most Christianized nations on earth and birthplace of the East African Revival. And yet whatever form of Christian piety was taken to be the fruit of evangelism there could not stand against the tide of intertribal hatred and violence that engulfed the region in 1994. The blood of tribalism, it was said, was thicker than the water of baptism. Again, successful evangelism, flourishing revivalist spirituality and a majority Christian population did not result in a society where God’s biblical values of equality, justice, love and nonviolence had taken root and flourished likewise.
I write as a son of Northern Ireland. That has to be one of the most “evangelized” small patches on the globe. As I grew up, almost anybody I met could have told me the gospel and “how to get saved.” Street corner evangelism was a common feature of the urban scene. I took part in it myself on occasions. Yet in my Protestant evangelical culture, the zeal for evangelism was equal only to the suspicion of any form of Christian social concern or conscience about issues of justice. That was the domain of liberals and ecumenicals, and a betrayal of the “pure” gospel. The result was that the de facto politics of Protestantism was actually subsumed under the gospel in such a way that all the political prejudice, partisan patriotism and tribal hatred was sanctified rather than prophetically challenged (except by a very brave few who often paid a heavy price). So the proportionately high number of the evangelizers and the evangelized (in comparison with any other part of the United Kingdom) certainly did not produce a society transformed by the values of the kingdom of God. On the contrary, it was (and sadly still is) possible to hear all the language of evangelistic zeal and all the language of hatred, bigotry, and violence coming from the same mouths. As James would say, “this should not be” (Jas 3:10). But it is. And it is one reason why I beg to dissent from the notion that evangelism by itself will result in social change, unless Christians are also taught the radical demands of discipleship to the Prince of peace, are seeking first the kingdom of God and His justice, and understand the wholeness of what the Bible so emphatically shows to be God’s mission for His people.
Holistic mission needs the whole church. A final question that is often raised in the context of teaching holistic mission arises from unavoidable personal limitations. “You are saying that Christian mission involves all these dimensions of God’s concern for total human need,” someone will say. “But I am finite, with finite time, finite abilities and finite opportunities. Should I not then stick to what seems most important—evangelism—and try not to dissipate myself over such a broad range of otherwise desirable objectives. I can’t do everything!”
No, of course you can’t. The same thought doubtless occurred to God, which is why He called the church into existence. Here is another reason why our ecclesiology must be rooted in missiology. The mission of God in the world is vast. So He has called and commissioned a people—originally the descendants of Abraham, now a multinational global community in Christ. And it is through the whole of that people that God is working His mission purposes out, in all their diversity.
Of course every individual cannot do everything. There are different callings, different giftings, different forms of ministry (remembering that magistrates and other government officials of the state are called “ministers of God” in Rom 13, just as much as apostles and those who organized food aid). Individuals must seek personal guidance from God regarding the particular niche in which they will engage, in whatever sphere of mission God has called them. Some are indeed called to be evangelists. All are certainly called to be witnesses, whatever their context of work. The apostles in Acts recognized their own personal priority had to be the ministry of the Word and prayer. But they did not limit their ministry to such work (as Philip’s evangelistic encounter with the Ethiopian shows), but it does show that the overall work of the church requires different people to have different gifts and priorities.
The question is, is the church as a whole reflecting the wholeness of God’s redemption? Is the church (thinking here of the local church as the organism effectively and strategically placed for God’s mission in any given community) aware of all that in which God’s mission summons them to participate? Is the church, through the combined engagement of all its members, applying the redemptive power of the cross of Christ to all the effects of sin and evil in the surrounding lives, society and environment?
The ringing slogan of the Lausanne movement is: “The whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world.” Holistic mission cannot be the responsibility of any one individual. But it is certainly the responsibility of the whole church.
In conclusion, I can do no better than endorse the fine conclusion of Jean-Paul Heldt’s article:
There is no longer a need to qualify mission as “holistic,” nor to distinguish between “mission” and “holistic mission.” Mission is, by definition, “holistic,” and therefore “holistic mission” is, de facto, mission. Proclamation alone, apart from any social concern, may be perceived as a distortion, a truncated version of the true gospel, a parody and travesty of the good news, lacking relevance for the real problems of people living in the real world. On the other end of the spectrum, exclusive focus on transformation and advocacy may just result in social and humanitarian activism, void of any spiritual dimension. Both approaches are unbiblical; they deny the wholeness of human nature of human beings created in the image of God. Since we are created “whole,” and since the Fall affects our total humanity in all its dimensions, then redemption, restoration, and mission can, by definition, only be “holistic.”