This won’t be a thorough treatise about such a complicated topic. It can’t be. But I have wrestled with the balance between evangelism and social justice for a while and I’d like to offer a way to think about the relationship because this is becoming a frequent topic of discussion.
First, I choose the term “Mercy Ministries” instead of “Social Justice.” Perhaps there are better terms and I may choose a different one later on. But the term “Social Justice” is too vague for my tastes and comes loaded with too many distracting issues. Put simply, we’re talking about caring for people’s physical needs (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, curing the sick, building houses for the homeless, repairing damage due to earthquakes, etc.) and their spiritual needs, specifically, their greatest need for the gospel.
Second, I must say that I, for one, am thankful for the recent rise in concern for both needs. However, I am concerned that many people, especially younger Christians (college students) are diving into activity with little thought about historical, theological, or philosophical considerations.
Thus, I offer four ways to think about the relationship between mercy ministries and evangelism – the first three are bad, the last one, I think, is good.
1. Some have thought of mercy ministries as replacing evangelism. This is what the old liberal denominations did in the early part of the 20th century. After deciding that the Bible really wasn’t God’s word, that people really weren’t all that lost and did not need Christ as the only means of salvation, they chose to replace evangelism with a “social gospel.” If you fed people or clothed them, that was tantamount to sharing the gospel with them. If we, today, are not careful with the way we engage in mercy ministries and choose carefully with whom we will co-labor, we run the risk of ending up where these liberal denominations landed almost 100 years ago. Ironically, when you engage in mercy ministries without the power of the gospel, it becomes rather discouraging. History shows that the efforts to replace evangelism with mercy ministries ended up doing neither.
2. Some think of mercy ministries as part of evangelism. They are inseparable halves of a whole. Some might not call them halves, as if each part equalled the other. But their point is that you can’t do one without the other. I think this is where John Stott landed in his landmark book Christian Mission in the Modern World. He calls them “partners.” But I have two problems with this understanding. The first is that it’s vague. What do you mean by “partners?” How do they work together? Secondly, the scriptures reserve a higher priority for preaching of the gospel than merely seeing it as a partner with other efforts. The unique content of the gospel message – people are lost and need the atonement that only Christ can give – is lost in this vague partnership understanding of the balance between mercy ministries and evangelism. In all likelihood, this frame of mind will result in less evangelism or a compromised message.
3. Some think of mercy ministries as paving the way for evangelism. If we feed people food, they’ll be more likely to listen to our preaching. This is often the case. But not always. And not necessarily. Problematically, some people then see our concern for their physical needs as insincere or manipulative. “You only fed me to get me to shut up so I’d listen to you,” they might think. Their accusation carries some weight. I think we can do better than this.
4. Some think of mercy ministries flowing out from evangelism. We care for people’s needs (all of them) because God, in his grace, cares for our greatest need. We have received the greatest care, Christ’s death on the cross for our sins, so we care for other people’s needs. We have entered into a relationship with a God who created us as whole, integrated people and so we reach out to others, who are created as whole people. We have received the greatest display of love and so we offer to others a love that encompasses all of their lives. This view sustains the higher priority of verbal proclamation of a salvation message but still holds other concerns as very important.
Do mercy ministries replace, partner with, pave the way for, or flow out of evangelism? I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’ll share more about this in upcoming blogs.