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.
Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well.
In the previous blog I wrote that the paradox of evangelism is that when we remember that evangelism is impossible, we are more likely to evangelize!
Here’s the reverse of that paradox: If we think evangelism is supposed to be easy, we’re more likely to quit.
There’s ample support for the notion that evangelism can be easy or natural or “everyday” or smooth. Many books and seminars promote this perspective. But I don’t find such support in the Scriptures.
Given the drama that Scripture describes when people get saved (they’re delivered from the domain of darkness, Satan loses his stronghold, Jesus’ is glorified, dead people are raised to life, etc.), is it surprising that evangelism would be difficult?
I wonder if some people portray evangelism as easy with the hopes that more Christians will jump in and just do it. But I find that more Christians are likely to evangelize if they accept that, for them, evangelism may always be difficult. I know that has been a breakthrough for me.
For many years, I kept waiting for witnessing to flow the way it did for Bill Bright. I had sat under his teaching and read his numerous books, especially Witnessing Without Fear. It’s a great book… with a bad title. Bill Bright taught me a tremendous amount on how to start evangelistic conversations, how to transition other conversations to the gospel, and how to present the gospel message in a clear, concise, and compelling way.
But Bill Bright was an evangelist, if there ever was one, and I have other gifts. After hoping for many years that my evangelism would someday look and sound like Bill’s, I finally accepted the fact that God gives different people different gifts.
This doesn’t let me off the hook. Even non-evangelists need to share the gospel. That’s why evangelist/apostle Paul told timid/pastor Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist.”
But non-evangelists’ approaches are going to look and sound different than Bill Bright’s, Bill Hybels’, and Billy Graham’s. (Maybe it’s all in the name!) For the rest of us, we may need to give up the hope that evangelism will ever be easy. As long as we expect it to be so, we’ll second guess ourselves, experience discouragement, and perhaps, quit.
Witnessing with fear may be my motto (but I doubt that title would sell many books).
Here’s another paradox of evangelism. When we accept that evangelism will never be easy… it actually gets slightly less difficult.
As part of a research project I’m conducting, I have just completed listening to 40 college students who say they have become Christians within the past two years. I have interviewed each student for 45 minutes or more to probe, gain insight, and learn what “worked” in their journey from unbelief to salvation. I hope, as a result of analyzing the transcripts of these interviews (and writing a little thing they call a “dissertation” towards a PhD in missions), to offer insights about how the church can be more effective and fruitful in evangelism.
Here are ten initial thoughts by way of observation and concerns:
- Nothing can thwart God. I know that sounds like a cliché but the stories highlighted just how powerfully God can break through to those who seem the least likely to respond. There were many moments when I marveled at how relentlessly God pursues the lost.
- So many of these students come from terribly messed up backgrounds. Their parents’ divorces, alcoholism, and irresponsible lifestyles have had devastating effects on them. And they connect the dots from their parents’ divorce or other problems to their own self-destructive behaviors. At times, it was difficult to listen.
- The social experiments of the 1960s (so-called “free love,” “easy divorce,” “gay pride,” and more) have proven to yield disastrous results. This generation has not benefited from the self-expression their parents thought would be so healthy, freeing, or better than the “repression” they rebelled against. During the interviews, I often reflected on which social experiments we’re launching today that may yield even worse consequences.
- The hookup and porn cultures are not as much fun as they’re portrayed to be by irresponsible television shows or other culture-shaping outlets. The women feel abused by a system that insists upon conformity to sexual pressures. And some men are near suicidal in their loneliness.
- This generation has imbibed mammoth quantities of alcohol and drugs. It was deeply disturbing to hear of blackouts and forgotten weekends (behaviors often associated with people much older and with longer dramas of addiction) from people only 19 or 20 years old.
- Most of them don’t read. Personal relationships and conversations with friends clarified the issues for them and helped them find answers to their questions. Happily, many of them became serious and diligent readers after conversion. But for those of us who write or want to write evangelistic books, this was a sobering finding.
- The so-called “new atheism” is real and growing among this age group. But most of the converts out of this background admit that, for them, it was more of a persona than a deep intellectual conviction. Compassion from Christians and friendship during crises pointed them to God more often than philosophical arguments.
- The questions have changed. Christians used to feel the need to defend the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, the historicity of the resurrection, and the uniqueness of Jesus to unsaved inquirers. Today the questions are:
“Why are Christians so homophobic?” (iterated in a variety of ways as the biggest objection to responding to the gospel!)
“If I believe what you believe, do I have to become judgmental, too?”
“Why are Christians so weird?”
“Do I have to be against science, evolution, abortion, and gay marriage to become a Christian? If so, I’m not interested.”
- A loving community of Christians who seemed to “have a purpose,” “be accepting of others,” “express love,” and “not be cynical” was a common thread through most of the stories. For some, coming from unloving, dangerous, or blatantly harmful home situations, the church provided a refuge beyond their wildest imaginations.
- We, the church and all our outreach ministries, need to do a better job with clearly articulating the gospel message. Many students had moving emotional experiences or made firm commitments to stop certain behaviors or felt loved by a community of believers in ways that healed painful wounds of their dysfunctional families’ messes. But I’m not totally sure they were regenerated by the power of God made manifest through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. The need for deep, thoughtful, penetrating Biblical teaching is no less urgent than ever.
Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980. Find out more at his blog, Integration Points.
The lofty notion of revival has taken center stage in my prayer life as of late. I’m sure I’m motivated in part by the disturbing stories that dominate our news. And God has guided me to some books that have underlined the need for such prayer.
Walter Kaiser’s book, Revive us Again: Biblical Principles for Revival Today, investigates numerous outpourings of God’s blessing that have been recorded in the Bible. Why such an approach seems so novel may indicate just how far we’ve slid away from spiritual vitality! Reading Kaiser’s commentary on God’s works of “refreshment” in the past is remarkably encouraging.
I also appreciated a hopeful comment in Ross Douthat’s otherwise disheartening book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. The book is well worth reading and helps put into perspective how we’ve gotten into some of the messes we are in. But without the belief in God’s ability to shake up his church, this book would be tough to wade through.
Here’s what Douthat wrote in his concluding chapter:
“It would be heresy and hubris to assume that a renewal of either [the church or our country] is inevitable. Christianity’s overall resilience hasn’t prevented particular Christendoms from decaying and dissolving, and Jesus never said that the gates of hell would not prevail against the United States of America. But to hope for a revival is every believer’s obligation. And perhaps, just perhaps, a more robust and rigorous American Christianity is something that even non-believers should consider hoping for as well.”
The best book I’ve read recently about revival is Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge’s A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir. Knowing that God’s people have faced even darker times than we see today and hearing how God poured out an unusual flood of evangelistic fruit, transformational worship, and anointed preaching can move even the most pessimistic saint towards expectant intercession.
I’ve written an article that explores how this might look on college campuses and beyond. I’ve entitled it The Next Campus Revival: A Prayerful Consideration and I’ve posted it here. I hope you’ll consider reading it and sharing it with others.
Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. He ministers on campuses and elsewhere in our nation's capital to students, professors and policy shapers. He is an honors graduate from Temple University and has a Masters of Divinity degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he is also engaged in doctoral studies. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and the books Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Corner Conversations: Engaging Dialogues about God and Life, both published by Kregel Publications, and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well, forthcoming from Crossway.
To find out more, visit his blog, Integration Points.