Social engagement or evangelism-only?
What is the mission of the church?
Here are three factors that unnecessarily polarize the debate:
1) We think in terms of church programmes. We frame the whole debate in terms of how many of our 15 scheduled hours of church-run activity must be devoted to helping the needy each week.
2) We look for justification in the wrong theological doctrine. One crowd stresses the doctrine of creation, the other the doctrine of salvation – and then we proceed as though these are separate agendas, separately addressed by the Lord. We need to begin with a doctrine of God from which flows a single creation-salvation programme in the Gospel of the Son. Here’s a paper where I attempt to do this.
From this approach I think it becomes obvious that evangelism simply is the mission of the church. But it also means that social engagement does get worked out on the basis of and from within that proclaimed gospel.
3) Even though I’m a believer that “the mission of the church is evangelism” I submit that our side is probably most to blame for unnecessary polarization. The sad fact is that many of the evangelism-only crowd are also middle-class-only. We don’t really believe that the Good News is for the poor. (Which is not really a methodological problem – it’s a spiritual and theological problem).
But the debate is not about who we should minister to! We should all agree that we must minister to the poor. And we can hardly deny that Jesus had a decided bias to the outsider! The debate is about what form that ministry takes and what makes it Christian. Well then let’s have this debate while we all move onto the housing estates and with the love of Christ compelling us, let us all minister to the poor. You can knock on doors and lead off by addressing practical needs. I’ll knock on doors and lead off with Jesus. I still think my way’s much more faithful and I’ll try to persuade you. But I also reckon that you will end up gospelling some of your contacts. And there’s no doubt that I’ll end up debt counselling many of mine.
But let’s at least make sure we’ve got the same mission field in mind. Let’s first be clear that we must reach the poor. Then let’s discuss how.