Mission, What is it?

What is the relationship between evangelism and social action? Some people today blend these two terms and avoid the discussion by speaking of the term “missional,” but over coffee eventually a question is raised by someone. I’ll do it today: What is the relation of social action and evangelism? It comes down to the meaning of the word “mission.”

Long ago John Stott, in fact before missional had its name and before most in the missional movement were even born, back in the 70s and in the wake of a controversy at Lausanne over this very issue… John Stott wrote a book that was progressive for its day but has since become prophetic of the way evangelicalism would live out Stott’s explicit teaching. His book is Christian Mission in the Modern World (IVP Classics) . I find many people like the term “missional” because they can avoid evangelism and not be accused of being social justice Christians.

Stott won’t let us off the hook.

How socially active is your church? Is your church given to one side or the other? Or is there a balance? When did your church begin to take the social dimension seriously? Now a big one: is your church reaching out so that social action is “out there” or “over there,” while the social vision is not taking root in your local church itself? Is your church more prone to help those in African than those in your neighborhood? Does your church help the poor within your local church?

Standing alone, and asking to be asked: Is your church evangelizing?

I believe evangelicalism has come of age in this issue, and one of the legacies of the emerging generation is that it would not let evangelicalism sustain its isolation from social issues nor would it let evangelicalism bug off by assigning social action to the government. It has said loud and clear that the church is the place for it to happen.

But Stott proposes three ways of understanding the relation of social justice and evangelism: for some social action is a means to evangelism. In other words, it is little more than a front, and sometimes a facade. For a second group, and this group wants to tie these two things together tightly, social action is a manifestation of evangelism. That is, social action is an apologetic of evidential or concrete form of evangelism. But John Stott gave a third option, and said social work is a partner to evangelism. The key is that they are two distinct actions.

Need and compassion combine to generate both evangelism and social action. The one who has neighbor-love tells that person about Jesus and cares for that person. The Great Commission and the Great Commandments, or the Jesus Creed, belong together — not as two steps or two distinct actions. We love. We go. We serve.

So the church’s mission is to love, and that means it evangelizes and it serves.

Here is where Stott’s pastoral gifts become clear. This notion of mission — love, go, serve — is applied to vocation (which has to be expanded to whatever God gifts us to do), to local church (which can’t be just for worship and witnessing, so he advocates churches to form action groups for social action), and to the nation — where Christians enter into the public forum to engage society and culture. (Stott was right; it has happened; I would say too many engage there and not enough through their local church.)

Stott was criticized by many in his day for being too social. Stott’s way has won the day with most evangelicals because it was so thoroughly biblical, though I still hear an echo from those earlier criticisms.

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  • What John Stott proposes is nothing really new. Social action is synonymous with evangelism. Jesus did not separate the two. Jesus always did something tangible to help those who were social outcasts of society (i.e. lepers, the poor, Samaritans, criminals, prostitutes, etc.). These tangible acts of love were always followed by imparting some deep spiritual truth (i.e. go and sin no more, your faith has healed you, you are drinking the living water, etc.).

    I’m not convinced Christian communities have separated the two (social justice v. evangelism) or eliminated one at the exclusion of the other. Although there are certainly many churches who have become complacent and apathetic towards one or the other. But, Mother Theresa and the Sisters of Mercy come to mind. Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way come to mind. Bono and the One campaign come to mind. Rick Warren and his campaign to fight AIDS. My home church (121 Community Church) and the Amos project. The list goes on.

    We recently watched a video at church where Bill Hybels interviews Bono about compassion. Bono had a few choice words to say about Christians and their lack of compassion and willingness to take up the cause for the poor. Sadly, the Christian church is not known as the leader in taking up these causes, whereas many secular organizations are. I hope someday I live to see the day where the church body as a whole will concern themselves less with right doctrine, right beliefs, and right behavior, and concern themselves more with helping and serving others, fighting for injustices, and being more mindful of the diversity of of the global village.

  • FYI, to anyone who might be interested. Here is the video of the interview between Bill Hybels and U2’s Bono. A timely message for today’s churches.


  • Jason Lee

    “the emerging generation … would not let evangelicalism sustain its isolation from social issues nor would it let evangelicalism bug off by assigning social action to the government.” Isn’t this a false dichotomy? It strongly implies that those who advocate structural policy-level help to the most vulnerable in society are the most inactive at the grass-roots and individual level. But clearly the engagement at the interpersonal and grass-roots levels of social action is precisely what leads them to strong advocacy for a full-court press on things like child poverty, hunger, and health disparity. The see a full-court press as including a full box of tools including local and national policies as well as all manner of local and national grassroots mobilization.

  • Susan N.

    Thanks, Jason Lee (#3), for articulating my uneasiness with the premise of this argument. For the life of me, I cannot understand why social advocacy among evangelicals has to be an either/or proposition. There are many things that the Church could and should be doing; however, some social ills that are, say, systemic in nature are best addressed at the governmental level. Further, is it really true that, due to the government’s intervention in social programs, evangelical Christians have assumed a “not my problem now” approach to social justice? I for one certainly don’t feel that way. I think that in a democracy, where we have choices (theoretically, at least) as to how our country will operate, evangelicals have an opportunity to influence social justice at both the local, hands-on/grassroots level and the national/state governmental policy level. Why can’t we believe in both and still be considered a true evangelical?

  • Dave P

    It seems to me that the pushback on this post comes from our personal stances on these issues. If as individuals, we are actively engaged in the pursuit of social justice, then we read a post like this as being off target or at the least an over-generalization. However, as a pastor of a church I see this from the aspect of “us” rather than “I or me”. As a faith-community, the ecclesia that I shepherd has little to do with the social justice issue. It is left to the liberals and the government and an occasional check writing experience to soothe the conscience. There is a total disconnect between evangelism and social justice within the local body where God has placed me. This gathering of Christ-followers only has one option with evangelism – a Ray Comfort, street corner type of approach. (although no one is doing any of that either). This is not because of my personal leadership or passion, (i have only been here 6 months) but is the result of years of bad teaching and apathy. So as I read this article I say amen and I see Scott’s point as a call to both as the missional mandate of the ecclesia. We are trying to teach and model a “gathered to be scattered” type of mindset so that we see our personal mission and mandate as part of the the greater mission of God. Sharing Jesus as we are living in community with the world around us and shaping the future of people with the Grace of God.

  • DLS

    the problem, of course, is that the calls for “social action” rarely define what social action consists of. I suspect 90% of christians support “social action”, but vehemently disagree on what that requires.

  • I think the Jesus Creed best helps from where social action and evangelism intersect- that is, around love. Of course there is a significant prophetic dynamic to engaging in justice issues, but our response as Christians should primarily be motivated by our love of God and others. All too often, both social action and evangelism are engaged as primarily ideological commitments, when they need to be significantly more relational. This is far from easy, but it is critical.

    Our small inner city faith community has been wrestling with this a lot. We unabashedly talk about Jesus & the Gospel, but we find that we have receive the best hearing when we are in loving relationship with others, most often as we walk with them through crisis, healing, etc. The result has been a rather broken and beautiful community with a very distinctly local commitment to social action/evangelism.

  • Adam

    This right here is where I see the Hell debate as being most important. Our view of Hell directly influences our view of what mission and evangelism is.

    One particular view of Hell means that spouting doctrine IS serving and loving. My parent’s church just started a campaign to survey every home in their town to see who was “saved”. There was zero effort in that campaign to address any issue other than the “spiritual” one. No questions about poverty, or broken families, or community service, just salvation. And this is viewed as acceptable evangelism and service and love, because this church is “caring for their souls”.

  • Richard

    I understand the need to categorically separate evangelism and social justice for the purposes of discussion but imho they’re two sides of the same coin unless you’re good news is something different than the arrival of the Kingdom of God in the person and Lordship of Jesus.

    Our congregation has historically been heavy on acts of mercy, we’re learning to think about actions of justice, and learning to embrace evangelism. It takes longer when you’re rehabbing a home instead of building new but it’s pretty neat what you come across.

  • Matt Edwards

    I see evangelism and social action as subsets of a larger task–working for the kingdom of God. The Lordship of Jesus is primary, evangelism and social action are secondary.

    Social action gives credibility for evangelism, and evangelism enables sustained social change.

  • John W Frye

    Matt @ 10,
    “Social action gives credibility for evangelism, and evangelism enables sustained social change.” This is a clear way of affirming Stott’s evangelism and socisl action are partners. They are not identical, but they must never be spearated, as someone commented–“two sides of the same coin.”

  • How this question is answered and even framed depends on our starting point – do we start with the church or do we start with the kingdom? The kingdom of God is a realm where citizens love people both inside and outside the kingdom. That’s what kingdom citizens do. That’s what churches consisting of kingdom citizens do. It’s not just a mandate, it’s how things are done. Worship is another thing that we do. (I haven’t heard very many heated debates about whether the church should be worshiping or doing social justice.) Evangelism is also something we do, but it’s of a different nature, in that it’s how we invite people to ENTER the kingdom. The church’s mandate, as I see it, is both to give the world a glimpse into the coming kingdom and to extend Jesus’ incredible invitation to enter that kingdom now – by bringing their whole lives under his lordship and care. For me personally, starting with the kingdom eliminates the tension between evangelism and social action. They feel more organically and naturally related.

  • Joe Canner

    Adam #8: Put another way: why should people pay attention to our attempts to save them from eternal Hell if we’re not willing to do anything to relieve their hell on earth?

    Matt #10: I like that summary, provided that it is clear that the social action is seen as glorifying God by loving our neighbors, rather than just as a means to an end (giving credibility to evangelism). People are pretty perceptive and can tell when the social action is just an enticement.

  • Matt Edwards

    Joe #13

    I was trying to say that both evangelism and social action are means to an end–glorifying God by working out his kingdom.

    Social action can be an inroad to evangelism, but that’s not why we do it. We do it because Jesus is Lord and that’s what life looks like in his kingdom.

    In the same way, evangelism can be an inroad to social action (redeemed people love others), but that’s not why we do it. We do it because Jesus is Lord and deserves to be proclaimed as such.

  • Patrick


    There’s a chance IF the universalist position is broadly accepted that mission work would die out, too.

    I have a hyper Calvinist friend and I doubt he would waste his time evangelizing anyone in a dangerous environment, why would he when he thinks everyone is chosen by God summarily anyway?

    I sure wouldn’t.

    So, if we believe there is no eternal regret for unbelief and that belief in Christ is soley for our temporal pleasure for these next short years, are you sure missionaries would leave their safe havens to evangelize in Pakistan?

    I think the concern is for the full human textually as you do, but, if we remove the fear of hell from the Church, it sure seems logical to me we will stop evangelizing in dangerous areas.

  • Joe Canner

    Matt #14: Based on your first paragraph in #10, I was pretty sure that you weren’t suggesting evangelism was a means to an end. I just wanted to make sure your second paragraph wasn’t interpreted as such. Thanks for reiterating.

  • Adam

    @ Patrick # 15,

    I don’t believe in Universalism and I’m not trying to say it solves everything.

    I’m really just bringing out that this discussion (Mission, evangelism, and social action) is why the Hell debate is important. And also to say that practical social action and practical evangelism can not be separated from our theology.

    Is hell a good motivator for feeding the poor? Or do I feed the poor so that they’ll listen to me as I try to do my “real” work of “saving them”?

    For me, I lean towards the “social action is a manifestation of evangelism” side of things.

  • Doug Wilson

    Thanks for this reminder, Scott. This is one of my favorite Stott books, right from the preface where he is gratified to have been called “scrupulously fair” towards those he was disagreeing with. He added:

    This has certainly been my aim. Besides, if I am critical of others, I desire also to be critical of myself and of my fellow evangelicals. Life is a pilgrimage of learning, a voyage of discovery, in which our mistaken views are corrected, our distorted notions adjusted, our shallow opinions deepened and some of our vast ignorances diminished.
    —John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World, p. 10.

  • Patrick


    Christ is the motivator for feeding the poor of course. But, the soul is still eternal and has it’s place in our concern for ourselves and mankind. Because of Christ as well.

    I understand your view and share it, I just don’t want to overemphasize evangelization or physical assistance at the expense of the other here.

    It’s easy to make errors like that. The reformers threw a lot of baby out with the bathwater themselves, all well meaning.

  • Because of where our church is located, it is easier for us to have the poor amongst us. Having grown up evangelical, but with only judgment for the poor, it’s been an interesting journey for me to rethink how to do evangelism to very broken, marginalized, and neglected people. We take an attitude of helpfulness: we are helpful in Jesus’ name – not only because the help is needed, but we need to give the help for our own sakes/souls/faith. When we give help, it is free, done in love, and in the context of relationship. Some take the help and go away, but others take the help, and then become connected to our church and begin to change their life and become a Christian. For us, social action and evangelism are intertwined. Also: There are times where we proclaim the Gospel apart from “helping” someone; and there are times where we help someone without an explicit proclamation of the Gospel.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Although I might have posed these questions differently, I am glad they have been presented, as we really do need to dig into them. I especially appreciate comments 3,4, and 5.

    My background is in work with the Christian Community Development Association and some similar communities development groups. The point they get at, which too many attempts to do either fail to get at, is the importance of forming RELATIONSHIPS. Both evangelism and social justice can easily come off as detached duty-based efforts when they are not done in such a way as to build genuine deep relationships. The toughest issue for me and for my church is not whether we want to change our neighborhood, but whether we are willing to let the neighborhood and its needs change us. An excellent book on this is Soong Cha Rah’s “The Next Evangelicalism.”
    Randy G.

  • I echo what Randy Gabrielse has said.

    “If you have come to help us, you are wasting your time. But, if you have come because your liberation is bound up with our liberation, let us work together.”
    -Lili Watson, aboriginal Australian Woman-

    Go to the people
    Live among them
    Learn from them
    Love them
    Start with what they know
    Build on what they have:
    But of the best leaders
    When their task is done
    The people will remark
    “We have done it ourselves.”
    -Lao Tzu-