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.