Social involvement and evangelism (Part I): Two strong cases

Let me introduce Albert. Albert calls himself a post-evangelical. He says there are many good things about the evangelical church in which he grew up, but he himself has grown out of evangelicalism’s narrowness. Like his postmodern friends, he is wary of truth claims and instead he wants to emphasize symbols and images. This makes him much more comfortable with social involvement than evangelism. Evangelism makes him uneasy because, as he puts it, ‘we are all on a faith journey’ and he thinks that evangelism among the poor is simply manipulative. His catchphrase is ‘don’t force your truth on others’. Instead we should walk with the poor, care for them and help them on their faith journey while expecting them to enrich our own faith journeys.

Then there is Brian. Brian happily calls himself a conservative evangelical. As far as he is concerned, the main task of the church is preaching the gospel. He is regularly involved in open air preaching and door-to-door visitation. He sees any form of social involvement as a return to the social gospel—a movement at the beginning of the 20th century that believed the kingdom of God could come in history through Christian social action. He complains about trendy new Christian organizations doing social work and diverting money from traditional missionary agencies. As far as he is concerned, and he is not slow to tell you this, ‘social action is heresy’. In fact, however, he has taken action on abortion and Sunday trading because he sees these as undermining the Christian foundations of the nation.

Meet Catherine. Catherine is unashamedly an evangelical. She believes strongly in the authority of the Bible and is enthusiastic about evangelism—she runs the seekers’ course in her church. But when people say that the church should focus on preaching, her hackles rise. She points out that the Bible has a lot to say about the poor and the need to care for both physical and spiritual needs. She thinks it is unhelpful to say that one thing is more important than another. ‘Physical and spiritual together’ is her motto. She has spent many hours arguing it out with people like Brian in her church. Every time the church discusses reaching its community or spending its missionary funds the argument starts up again.

Finally, let me introduce Douglas. Douglas is the minister of an evangelical church which is popular with students from the nearby university. He is committed to an expository ministry because he believes the word is central to Christian mission and Christian experience. Douglas sees students affected by the relativism of their peers and the postmodernism of their lecturers. He sees them lacking the confidence to share the gospel with their friends and opting for social involvement as a socially acceptable alternative. He fears that people like Albert are leading evangelicals back into liberalism. He acknowledges the validity of Christian social involvement and he is happy for his church to have Tearfund Sunday each year. But he wants to reassert the centrality of the word and the priority of word-centred ministry.

All these examples are based on real people. But, as they say, their names have been changed to protect their identities. Their positions characterize—and perhaps caricature—the ongoing debate about social involvement and its place in Christian life and mission. Is social involvement something we should do as well as evangelism? Is it another way of doing evangelism? Or perhaps it is a distraction from the real job of proclaiming the gospel? This essay explores these issues.

I have introduced the four characters above not only to present the issues, but to make an important preliminary observation. Catherine has always discussed these issues with people like Brian. She has spent her life trying to persuade the Brians of this world that social involvement is legitimate. Douglas on the other hand, has people like Albert in mind when he thinks about these issues. He has real concerns about the effect that Albert’s ideas are having on young Christians. When Catherine and Douglas come together, they appear poles apart. When they talk to each other, Catherine thinks she is still arguing with Brian and Douglas thinks he is arguing with Albert. The debate gets heated, and there appears to be no agreement.

But I want to suggest that Catherine and Douglas may be much closer to each other than they realize.

What I wish to do in this essay is look briefly at the strength of Catherine’s position, and of Douglas’s—that is, that there is a strong biblical case for evangelical social involvement, and an equally strong case for maintaining the centrality of gospel proclamation in our activities. In Part II (written with Tony Payne, and to be published in Briefing #317), I will consider the relationship between social involvement and evangelism, and how the positions of Catherine and Douglas might be brought together.

As I do so, I will not draw strong distinctions between terms like social concern, social involvement, socio-political action, community development and so on. Certainly there are different forms of social involvement, ranging from simply providing a person’s immediate needs to challenging the economic and political structures of a society. These distinctions are significant, but I do not want to load too much weight onto particular words. I will use the various terms in a fairly fluid and interchangeable way, making distinctions explicit only when they are significant. By social involvement I mean both a concern for those within the Christian community, and the Christian community caring for the needs of its neighbours in the wider society and offering a place of belonging. It can also include changing the policies, structures and culture of society through social reform. But social reform will always be limited prior to the return of Christ. Above all, the church witnesses to the coming reign of God.

1. The case for social involvement

In the first instance, social involvement is rooted in the character of God. The Psalmist says of God:

[He] executes justice for the oppressed,
[and] gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
he Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the sojourners;
he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. (Ps 146:7-9)

God is the one who upholds the cause of the oppressed, who provides for the poor and liberates the prisoner; he sustains the marginalized and the vulnerable.

It is sometimes said that God is ‘biased to the poor’, or people speak of his ‘preferential option for the poor’. But such statements are open to misunderstanding. It is not that God is prejudiced in some way, still less that the poor are more deserving because of their poverty. Rather, because he is a God of justice, God opposes those who perpetrate injustice, and he sides with the victims of oppression. In situations of exploitation, it is the cause of the oppressed that God upholds.

And God expects us to do the same:

Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Prov 31:8-9)

There are many passages in the Old Testament, especially among the prophetic writings, where God blasts Israel for their indifference to the poor, and for the injustice that they tolerate in their midst (see Isa 58:3-7 for a scorching example). Open-handedness to the poor of the land was to mark Israel out as God’s holy people. It was not an option for them (see Deut 15:11); nor were they to mistreat the alien and stranger in their midst (e.g. Deut 24:21-22).

In the New Testament, we see a similar emphasis placed on the importance of being generous and loving to the poor and the oppressed. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father”, says James, “is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jas 1:27). Many evangelical Christians would be happy to affirm the second of those two characteristics, but might be a little wary of the first. But the Bible knows no such split between private morality and public action. The reign of Christ in our lives is not limited to what takes place in our lounge rooms or even in our churches: Christ is Lord of all of our lives, and of all the world. He calls on us to repent not just in a privately spiritual way, but in every aspect of our lives, including our interaction with our neighbours, our street, our local community and our society.

This public/private split is a big issue for many evangelicals, and I would like to have more space than I do here to discuss it. Largely because of the influence of the Enlightenment and the assault of modernity and liberalism on evangelical belief, many evangelicals have withdrawn into a private, pietist space, and the secular humanists who control the agenda of society are quite happy for us to remain there. In public discourse, God-talk has no place. Faith is seen as a private matter, without social implications. But this is to deny the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life and all of the world.

Whatever else this means, it means that our concern for the poor and the oppressed cannot be limited to those within the covenant community. We should do good to all people, says Paul in Galatians 6:10, and especially to those of the household of faith. There is a natural priority to supporting our Christian brothers and sisters in need, but we can hardly put ourselves in the place of the Pharisee, who wants to draw a tight circle, outside of which people aren’t welcome or deserving of our love and help.

The New Testament expects that those who are rescued from their spiritual poverty and powerlessness through the gospel of Christ will in turn show love and grace to the poor and the outcast. Consider Luke 14:

[Jesus] said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)

The key is the phrase in verse 13: “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind”. It is repeated in verse 21. Luke is tying together this command to welcome the poor with the parable of the great banquet in verses 15–24. In the parable, God invites people to the great eternal banquet. But the rich and respectable people decline to come. Instead the good news goes out to “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (v. 21). Luke is saying that our attitude to the poor should reflect God’s grace towards us. God has welcomed us to his banquet despite our poverty and powerlessness. In the same way, we should welcome the poor and marginalized.

The sobering thought is this: this teaching is set in the context of a meal at the home of a Pharisee. It begins with the healing of a crippled man on the Sabbath (vv. 1-6). He is one of “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (v. 21). But for the Pharisees, their religion was more important than the needs of this man. If churches become so preoccupied with their religion that they ignore the needs of the poor, then they are in danger of becoming more like the Pharisees than like Jesus.

In fact, our attitude to the poor can reveal a lot about our understanding of God’s grace. Suppose someone says: “We should not help the poor because their situation is their own fault”—a sentiment one often hears, though not usually phrased so politely. Imagine if God had said that to us— where would we be? If we condemn the poor because of their lifestyle, then we have not understood the extent of God’s grace towards us with our socially respectable lifestyles that are really deeply corrupt. Gregory the Great said, “belief in inequality arises from the spring of pride”.1 In other words, people accommodate inequality by reasoning that their wealth and privileges arise from some kind of superiority—whether skills, experience, entrepreneurial drive, national character and so on. But grace humbles us before God. The more we understand the wonderful grace of God to us in our need, the more our hearts will be open to the poor and marginalized. Often Christians wary of social involvement are persuaded not by intellectual arguments, but by their own encounter with poverty. God’s grace teaches us to respond to human need with godly compassion.

In some ways, we could sum up the Christian case for social involvement quite simply with two Bible verses:

“‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 John 3:16-17)

Or to put it another way, we are called to social involvement as an inescapable part of living a life of love in this world as disciples of Jesus. Speaking theologically, social involvement is a subset of sanctification. It is an aspect of godliness. And like all such behaviour it springs from:

  • the character of God, who upholds the cause of the poor and who commands us to do likewise;
  • the reign of God, who calls on the whole creation to repent and submit every area of life to its rightful ruler, including our treatment of one another in society;
  • the grace of God, which pushes us outwards, outside ourselves, to show mercy and love to those who need it most, whether or not they deserve it.

Returning to the characters in our introduction, we can see that Catherine’s position has some real strength to it. But let us now turn to Douglas’s point of view, and see its strength.

2. The case for evangelizing the poor

What is the greatest need of people in your area? Your answer might depend on where you live. Some of the needs we face in the area that my church serves are racism, poor mental health and unemployment. In leafier suburbs, the problems may be less evident, but behind the curtains of the show homes are people facing loneliness, domestic violence, emptiness and household debt. In the shanty towns and slums of the Third World, the need is for clean water, proper sanitation, housing, education, regular income and basic health care.

The Bible opens ours eyes to a much broader horizon. It reveals that people have a need much greater than any mentioned above and of which we are largely unaware—the need to be reconciled to God and so escape his wrath.

As we think about issues of social need and social involvement, the place to start is at the end. We need to begin by considering the end of history. The Bible is a story that is heading towards a climax when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. The Bible story is built on the belief that the future that God promises is better than the present we currently experience. Paul says, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18). He goes on to argue that we, like creation, groan as we wait for the future glory, because our redemption is in the future. We do not yet have that for which we hope. Indeed, it makes no sense to talk about Christian hope, Paul argues, unless we are waiting for the fullness of salvation in the future (Rom 8:22–25).

The whole of the Bible story reflects this perspective. It is not a question of a few texts that speak about the return of Christ. The whole biblical narrative is moving towards fulfilment in the new creation. The heroes of the Old Testament described in Hebrews 11 are all commended because they were looking forward. We think of it as a chapter about faith, but what makes the ‘heroes of faith’ an example to us is that they made the future, promised by God, a priority over this life. Ultimately Jesus himself is our supreme example. This section in Hebrews ends: “… let us run with endurance the race that is set before us … looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:1-2).

In summary, blessing in God’s future is more important than blessing in this life. And this is exactly what Jesus himself says: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt 6:19-20).

Is this a form of dualism? A belief that the spiritual is good and important, while the material is bad and unimportant? Not at all. To be spiritual is to walk in step with the Spirit in every area of life. It is not to live on some ethereal plane. Dualists see salvation in terms of the soul escaping the prison of the body. But Christian theology, in contrast, affirms that salvation involves the resurrection of the body.

However, to say that physical and spiritual belong together is very different from saying that the temporal is as important as the eternal. The Bible consistently says we should make the eternal future our priority. In Matthew 10:28, we read: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Is that dualism? Is this saying that the soul is more important than the body? If it is, then it is Jesus who says it. But in fact Jesus goes on: “Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28, my emphasis). The issue is not whether the soul is more important than the body. Jesus says we should be concerned for both soul and body. The issue is that our eternal fate is more important than what happens to us in this life.

We see all sorts of needs around us. They are immediate and evident. But the priority of the eternal future means that the greatest need for all of us is to be reconciled to God and so escape his wrath. And this is the greatest need of the poor. I remember hearing a Christian who had worked among the famine victims of the Biafra conflict in Nigeria in the late 1960s. He spoke of how their greatest concern as they faced death was to be told about life after death. People often say rather glibly ‘hungry stomachs don’t have ears’. But the hungry stomachs of the Biafrans were all ears for good news in the face of death.

The Bible is clear: we are all alienated from God—young and old, white and black, male and female, rich and poor. Paul talks about us as God’s enemies. It is not just that we have become God’s enemies. God has become our enemy. Our sin has broken the relationship with God for which we were made. It has placed us in opposition to God. We want to be gods of our own lives in rebellion against God. And God would not be God if he ignored this rebellion. He would not be just if he ignored the pain and suffering that it causes. He would not be worth worshipping if he was indifferent to evil and inhumanity. And so the biggest problem we all face is the problem of God’s judgement. Our greatest need is to be reconciled with God. But God in his love and grace has sent his own Son to die in our place, to take our punishment, to pay our debt. So we can be reconciled to God and we can escape his wrath through Jesus Christ.

This is familiar territory to most of us, but we need to be clear about its implications. It means it is never enough to address people’s felt needs. Felt needs can be a good starting point because the gospel addresses the human condition in all its complexity. But we need to move beyond people’s felt needs. Nobody articulates God’s judgement as a felt need. Indeed, people are blind to the need to escape God’s judgement—the need that is in fact their greatest need. Sometimes something happens that awakens people to the reality of judgement, but it is rare for people to ask how they can escape God’s judgement without the Spirit using the gospel message to open their eyes to that need.

Without an ongoing awareness of eternal needs, over time, our focus will become temporal needs. A community’s temporal needs press themselves upon us. They are, by definition, immediate. We need consciously, therefore, to keep in mind the greatest need that is known to us only through the gospel—the need of a person to be reconciled with God and escape his wrath. Time and again this has proved the greatest challenge facing Christian social involvement—to keep in view the greatest gift we have to offer a needy world: the words of eternal life.

This means that proclamation must be central.

In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul says: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It is easy to miss the surprising nature of this statement. What is the power of God? How are we saved from God’s judgement? How are we reconciled to God? Paul does not say that the cross is the power of God as we might expect. He says that the message of the cross (NIV translation) is the power of God. It is, literally, “the word of the cross”. God’s power and Christ’s saving work are present through God’s word. So if the priority of the future drives us to seek the reconciliation of people with God through the cross of Christ, then this in turn must drive us to proclaim the word of the cross.

By proclamation, I do not mean preaching in the sense of sermons. I simply mean sharing the message of the gospel with people. The word ‘preaching’ in the New Testament is a declaration of the gospel to unbelievers. It takes many different forms, including dialogue and conversation. It is not the exclusive preserve of a preacher in a pulpit. In fact, it is much more likely to take place over a cup of tea or reading the Bible with an unbeliever.

The form our gospel proclamation takes will vary depending on the context. In situations of extreme persecution, it may be no more than an ongoing Christian presence. Nor should a commitment to reconciliation through the proclamation of the gospel be taken as a justification of bad evangelism. Often in such debates, people highlight the worst cases of evangelism as if a commitment to gospel reconciliation forced you to justify such activities. A commitment to gospel proclamation does not mean a commitment to bad, uncontextualized, manipulative or crass gospel proclamation. But in social involvement, there will always be a commitment to the reconciliation of the poor with God through the gospel. The proclamation of the gospel must be at the heart of Christian social involvement. Our aim will always be that the poor are blessed in this life and for all eternity.

We have seen that Catherine has a good case. The Bible does compel us to show concern for the poor and seek justice in society. It gives us a mandate for cultural and social involvement. But we have seen, too, that Douglas has proper concerns. We must be committed to the reconciliation of the poor to God through the gospel. This means that proclaiming the gospel must be at the heart of all that we do as Christians and churches. In Part II of this essay, we will consider the relationship between social involvement and gospel proclamation, bringing the positions of Catherine and Douglas together.


1 Cited in Duncan B. Forrester, On Human Worth, SCM Press, London, 2001, p. 115.

This article is an edited extract from Good News to the Poor by Tim Chester, published by IVP (Leicester) ISBN: 1844740196, and is used by kind permission.

Dr Tim Chester is part of the Crowded House, a church planting initiative in Sheffield, UK. He was previously Research and Policy Director for Tearfund UK.

Comments are closed.