Social involvement and evangelism (Part II): How they relate

In the first part of this essay (in Briefing #316), Tim Chester looked at the strong case that can be made for Christian social involvement, as well as the strong case for proclamation of the gospel being central. We now come to the question that has bedevilled evangelical discussion of this subject for the past 30 years: What ought to be the relationship between social involvement and evangelism in Christian ministry and mission?

To bring the relationship between evangelism and social action into sharp focus, let us make three assertions:

  1. Evangelism and social action are distinct activities;
  2. Proclamation is central; and
  3. Evangelism and social action are inseparable.

Three assertions

1. Evangelism and social action are distinct activities

Some refuse to make any distinction between evangelism and social action. They merge social action and proclamation into one activity. The problem is that this usually ends up with one aspect—and it is usually evangelism—being lost. This approach, says Melba Maggay, “tends to lose sight of the proclamation aspect of the gospel, the fact that it is news, a thing you shout from the housetops”.1 So it is important to retain the idea that proclamation and social involvement are distinct activities. Attempts to fuse development and proclamation cannot work from a biblical perspective for two reasons.

First, social involvement is about effecting change in history. It is historically provisional. It can be undone. Proclamation on the other hand is about effecting eschatological change. I (Tim) remember consoling a friend after the Rwandan massacres in 1994. He had spent four years involved in community development in Rwanda. Now it seemed his years of hard work had been overturned in a matter of days. The fruit of social action can be undone; the fruit of proclamation cannot.

Second, social involvement at its best is about harnessing the resources within a community. It is about empowering a community through their participation. The alternative is a paternalistic approach which is short-term, creating dependency in its beneficiaries. In good development, an understanding of the problem and its solutions come from within a community. In contrast, the message of the gospel is that we are powerless and cannot participate in our salvation. Both an understanding of the problem and the solution must come from outside the community. This outside message does not come from western technology, money, expertise, still less from free market capitalism. It comes from heaven. This is one reason for the emphasis in John’s Gospel that Jesus is ‘from heaven’.

2. Proclamation is central

Many evangelicals want to argue that evangelism and social action are equal activities. They describe evangelism and social action as two wings of a bird or the blades of a pair of scissors. While evangelism and social action are partners in many situations, it is inadequate to think of them as corresponding activities of equal impact. As we have seen (in Part I), the greatest need of the poor, as it is for all people, is to be reconciled with God and to escape his wrath. Only the message of the gospel can do this. The adage, often attributed to St Francis of Assisi, that “we should preach always, sometimes using words” will not do. Social action can demonstrate or commend the gospel, but without the communication of the gospel message, social action is like a signpost pointing nowhere. Indeed, without the message of the gospel, it points in the wrong direction. If all we do are good works among people, then we point to ourselves and our charitable acts. People will think well of us, but not of Jesus Christ. We may even convey the message that salvation is achieved by good works. Or we may convey the message that what matters most is economic and social betterment. We must not do social action without evangelism.

3. Evangelism and social action are inseparable

Given that the greatest need of people is to be reconciled with God, and given that this need can only be met through the message of the gospel, it might seem logical to say that evangelism has priority. It might seem only a short step from saying proclamation is central to saying evangelism is our priority. The problem is that it is not clear what ‘priority’ means in this context. It suggests a choice in which evangelism should be chosen, or competing priorities in which social action can be neglected. We prioritize by making a list and doing the activities at the top of the list. If there is no time left for items lower down the list then this does not matter because we have deemed such things less important. The implication of saying evangelism has priority in this sense is that it does not matter if we have no time for social action.

But such choices rarely bear any relationship to reality. In our involvement in the lives of others we cannot choose to ignore their social needs. We cannot treat people in isolation from their context. Evangelism alone might make sense in the lecture room. It may even just about make sense in a middle class suburb. But it makes no sense at all when working among the poor. Mission takes place in and through relationships and relationships are multi-faceted. Proclamation should be central, but a centre implies a context and our proclamation should take place in the context of a life of love.

Some people say that church leaders should focus on teaching the word of God. They are right. Those who have been given the gift of Bible teaching by God should teach God’s word. The problem comes when this is combined with an unevangelical clericalism in which the role of the pastor–teacher defines the identity of the whole church. Church life revolves around the leader and so such ministry is seen as the only valid ministry. But this is not a New Testament view of the church. In the church each member has distinctive gifts from God and therefore a distinctive ministry to fulfil. Paul uses the image of a body to highlight the way that no member should feel inferior (1 Cor 12:15–20). But neither should any member feel superior, despising the gifts of others (1 Cor 12:21–24). Peter draws a distinction between gifts of the word and gifts of service (1 Pet 4:10–11). In the Reformed and Puritan traditions, from which much evangelicalism in Britain sprang, the role of the deacons was to be responsible for the social involvement of the church following the pattern of Acts 6:1–7 (though John Owen stressed that pastors retained overall responsibility for the care of the poor).2 Only more recently have deacons commonly become those who manage church property.

The example of godliness

It might help to clarify these three assertions even further if we were to replace the words ‘social involvement’ with the word ‘godliness’. What is the relationship of godliness to evangelism in our outreach to others? This is not something we would have a great deal of difficulty answering. We would surely affirm the following:

  • Godliness is not the same thing as evangelism. We should be kind, patient, truthful, honest and loving in our relationships with others, but that is not the same thing as explaining the gospel of Jesus to them; nor is it a replacement for proclaiming the gospel, as if all we needed to do was live godly lives and people would automatically become Christians. (In the same way, social involvement is not a replacement for evangelism.)
  • Godliness and evangelism aren’t alternatives to be prioritized. We don’t say, “I don’t think I’m going to have time to be godly this week because I’m too busy with evangelism”. Taking the time, for example, to comfort a friend who’s grieving, or to read the Bible with your children, or to pray each day to our heavenly Father—these aren’t activities we would see as competitors to evangelism, but as activities of godliness that we would find time for in the scheme of things. (In the same way, we shouldn’t think that by making proclamation central, social involvement is therefore an entirely optional ‘bottom of the agenda’ activity only to be fitted in when everything else has been done. We should be godly in our context, and use the resources of our congregations, and the gifts of different members, to offer loving practical help to those around us.)
  • Godliness should always accompany our evangelism, and indeed reinforce it—both in the honest, straightforward way we preach (see 2 Cor 4:1-2), and in the godly behaviour that we exhibit in our daily lives. The good deeds and godliness of Christians serve to adorn or beautify the gospel (see, for example, Titus 2:9-10; 1 Pet 3:1-2). This is chiefly because the fruit of the gospel is a new life of obedience to Christ, putting to death your old evil way of living, and growing in holiness in submission to him. If this gospel is true, then you should see Christians making progress in godliness. If our life screams out the opposite, then we are not adorning or commending the truth of the gospel; on the contrary, we are besmirching it and undermining its credibility. (In the same way, social involvement is a form of godly, loving behaviour that will adorn and commend the gospel.)
  • While godly behaviour adorns the gospel, and may even play a role in ‘winning’ people—as the godly wife in 1 Peter 3 may win over her husband through the purity and godliness of her conduct—godliness is not an evangelistic tactic. It’s not as if we plot how we can parade our godliness before people so as to convince them of the truth of the gospel. We strive to be godly because that’s why Christ redeemed us—so that we could live a new life of love and holiness and righteousness, walking in the good works he has prepared for us to do. Godliness is not a means to an end. It may have helpful byproducts, or it may not. People may be attracted to the gospel by our godly behaviour; but then again, they may not. They may revile, ridicule and persecute us, and only bow the knee and glorify God for the goodness of our deeds on the great Day when he visits us (see 1 Pet 2:11-25). (Likewise, social involvement is not an evangelistic strategy or tactic. It’s not a means to an end. It is simply being loving, kind and godly in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.)
  • Similarly, although godliness serves to commend and adorn the gospel, it doesn’t ‘earn us the right’ to preach the gospel. It doesn’t grant us a permission to speak that we didn’t otherwise have—a permission which ultimately comes from the Great Commission that the Lord of the world has given us to make disciples in his name from all nations. (Advocates for social involvement sometimes make this mistake by insisting that we have no right to preach the gospel in a community if we are not engaged in active social concern. This is the wrong way to think about it.)
  • Likewise, we wouldn’t ever say that the godliness of Christians was the key that unlocked people’s minds so that they understood the gospel and responded to it—as if people were willing and ready to respond to Christianity, if only they saw it being lived properly. Our lives ought to match our message, and as they do so they will support and adorn our preaching. But the gospel is a proclamation about Jesus Christ, not about us. It is about his atoning death and glorious resurrection as Lord of all, so that rebellious sinners can be saved from God’s wrath and live a new life to his glory. In one sense, that message is not difficult to understand or interpret. But it will only be effective where God’s Spirit unstops the ears and opens the eyes of our hearers so that they can see both the desperateness of their plight and the truth of the proclamation about Jesus. (In the same way, social involvement is not the magic bullet of mission—as if all we need to do is construct more and better programs for social improvement in order for people to suddenly understand the gospel and come flooding into the kingdom.)

If we see social involvement as an expression of Christian godliness, in response to the character of God, the reign of God and the grace of God—which we suggested in Part I is the best way to think about it—then the relationship between evangelism and social involvement is not so fraught or so complicated.


Jesus sends us out into the world to ‘make disciples’. With this in mind, the two key questions are:

  1. How do we make disciples? We make disciples through the prayerful proclamation of the gospel of Christ, in dependence on the Holy Spirit to make the message effective.
  2. What does it mean to be a disciple? We teach disciples to obey all that Christ has commanded, including the command to live in kindness, generosity, love and active concern for those around us.


1 Melba Maggay, Transforming Society, SPCK, London, 1994, p. 17.

2 See John Calvin, Institutes, IV.3.9 and IV.4.5, and John Owen, ‘True Nature of a Gospel Church’ in The Works of John Owen, Vol. 16, Banner of Truth, London, 1968, pp. 143-151.

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.

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