Social involvement and evangelism (Part III): Some final reflections

So far, we’ve looked at the strong cases that can be made for both evangelism and social involvement, and at how they relate together. Mike Raiter concludes our series by reflecting on the recent Lausanne conference, and on some lessons from history.

There is a Chinese proverb which says, “He who has does not understand he who has not”. Some one-liners are trite. Others are profound. This is profound. Most of us who read The Briefing know true poverty from a distance. We see it on our television screens from the comfort of our lounge rooms or, occasionally, as we walk by the homeless on our streets. Deep-seated poverty, in the words of a missionary friend of mine, is fundamentally a lack of options, a paralyzing helplessness. Every day in his mission hospital he sees such despair. He writes, “The images could give you nightmares, but worse … they don’t.”

Evangelical Christianity has always had a passionate concern for the poor. In his book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark investigates the reasons for Christianity’s triumph over paganism in the first three centuries of the Christian era. He describes the contrasting response of pagans and Christians to the repeated epidemics that swept the Empire. Pagans generally fled and left the sick to die. Christians, by contrast, cared for the sick. Stark comments, “Equally alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another.”1 While this love was expressed, firstly, to the household of faith, it was also demonstrated to any and all who were in need.

In short, compassion for the poor has always been, and must continue to be, an identifying mark of a Spirit-filled body of believers.

The first lesson from history

When one studies the history of Christian missions, again and again you see that a heartfelt concern for the poor, expressed in action, has gone hand in hand with a passion to preach the gospel of the forgiveness of sins to rebellious and lost sinners.

William Carey has been called, probably rightly, the father of modern missions. He went to India to “convert the heathen”. While there, and confronted by shocking suffering and injustice, he built schools and strove for the abolition of iniquitous practices like infanticide, the exposing of the sick so that they might quickly die, the drowning of lepers, and the burning of widows. He was a humanitarian. But he was first and foremost a gospeller. Before he left England he penned one of the great missionary tracts of all time. The title is wordy and cumbersome, but you cannot miss the point: An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens in which the Religious State of the Different Nations of the World, the Success of Former Undertakings, and the Practicability of Future Undertakings are Considered.

Carey cared for the poor, but he knew that whether poor or rich, unless someone heard the good news of Jesus they remained lost in their sins and unprepared for the certain and imminent judgment.

Sider’s sense

Poverty and suffering are horrendous blemishes on God’s good creation. His purpose for the new creation is the end of all suffering. Yet as you read the Scriptures it should be crystal clear that the greatest scar on God’s creation is human sin. It is sin which caused our ejection from his presence. It is sin which continues to keep all people alienated from God. It is sin which took the Lord Jesus to the cross. It is the forgiveness of their sins which is human beings’ greatest need.

Few modern writers have done more to awaken the evangelical conscience to the needs of the poor than Ronald Sider. Sider, though, recognizes that social concern and evangelism, while both necessary, are not the same thing and that there is a priority to evangelism. In his book, Good News and Good Works, he warns us about confusing social action with evangelism. Both are important, but they are not the same. He argues that there must be a priority given to evangelism. Logically, how can you have Christian social responsibility unless you first have Christians? In other words, you must evangelize first. Sider then poses the irrefutable ontological question: Can there be anything in the world as important as a relationship with the living God that leads to eternal life? He rightly points out that God will lead different people into different ministries, and many of these will allocate more of their time to social action, but we must not lose sight of the priority of evangelism.

Lausanne 2004

Recently I attended The Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Thailand. The Lausanne movement began in 1974 with the first world congress held in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1989 another world gathering was held in Manila. At this third gathering there were over 1500 participants from 130 countries.

Unlike earlier consultations the focus of the 2004 Congress was Issue Groups, thirty-one in all, dealing with a range of topics that impinged on world evangelization: topics such as globalization, the uniqueness of Christ, evangelizing children, and business as mission (to name just a few).

There was much that was good about this gathering, and many people found their Issue Groups informative and stimulating. However, what was striking to a number of us who attended was how muted was the call to actual world evangelization. Again and again it was lost under the weight of the enormous problems of human need that confront our world. For example, we were told that presently there are 650 million disabled people in the world. If they were a nation, it would be the third largest country in the world. We were rightly awakened to their needs. Yet in the public forum, when speaking of ministry to people with disabilities, the emphasis was on physical needs, and there was frequently no mention of the need to proclaim the gospel of forgiveness.

Again and again we were chided and rebuked for our inactivity and indifference. “Where are the evangelical Mother Teresa’s?” we were asked. Of course, the answer is that there have been, and still are, thousands of them. I’ve been privileged to work alongside them in Pakistan. However, they don’t display their righteousness and rarely draw media attention. It is almost scandalous to sweepingly accuse the church of inactivity when so many, while preaching Christ, have lived out deep and practical concern for the poor.

In reports at the final plenary session only a few spoke of the need for evangelization. When asked, “Where is the gospel of the forgiveness of sins?”, the reply came that it was implied. Such a response should cause us grave concern. One generation heralds a message. The next implies it. By the third it has been forgotten.

The second lesson from history

In 1910, an epochal ‘World Missionary Conference’ was held in Edinburgh. 1200 participants met under the banner: ‘The Evangelization of the World in this Generation’.

The conference sought to include as many different churches as possible, including those of a more ‘high church’ flavour. This inclusiveness troubled many evangelicals. Evangelicals enjoyed unity stemming from their agreement in the basic areas of truth; Edinburgh worked the other way around. Matters of doctrine and church practice were not discussed in order to permit as many as possible to attend.

At Lausanne 2004, it was hard not to feel that we were on our way back to Edinburgh. The question was raised, “Where are the Catholics? Why are they not here to talk about world evangelization with us?”. In one seminar, we were told to put aside our theological differences so we can work for the common task of reaching the world. That may sound noble, but history reminds us it is a recipe for disaster. Reflecting on Edinburgh 1910, church historian HH Rowdon writes:

Where evangelical ecumenism looked for ways and means of giving expression to a unity which already existed in the form of a body of doctrine held in common, the new ecumenism attempted to find unity through common action on the part of those who were not united on fundamental doctrines.2

Edinburgh 1910 gave birth to a movement that culminated in 1961 in the formation of the World Council of Churches. Ironically, the original Lausanne Congress in 1974 was, in part, an evangelical response to the formation of the WCC. If Lausanne is not to go the way of other evangelical movements, it must maintain its uncompromising focus on the primacy of world evangelization. We, like our master, have been sent for this purpose (Luke 4:43).

Michael Raiter is head of the Department of Missions at Moore Theological College in Sydney.


1 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, HarperCollins, New York, 1997, p. 86.

2 Harold H. Rowden, ‘Edinburgh 1910, Evangelicals and the Ecumenical Movement’, Vox Evangelica, 5, 1967, p. 67.

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