Getting Back on Course
The Christian Vision Project's big question this year has been,What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world? Many respondents have argued for increased attention to issues of global justice. Ajith Fernando, longtime Youth for Christ leader in Sri Lanka, doesn't disagree, but wonders if we're in danger of forgetting what he considers our highest mission priority. Fernando is the author of a number of books, including Jesus Driven Ministry and The Call to Joy and Pain: Embracing Suffering in Your Ministry (both Crossway), and is a corresponding editor for Christianity Today.
The Church is notorious for its course corrections. Toward the end of the 19th century, theological liberals began to emphasize the humanness of Christ. They presented Christ's life as the main focus of the gospel. Evangelicals reacted by emphasizing the atoning work of Christ (especially as explained by Paul), almost to the exclusion of the life of Christ. So liberals concentrated on good deeds and evangelicals on saving souls.
But by the middle of the 20th century, we evangelicals realized our mistake. Carl F. H. Henry's The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism in 1947 and the Lausanne Covenant of 1974 were landmark documents leading us to once again see social concern as an element of the church's mission. Some evangelicals gave greater weight than before to the Gospels and the kingdom of God, while others advocated for a right-wing political agenda. But regardless of where we fell on the political spectrum, we were encouraged to engage the culture and seek to demonstrate the Christian ethic daily.
The old "evangelism versus social action" war was overor so I believed. In Sri Lanka, I was devoted to raising up a "post-war" generation for whom social involvement and evangelism were natural outgrowths of commitment to Christ.
But lately some disconcerting trendsmore course corrections, if you willhave left me feeling uneasy. I hear evangelicals talking a lot about justice and kingdom values but not proclaiming the gospel to those of other faiths and winning them for Christ. Of course, if someone asks them about Christianity, they will explain the gospel. Thus, some people will be converted to Christ through their witness.
But that is a woefully inadequate strategy. Most of the billions of people in the world who do not know Christ will not come and ask us. We need to take the initiative to go to them.
Earlier evangelicals emphasized proclamation, while liberals emphasized presenceliving out our Christianity before the people among whom we live. I fear that the old "presence versus proclamation" battle has come back to the church, or will shortly. Some evangelicals are going down that same road, though they claim to believe in proclamation evangelism.
This is why I am calling for a fresh commitment to proactive evangelism. We can't wait for people to come to uswe must urgently go to them. We must look for ways to make contact with them and use all our creativity and determination to communicate the gospel.
Yes, I praise God that evangelicals have discovered the AIDS challenge. I am only sorry that it took us so long. In biblical times, God called his people to pay special attention to sojourners, widows, orphans, and the oppressed. AIDS patients are the equivalent of such people today.
I pray that many evangelicals will devote themselves to lifelong service with such marginalized groups, including the mentally ill, the homeless, and the neglected aged. And, as Moses and Jesus said, "You always have the poor with you" (Mark 14:7; Deut. 15:11), indicating that we will have a responsibility to the poor as long as this world exists.