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.
However, we must remember that today our society has accepted AIDS ministry and social development as attractive avenues of service. Evangelism will never have that attraction. Those wanting to follow Christ in seeking and saving the lost will always be despised for their supposed arrogance.
We Christians in Asia, Africa, and Latin America get very sensitive when we are accused of being arrogant. We do not like to be associated with the colonial rulers who looked down on us and on our cultures.
Worse, nations are outlawing conversion through what is called coercion. Those evangelizing among non-Christians are being persecuted severely in many places of the world. So we face several obstacles that could stop our evangelistic momentum and replace it with more palatable agendas.
How could we be guilty of such negligence? The following questions challenge our shortsightedness:
In the sayings of Jesus, he talked much about the coming judgment. Do we? If not, the next generation won't believe it. One generation neglects the belief; the next generation rejects it.
Jesus said, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" The context shows that the Lord is talking about eternal destruction, which we can avert only by accepting his grace, denying self, taking up the cross, and following him. Does this perspective color the way we look at people who do not follow Jesus?
Why did the Holy Spirit ensure that there are seven statements of Christ's Great Commission in the New Testamentone each in Matthew (28:18-20), Mark (16:15-18), and Luke (24:46-49), and two each in John (17:18; 20:21-23) and Acts (1:8; 10:42)? Is it not because Jesus believed that before he left, it was important to drill into his disciples' minds the priority of the work of saving souls for eternity?
Now of course the Great Commission would be meaningless if those who obeyed it did not also obey the Great Commandment to love God and our neighbor. And we must continue to challenge people with the dual responsibility to live the gospel in society and to take the gospel to the unreached.
The Language of Priority
Can we then say that evangelism must have priority over social concern? I have always been reluctant to use the language of priority. I have felt that such talk comes out of the Western desire to have things nicely lined up in a logical progression (e.g. God, family, and ministry).
I prefer to simply say that our calling is to be obedient to God totally. If God is in control of our lives, he will lead us so that we will give the proper place to the whole will of God for us.
But Satan is also active, and he does not like to see the population of heaven increase. He will do all he can to prevent Christians from making disciples by going to the nations, baptizing people, and teaching them the commands of the Lord (Matt. 28:19-20). I fear that many evangelicals have fallen into Satan's trap of upholding kingdom values to the diminution of God's call to proactively go after the lost and proclaim the gospel.
Yes, we are called to be holistic. But part of holistic Christianity surely is the statement of Christ that all earthly gain is worthless if a person loses his life to eternal destruction. The stark fact of lostness places before us the urgency of evangelism. No, such thinking is not common in some evangelical circles today. A theological faculty member of a university in Europe held a seminar a few years ago to discuss one of my books. One of the presenters, an evangelical scholar, faulted me for using the supposedly confusing term "lostness" when referring to those who do not believe in Christ.
As for me, I will do all I can to encourage people to live the Christian life in society. But I will also follow Christ's example in placing before Christians the fact of eternal damnation and the glory of eternal salvation.
And I will challenge them to follow the agenda of Jesus, who "came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10), reminding them of the advice of Jude, who said, " save others by snatching them out of the fire" (Jude 23).
The Combined Witness of the Whole Church
I am reluctant to reinsert the priority argument. But we need clarity. Some will rightly say that because of calling or circumstances in some parts of the world, faithful Christians cannot always preach. They are called instead to social work, and government regulations prohibit combining social work with evangelism. Fair enough.
Even though Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka is an evangelistic organization, we did not do any gospel proclamation during our massive tsunami-relief operation in 2005, according to government rules. Integrity demanded that we not do what we love to dopersuade people to receive Christ's salvation. (I believe, of course, that people were impressed by the gospel simply by seeing the way Christians helped them. But we would not call that evangelism.)
After about four months of almost total immersion in tsunami relief, we returned to our primary call, evangelism, and in the process refused millions of rupees offered to us for new tsunami-related relief projects. This does not mean that we do no social work now. As a youth organization, we do a lot of things, especially in education, to help youth from economically poor backgrounds advance in life. But we try not to tie that work too closely with evangelism. We do not want people to think that our help is tied to conversion.
In Nepal, Christian missionaries have been laboring faithfully for over 50 years, doing social work in the name of Christ. Evangelism, however, has been prohibited. For the first 30 years of this ministry, they saw little evangelistic fruit, but in the past 20 or so there has been an amazing evangelistic harvest of hundreds of thousands of people coming to Christ through the work of local Christians. I believe the faithful witness of the missionaries played a major role in helping people listen to the gospel as proclaimed by the Nepalese.
So, yes, some parts of the body of Christ may be called to do things other than proclaiming the gospel of eternal salvation, though they would verbally advocate other aspects of the kingdom agendasuch as justice, fair play, and righteous values. Indeed, every Christian needs to be committed to the whole gospel, seeking to be a personal witness through life and word.
To that end, Christian social-service organizations must ensure that their workers are not only committed to their social work, but also to Christ as Lord of their lives. So even though verbal witness may not be part of their job descriptions, they need to be committed to it in their personal lives.
Let me also add that much of the church's witness through social engagement and human rights advocacy will be done by laypeople who go into the structures of society and live out their Christianity. The local church and Christian organizations should teach the laity a truly biblical approach that motivates and guides them in their service. No one disputes that we must apply the Scriptures to the social issues of the day in our preaching and teaching. Pastors should also pray for laypeople serving in society and advise, comfort, and encourage them. For example, John Wesley sent his last letter to William Wilberforce encouraging him in his antislavery campaign.
Practical realities will dictate that not every segment of the church will be involved in all forms of proactive evangelism and all forms of social engagement. Parachurch organizations will indeed specialize, while being committed to the whole mission of the church. Local churches will do a little of most aspects of the mission of the church.
But taken together, the whole body of Christ will be engaged in the whole mission of the church. As the Lausanne movement puts it, the whole church must take the whole gospel to the whole world.
The tendency among some evangelicals to downplay verbal proclamationincluding persuading people to receive Christ's salvationdemands a fresh call for evangelicals to emphasize the urgency of proactive evangelism. And if talk of priority will help the church to a fresh commitment, then so be it.
Christ certainly seems to share that priority: "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?" (Matt. 16:26).
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Earlier Christian Vision Project articles on mission include:
The Dread Cancer of Stinginess | When it comes to missions giving, donor dependency may not be the greatest problem. (October 2, 2007)
Powering Down | World Vision India head Jayakumar Christian on how the poor become movers and shakers, and movers and shakers become poor. (August 31, 2007)
Liberate My People | Theologian and educator Ruth Padilla DeBorst says true Christian mission addresses issues of power and poverty. (August 8, 2007)
From Tower-Dwellers to Travelers | Ugandan-born theologian Emmanuel Katongole offers a new paradigm for missions. (July 3, 2007)
The Mission of the Trinity | Singaporean theologian Simon Chan says 'missional theology' has not gone far enough. (June 4, 2007)
Christ, My Bodhisattva | Multinational businessman and politician Ram Gidoomal talks about 'translating' the gospel in today's world. (April 27, 2007)
Living with Islamists | A year in Pakistan gave me a glimpse of what Christian witness might look like today. (March 30, 2007)
On a Justice Mission | Thanks to William Wilberforce, we already know the key to defeating slavery. By Gary Haugen (Feb. 22, 2007)
A Community of the Broken | A young organization models what it might mean to be the church in a suffering world. By Christopher L. Heuertz (Feb. 9, 2007)
An Upside-Down World | Distinguishing between home and mission field no longer makes sense. By Christopher J. H. Wright (Jan. 28, 2007)
Christian Vision Project articles on culture are available on the Christian Vision Project website.
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