For the last hundred years, evangelicals have debated the false dichotomy of proclaiming the good news versus performing good deeds.

But in today’s world it just might be that the most effective way to bring the good news to the most difficult-to-reach nations is to weld the two together—in the very same way Jesus did. In fact, the physical and spiritual needs in our world not only make this approach effective but also essential.

I believe this was the essence and example of Jesus’ life. “Go back and report,” he said, “that the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Matt. 11:5)

In the year before he died, missiologist Ralph Winter said this integration of gospel proclamation and social action was the most important trend in global mission. “We need both to save people from sin and from malaria,” he said. “Evangelism. . . . becomes weak and lacks credibility if it does not generate committed believers who will tackle the world’s problems.”

The Great Commission and the Great Commandment are calling us out of our comfort zones and into the world’s brokenness. Jesus waits for us there.

We need this holistic approach to missions, perhaps now more than ever. The major trends in both global poverty and mission are pointing us to the same places—regions where the church is least established and where poverty and human suffering is most acute. The Great Commission compels us to go to those countries in our world where people have not heard the gospel. And the Great Commandment tells us to love our neighbors. Today, those twin commands send us to the same contexts.

Jesus is calling us into the broken places, the bleeding edges of our world. He has always called us to follow him into the world’s brokenness and pain, acting as his ambassadors and as healers, reconcilers and redeemers.

Poverty’s Retreat

To understand why the world’s poverty and the spread of the gospel now compel us to go to these most challenging places, we need to look at the progress the world has made. Since 1990:

  • Two billion people have gained access to clean water;
  • 156 million people are no longer hungry;
  • Malaria infection rates are down by a third in Africa, helping to prevent a million deaths;
  • Tuberculosis deaths have fallen by 45 percent;
  • Maternal mortality rates have fallen by half.
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These are incredible gains. The proportion of people living in extreme poverty is now half of what it was 25 years ago. And the new Sustainable Development Goals have set a target of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030.

But this progress is leaving many people behind. In about 50 countries—characterized by conflict, natural disasters, poor governance, and other chronic issues—there has been no progress defeating poverty. These marginal places—Somalia, Bangladesh, South Sudan, or Syria—will soon represent more than 50 percent of the world’s poor, even though they have only 20 percent of the world’s population. Already poverty in these fragile countries is deeper and more entrenched than elsewhere. They are the home countries to many of the world’s 50 million refugees. These countries are also home to:

  • 77 percent of the world’s school-age children who are not in school;
  • 70 percent of the world’s infant deaths;
  • 65 percent of the world’s people without access to safe water;
  • 60 percent of the world’s undernourished people.

These are also countries that have been resistant to the gospel. Of the top ten fragile states, seven have non-Christian majorities. Across the 1.4 billion people living in fragile states, 69 percent of them are non-Christian. Of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, half live in fragile states.

Winter says that we need to make priorities as we seek to transform our world, and we should go first where the darkness is deepest—where the gospel is absent and the human need the greatest.

The World’s Immune System

Pope Francis has likened the church to a field hospital for the world’s sick and wounded. I like Pope Francis, but I prefer to think of churches as white blood cells. We don’t sit back behind the front lines. Instead, like white blood cells, we scour the earth looking for the wounds and infections that threaten. Then we rush to the hurting places to heal and mend.

As I spoke to one pastor about the poverty retreating to fragile states, he told me it sounded like a job for US Secretary of State John Kerry, not for a pastor. But when I told him that’s where the gospel is least established and also where the “least of these” lived, he said, “Count me and my church in!”

Unfortunately, too many of us have the same initial response as my pastor friend. It’s someone else’s job. The issues in fragile states are complex. They often involve fractious politics and religious tensions. They involve civil war and human rights abuses in places where it’s hard to tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” They are in places like Pakistan or Somalia where Americans may not be welcomed. They involve work in hard places like the Central African Republic and South Sudan, where civil wars have led to atrocities and horror.

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The current conflicts in the Middle East are a case in point. Warring factions have beheaded Christians, broken international laws, violated human rights, and ruined cities. The violence has affected 12 million people, causing 4 million to flee Syria and Iraq as refugees. A quarter of a million people have died. The conflict is man-made, mind-numbing and largely Muslim, and our understanding of it is skewed by a media that focuses on the politics, not on the people.

As a result, for four years, most Americans turned away from the carnage, showing little compassion. And then a little boy washed up on a beach.

Everything changed when the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who drowned trying to escape to Europe, hit the international newswires. Suddenly everyone cared about Syria. And while it hasn’t ended the war, all that attention is making a difference. Children will be able to sleep in shelters and under blankets. Mothers will have enough food to cook for their families. Fathers will be able to find jobs because the organizations trying to make a difference have the resources to do so. In other words, good Samaritans responded.

What if while Christians are beheaded in the Middle East, American churches rushed to the assistance of Muslims fleeing Syria and Iraq? What if our churches partnered with churches in Lebanon struggling to care for Syrian refugees? What if we showed America and the world the power of the gospel to transform lives—physically and spiritually?

The church has always faced defining moments as the world changed around it. I believe we are at such a defining moment. It is my dream that the church would step up and respond with the love of Christ to the world’s greatest needs. God so loved the world that he died for children like Aylan Kurdi, and I believe his heart is broken when any child suffers and dies needlessly.

If we are to love this same world as God does, we will have to see it through his eyes. We will have to put aside our many biases and look far beyond our churches and local communities. The Great Commission and the Great Commandment are calling us out of our comfort zones and into the world’s brokenness. Jesus waits for us there.

Richard Stearns is president of World Vision US and author of The Hole in Our Gospel and Unfinished.

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