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April 7, 2010Missiology

Musings on Missiology: Theological Approaches to Social Action and Transformation

Note: I usually post these on Monday but I am a bit slow this week... so I changed the blog post title but kept the graphic.

Here on the blog we were recently looking at the relationship between evangelism and social justice and connecting it to the ongoing discussion of the missional church. My guess is that many evangelicals will find it interesting that the reaction to this shift in attitude from individuals such as Donald McGavran, John Stott, and Billy Graham was across the spectrum. Some saw justice as an implication of the Gospel, others as a "facet" of the gospel "diamond," and others as a co-equal of the Gospel. We will look at the spectrum of belief more in depth later.

I remember sitting on the side of a conference facility kibitzing with Tim Keller before I was to speak at the Dwell Conference that Redeemer hosted in Manhattan. We were meeting in what was a former United Church of Christ church facility, but now was conference hall rented for special events. My topic was, "Dwelling in the Kingdom Mission." I turned to Tim and mentioned the irony that I was about to speak to a group of evangelicals about the Kingdom of God and the missio dei in a facility that once housed a church that probably lost its way during the Kingdom of God movement of the early 1900s or the missio dei movement later in that same century.

An emphasis on social awareness and world transformation has led to problems. Any Christian with a history book and a willingness to learn can see that. Yet, I think it is essential that evangelicals be more engaged in social action-- and I think that most evangelicals would agree. We need to care for the poor, visit the captive, minister to the marginalized, and engage in social action more (Ps. 14:6; Deut. 10:18; 24:17; Mal. 3:5; Mt. 6:2; James 2:2-6; 1 Jn. 3:17-18). We need to discover social action but I have pointed out many times that the last two times that Christians "discovered" social justice, it did not end well.

Tim encouraged me to go ahead and mention the irony of that moment. I am not sure if I did in my talk that day, but I will now. I think that evangelical Christians must focus more on the Kingdom of God and the missio dei, but they must do so while avoiding the errors of those who discussed similar truths in an earlier generation. In order to do that, we should learn from the past so we do not repeat its errors.

Mark Twain once said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." Evangelicals need more social action, but they need to know and avoid the errors of those who came before us and shared the same concern.

Last week, we talked about how the Kingdom of God theological emphasis, combined with the Social Gospel, had some problematic repercussions-- gospel proclamation got lost in social action. This week, we are continuing to look at how evangelism and social justice interface by looking at the emergence of liberation theology and the church's shift in attitude towards the poor in the missions conversations in the mid-to-late 1900s. Next week, I will suggest some ways to avoid the extremes and find a way to live both.

The Emergence of Liberation Theology

The theology of liberation is a complex phenomenon of the late 20th century, exhibiting itself as black, Hispanic, and American-Indian theologies in the United States, as well as Latin America theology, feminist theology, South African black theology, and various parallel theological movements in other parts of Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. As a general rule, theologies of liberation are Third-World theologies or theologies of the Third World within the First World. (The label "Third World" was deliberately chosen to convey the experience of those who feel they are being treated as "third-class" people, subjugated by the powers of the First and Second Worlds, and reflecting its political and socio-economic position.)

To a large degree, theologies of liberation, particularly the classical Latin American variety, developed in protest against the failure of the Western church and missionary circles to grapple with the problems of systematic injustice. It wasn't until the Tambaram/Madras meeting of the International Missionary Council in 1938 that Protestants gave a clear assurance that improving societal structures wasn't enough; what was called for was a fundamental rebirth. (Search for "Tambaram" on the blog for more information.) Even so, Tambaram did not usher in an era of confrontation with unjust societal and political configuration in the Third World.

Since the 1950s, the atmosphere had been changing in Third-World structures themselves, particularly in Latin America. Socio-politically, development was replaced by revolution; ecclesiastically and theologically, liberation theology, coined as a theological construct in 1968, dominated the scene. In this paradigm, Third-World peoples had to take their fate into their own hands and unfetter themselves through a revolution. Development implied evolutionary continuity with the past; liberation implied a clean break, a new beginning.

While liberation could be viewed as an act of social justice, it is important to note that David Bosch (and many others) place it under the larger umbrella of contextualization. This is not uncommon and we address the issue in the forthcoming book I mentioned Monday. Charles Van Engen believes this is because the significance of the gospel is spelled out in such theologies primarily in terms of sociopolitical and economic categories (see my last entry on that subject).

God's Solidarity with the Poor

"Gradually, the faces of the poor forced themselves on the attention of rich Christians of the West in a way that could no longer be ignored or allegorized,"(5) Bosch concluded. The 1963 Mexico City meeting of the Commission for World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches acknowledged the problem, but it wasn't until after the 1966 Geneva conference on Life and Order that the climate began to change. By the time of the Bangkok conference on the Division of World Mission and Evangelism in 1973, terms like "salvation" were repainted as "liberation," and "fellowship" became replaced with "solidarity." At the CWME at Melbourne in 1980, the poor were put in the very center of missiological consideration. Emilio Castro suggested that the affirmation of the poor was the "missiological principle par excellence" and the church's relation to the poor "the missionary yardstick."

In his A Theology of Liberation, Gustavo Guitierrez argued that the poor are the first on which God's attention focuses and that therefore the church has no choice but to exhibit commonality with them. The church "joins God" on mission when it shows solidarity with the poor and works toward justice among "the least of these."

This is a remarkable shift from "evangelization of the world in this generation" (the slogan in 1910) to the poor being the center of the mission and the "yardstick" of mission work.

But, there must be genuine engagement with the poor it we take Jesus' words seriously. Jesus speaks frequently of the poor and our response to the marginalized is important enough that Jesus indicates it has great consequences (see Matthew 25).

It would be unfair to say that evangelicals were not engaged in social justice. While the mainline tradition was first wrestling with the Kingdom of God and social justice, and later the missio dei movement and Liberation Theology, evangelicals were largely absent from those two conversations. But, evangelicals still did discover social action-- it just took them a while to do so as a theological issue. ;-) And for the Evangelicals it would not just be should the church be engaged in social issues, but how does social involvement relate to the priority of the gospel and the mandate to make disciples?

The Evangelical Response

In the middle of the last century (after the Kingdom of God emphasis but before the missio dei emphasis), evangelicals considered a shift in attitudes toward evangelism and social justice. They were not so much "in" the ecumenical conversation, but they were influenced by it. Some might say they were challenged by it.

Carl F.H. Henry and his 1947 book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism were catalytic in this respect. Henry wrote:

Whereas once the redemptive gospel was a world-changing message, now it was narrowed to a world-resisting message... Fundamentalism in revolting against the Social Gospel seemed also to revolt against the Christian social imperative... There is no room... for a gospel that is indifferent in the needs of the total man nor of the global man. (1)

Henry's views took some time to permeate evangelical conviction (back then, "fundamentalist" was more like "evangelical" today). It wasn't until 1966 when the Wheaton Declaration affirmed the evangelical social concern in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and stressed the magnitude of ministering to physical and social needs, that they also stated that these efforts should occur "without minimizing the priority of preaching the gospel of individual salvation." (2)

At the 1966 Berlin Congress, Billy Graham spoke for many evangelicals when he included a social facet within evangelism but added that improved social conditions were a consequence of successful evangelism. By this definition, Donald McGavran says that "evangelism relates to social responsibility as seed relates to fruit; evangelism remains primary but it generates social involvement and improved social conditions among those who have been evangelized."(3) Additionally, building on nineteenth-century social ethics and the influence of Henry's The Uneasy Conscience, several evangelical scholars began to return to these issues in a fresh manner, particularly groups like the Mennonites (e.g. John Howard Yoder) who were making essential contributions to social philosophy and practice among evangelicals.

By 1974, when the International Congress on World Evangelization met in Lausanne, Switzerland, many evangelicals were ready for a new course. The Lausanne Covenant claimed that "evangelism and social involvement are both part of our Christian duty." Church growth guru C. Peter Wagner would also consent to the notion of "holistic" mission after hearing Latin American theologians (e.g. C. Rene Padilla, Samuel Escobar, Orlando Costas) speak at Lausanne, driving home the message of social involvement.

Ralph Winter summarizes in our forthcoming (July) book MissionShift: Global Mission Issues in the Third Millennium:

As the 20th century wore on, many outstanding evangelicals ranging from John Stott and others in the Lausanne Movement tried very hard to point out that there can be no real dichotomy between faith and good works, despite a continuing Reformation-triggered bias in that realm.(4)

Stott in particular confessed in Christian Mission in the Modern World that he had entirely changed his mind on the interpretation of the "Great Commission," moving from it being defined exclusively as evangelism to including both a social and evangelistic responsibility.

Throughout the 80's more efforts coalesced to overcome the dichotomy between evangelism and social justice from evangelicalism.


The social justice question is always a challenging one. The Liberation Theology movement expressed that value by building on the missio dei movement and "joining God in His work" of bringing about societal transformation. (I won't rehash that from the last post.) Evangelicals have generally seen the ecumenical approach as unhelpful and to be avoided-- while often co-opting some of the ideas and even language of the ecumenical movement.

These issues will always be a struggle for Christians. Everything new is, well, generally not. For example, the Lausanne Movement is about to meet again and the organizers explain their mission as a mix of evangelistic and social concern (leading to praise from some and concern from others):

The Congress, held in collaboration with the World Evangelical Alliance, will bring together 4,000 leaders from more than 200 countries to confront the critical issues of our time - other world faiths, poverty, HIV/AIDS, persecution, among others - as they relate to the future of the Church and world evangelization... Together we will seek the Lord as we examine the world and our culture to discern where the church should invest its efforts and energies to most effectively respond to Christ's call to take the gospel into all the world and make disciples of all nations... lives changed for all eternity, broken families mended, physical and emotional hurts healed, communities transformed.

Evangelicals have tended to try to find a way not to turn their social justice into the problematic approaches that came before them. I have tried to unpack those here. But, we cannot just say, "Well, that's why we need to avoid societal transformation." That's like saying we need to avoid "grace" before some people misunderstand it. Just because someone misuses a biblical principal does not mean that we are excused from using it.

I remember planting my first church among the urban poor in Buffalo, NY. I had well intentioned believers tell me to avoid being involved in social action because it would detract from the gospel. They warned me specifically about the dangers of Liberation Theology (by name) and told me to be sure to preach Jesus.

I found that I could not preach Jesus and not care about justice. And, if I wanted real justice, I had to preach Jesus. They did not seem separable, but history has shown that they can be.

So, as Evangelicals have worked to make a biblical connection between social justice and the gospel we can see different approaches take shape. Should social action and justice be seen as a part of our evangelism, or as a consequence of it? Or perhaps you would like to suggest another connection.


1. As quoted by Roger Bassham, Mission Theology 1948-1975: Years of Worldwide Creative Tension, Ecumenical, Evangelical, and Roman Catholic (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1979), 176.

2. Harold Lindsell, ed. The Church's Worldwide Mission (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1966), 234.

3. Donald McGavran, "Salvation Today," The Evangelical Response to Bangkok, Ralph Winter, ed. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1973), 31.

4. Ralph Winter, "The Future of Evangelicals in Mission," unpublished essay (2008), 20.

5. David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 435.

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