Evangelism vs. Social Justice: Finding Balance
March 9, 2017
By Matt Morrison
“What do you think is the most important thing God calls us to do?”
My friend Melissa asked me this question over 15 years ago and I still remember the moment she hit me with it in our 11th grade English Literature class. I was always straight-laced and Melissa was your stereotypical punk rock girl.
We had very little in common, but we shared one thing in common – our love for Christ. We had great, if not odd, conversations together about our faith and what it meant to follow Jesus. But even at that, our paths diverged very quickly.
I have been Southern Baptist nearly my entire life. I attended a Baptist megachurch for nearly 20 years. I graduated from a Baptist university and studied at a Baptist seminary. I practically have a degree in potlucks!
Melissa, on the other hand, had only received Christ a few years earlier. She was heavily involved with more charismatic Christian movements. Her punk-rock persona, combined with her growing faith, produced a raw and passionate love for Jesus that defied the typical Christian teenager stereotype in a way I found refreshing.
When she popped the question, I answered it through my Baptist lenses.
“It’s evangelism. The most important thing we can do is advance his Kingdom.”
Melissa disagreed with me. And I remember that question so vividly because I now do too.
“It’s to love,” she said.
It seemed so simplistic, maybe overly so. But it wasn’t wrong. When the religious leaders of Jesus’ day hit him with the same question in Mark 12, his response was clear and convicting:
“The most important [commandment],” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no commandment greater than these.”
THE EVANGELISM-ONLY MENTALITY
If you grew up Southern Baptist like me, you know evangelism has been a major emphasis in the denomination over the past several decades. A significant amount of time and resources have been devoted to developing new evangelism training programs, encouraging the practice in churches, and preaching it from the pulpits.
For a number of Southern Baptist churches, any outreach ministry that doesn’t directly correlate with an evangelism strategy is dead on arrival. It’s not uncommon to still see congregations doing door-to-door evangelism or arranging old-fashion revivals. Many Southern Baptist seminaries even set up these initiatives on campus as requirements for their students.
THE JUSTICE-ONLY MENTALITY
While my tradition has long emphasized evangelism, other circles within the Christian world have almost abandoned the practice completely in favor of social justice initiatives. In fact, Melissa came from one of them. As she read through Jesus’ response, generally loving people and making them feel loved seemed to be the ultimate mission.
Christians in these circles work on racial reconciliation, reach out to the poor, engage in political causes, partner in community initiatives, and encourage religious practices, but often do so without presenting the Gospel.
In these churches, you can clearly see their mark in the local and global community, yet their Gospel convictions aren’t well known, if even known at all. This idea has often been criticized as the “social gospel.” In many cases, it’s even seen as immoral to push the Christian faith on those who need their charity.
WHERE DID JESUS STAND?
Over the years, many Christians have found themselves in one of these two camps, either promoting evangelism only or social justice only. As a result, we have significant groups of believers fearlessly spreading the Gospel without addressing physical or emotional concerns while others sacrificially give of themselves to the poor but never share about the Gospel at the heart of their work.
While both evangelism and social justice work are important, neither is meant to be done in isolation from the other. As we look at Jesus’ ministry, the two are intertwined with each other. He never shies away from preaching against sin, the depths of the Father’s grace, or the invitation to follow him. But he also advocates for the widows, treats the poor with dignity, and feeds the hungry.
Even within the greater context of Mark 12, he teaches on stewardship, promotes civic responsibility, rebukes the teachers of the Law, and honors the small gift of a poor widow. Altogether, he promotes the demonstration of a godly, charitable life, while also unapologetically preaching truth.
As he addresses the physical and emotional symptoms of society in his day, Jesus continually speaks of their deeply-rooted spiritual needs too. Reading through the Gospels, it’s clear that Jesus doesn’t fall into either of the two camps. His preaching and his outreach go hand-in-hand.
At the end of the day, it’s difficult to relevantly share the Gospel without addressing the physical and social issues that impact people. But it’s also a missed opportunity to demonstrate healing without somehow pointing to the healer.
I’m grateful for the comprehensive work that e3 Partners offers around the world. You’ll never go on a mission trip with us that doesn’t include some element of evangelism. Depending on the trip, you’ll also have opportunities to get involved with things like human trafficking prevention, medical care, or sports ministry – issues and programs that significantly impact the daily lives of communities.
This is the kind of love that helps a person deal with their immediate needs and address spiritual depravity. It’s the Gospel shared and demonstrated. Ministry must be done in balance, both individually and corporately.
DISCUSS IT: Where have you traditionally fallen on the spectrum?