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The Gospel and the Social Imperative


The latest issue of Leadership Journal is devoted to articles and interviews on how social activism introduces people to Jesus. Drew Dyck offers an appropriate editorial opening to the volume, suggesting that the Church once again needs to revisit the conversation that historically has polarized the gospel and social ministry.

Dyck reminds his readers that for some time the Church has failed to find its balance between the two. In my own experience, I’ve witnessed both extremes. One one hand there is the deep commitment to make sure that the “gospel” of Jesus is clearly presented to those in the community. By gospel presentation, of course, I mean the message of the cross and resurrection is preached in a manner that leads the hearer to respond in faith through a commitment, usually made in a prayer for salvation. Hardline evangelicals have sought to reverence the Great Commission so stringently that they have omitted the physical needs of those in the community.

On the other hand is the equally deep commitment to meet the social and physical needs of people in the community. Food for the hungry, clothing for the naked, shelter for the homeless, et al, is their understanding of the gospel. Jesus modeled this, of course, and furthermore extended harsh words of judgment toward those who neglect the pleas of those trapped in cycles of poverty. “Unto the least of these” rings in the ears of those who are passionate about social justice. As far as salvation of souls is concerned, that is God’s job to deal with, being the ultimate and final judge.

For decades the American church has failed to find balance. Hardline evangelicals are becoming more aware of the necessity to respond to human need. And it appears that many who have been committed to social activism are becoming sensitive to the need to share more than cups of cold water.

What is the problem? I think both sides of the spectrum to some degree suffer from the same problem. We have forgotten who its about.

By that I mean that we have made the gospel and the social imperative about ourselves more than about Jesus or those in need. On one hand we have passionate evangelists, who feel as though they are unfulfilled unless they have some tangible marker that they can use to justify their ministry. These markers are things such as conversions, baptisms, and attendance increases. Unless there is statistical data to support their behavior and expenditures, it is counted as loss. One of my first ministry responsibilities was Recreation Ministry. We organized sports teams for all ages, many of which were very successful. These teams provided an opportunity for people in our church to invite unchurched people to take a step toward Christ. When I commented to one pastor about one particular successful season, he responded by saying, “I see your trophies, but where are your souls?”

But its not just the evangelists who suffer from myopia. Those who engage the social mandate can equally make their endeavors about themselves. When my former church began to do work on a Native American reservation, one of the first things we discovered was how insensitive many had been who had visited them. “They come in and do some things so they can go home and feel good about themselves,” they said. “They bring us worn out, used broken stuff they don’t want and then leave so they can go home and tell everyone what they did.” We learned that true compassion returns time and time again to the same places and people. Every mission trip I’ve taken, whether it be in America or internationally concludes the same way: “Will you come back?”

I’m not advocating that you or your church make a choice. It’s not either/or. It’s both /and. How can we fearlessly share the gospel AND demonstrate radical compassion? The answer may determine the future of the next generation of the church.

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