Some of us in many traditions too often see evangelism as simply introducing people to Jesus only as a means to get to heaven. It neglects discipleship as well as the broader dimension of Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom of God. Others fall into the trap of excluding personal evangelism purely for the goal of social activism. It’s too bad we so often err on one side or the other in this false dichotomy we’ve set up between personal salvation and social justice.
The gospel is not a gospel of either/or but one of both/and. To me as a Christian, I truly believe in the Wesleyan mandate that there is no personal holiness a part from social holiness, and no social holiness without personal holiness. It is my personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and the empowerment in my life through the Holy Spirit that sustain me through the resistance, and just plain hard work, of pursuing justice within the world for all of God’s children.
Evangelism means sharing the euangelion: the gospel, the good news. The good news is that Jesus came to put together a countercultural community that is committed to returning the world to right order and to restoring all that God has created. Isaiah 61, which Jesus read when he inaugurated his public ministry, represents Jesus’ mission statement—our mission statement. We are to preach good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives, and renew ruined cities. If we are busy doing all that, then perhaps the terms we use to talk about it—evangelism, social justice, activism, or others—will simply no longer matter.
A Mission of Mercy
There is power within the life of each individual who identifies himself or herself as a Jesus follower to serve as a redeeming force within the culture and the world. And mercy is the common denominator, the underlying force that calls us as Christians to live out the good news Jesus proclaimed in real and need-meeting ways. If we are truly to mirror the compassion of Christ, we must reach the lost, serve with the poor, and be an active voice and advocate for setting the oppressed free; speaking up for those who lack the power or opportunity to speak for themselves. It all must matter to us, because it all matters to God.
Mercy is why, when I first came to this small rural church known as Ginghamsburg in 1979, then a congregation of eighty worshipers with an annual budget of $27,000, we almost immediately started a food pantry, clothing ministry, and other ministries of mercy designed to take care of urgent material needs in the local community. If the gospel we share is not good news for the poor, it’s not the gospel! Just this week, there was a single, disabled mother and her children who lost their home to a fire. Catholic Social Services has already found the family a place to live, and Ginghamsburg is providing furnishings to ensure that it’s not merely a roof overhead but also a comfortable home. Ministries of mercy that provide material relief are absolutely critical in times of emergency.
As the adage goes, we want to teach people how to fish, not simply hand them a fish. But in today’s economy, there are times when people simply need food. In Montgomery County, Ohio, where our two Dayton urban campuses are located, 26,000 children, one in five, are at risk of going to bed hungry tonight. Worldwide, one person dies roughly every four seconds of a hunger-related cause. How can we not act?
The Gospel in Action
Mercy is the driving force behind the call to social justice—efforts to bring freedom and renewal to the oppressed and broken. Social justice is not just about giving relief; it’s also about empowering the individual and entire communities. Often when we talk about social justice, we only focus on changing structures. But, if we only redesign the structures without empowering individuals within their communities, we fail to bring about systemic change.
That’s why this year in Dayton we are starting a Jobs for Life program that will give the never-employed or chronically-underemployed new life pictures about what it means to keep and find employment, as well as the soft skills that will help them do so. Ginghamsburg is also part of the Circles Out of Poverty Initiative, which engages people in poverty along with middle class allies in working together on dreams, plans, and goals. It aims to change the mindset of communities so that they want to, and think they can, end poverty. At our Fort McKinley campus, we partnered on winning a six million dollar grant with the local government and non-profits, a grant that is building 25 new homes in this at-risk community. The church needs to be the empowering center of its community, resourcing and challenging that community to rise above the forces that hold it down.
Ginghamsburg’s work in Darfur, Sudan, is a great example of how social justice in a very real sense serves as a tool of evangelism. While empowering communities there, we didn’t simply do emergency relief and hand out food or install water yards. We taught people how to farm using the resources available and to save seed for reinvestment. We trained water-sanitation committees to maintain their own new water yards, and built schools and prepared teachers for the next generation. In this Muslim state, the name Ginghamsburg, and more importantly the word “church,” appear everywhere those projects are implemented. On one of my visits, a tribal elder asked in a council meeting where the other Muslim states are—the states that have the wealth to come to the aid of Darfur, but have not. Why were we Christians there? We were there because this is the good news that we preach; not just with our words but with our actions as well.
Of course, it must be said that social justice also goes beyond empowering individuals and communities. It also requires us to work at all levels of government to change the laws, institutions, barriers, and biases that oppress people. It’s why Ginghamsburg participated in the Dayton for Darfur rally, and my son shared the stage with Nick Clooney, George Clooney’s dad, to speak out on behalf of the oppressed. It’s why our Ginghamsburg buses took scores of our Ginghamsburg attendees to Washington, D.C., to be part of the Save Darfur rally organized by George Clooney and others in 2006. It’s also why we provided transportation and a thirty-six-hour children’s camp that enabled South Sudanese refugees in Dayton to travel to Nashville and Washington, D.C., to vote for their country’s independence.
Personal Faith Brings Social Justice
Apart from a personal relationship with Jesus, we will never be the light of Christ in the world. No matter on which side of the evangelism-social justice spectrum you stand, I encourage you to Google the words “Christians are” and scroll through the first few pages of results. It’s an exercise that’s both enlightening and discouraging. Those who are simply social activists can be just as mean and judgmental as some who proclaim Jesus evangelistically but live and act like hell. The prophet Zechariah reminds us, “Neither by power, nor by strength, but by my spirit, says the Lord” (Zechariah 4:6 CEB). Personal piety is just as essential as social justice and missional action.
We believe in a God who can bring life back from the dead. If we then act on that belief with our voices, hands, feet and bank accounts, then nothing will be impossible.
At its core, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of the Kingdom of God, and Jesus is the king of that kingdom. We as his followers are to submit to his authority in order that we may embody his mission on earth. We must move from simply debating cognitive theory and instead start holding one another accountable for naming the name of Jesus, serving the world in practical ways, and giving voice to the voiceless and hopeless. Then we are truly living out the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.