This is the first of what risks turning into a longish series of posts exploring the nature of Christian mission. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this sort of thing and I’ll link to a number of my other musings at the end of this post.
At the heart of the question I want to discuss is the relationship between proclamation of the Gospel and doing good works as a feature of Christian mission. For many Evangelicals, the question is very clear: proclamation of the Gospel and mission are one and the same thing. Good works have a value in that they allow missionaries access to countries where they could not work otherwise, or they provide a hearing for the real work, which is preaching. At the extreme, I have heard people say that Bible translation is not really mission because it isn’t preaching the Gospel and I’ve heard more than one person say; “our job is to get people into heaven, not make the road to hell more comfortable”. There seems to be a simple logical assumption that as resources are always limited we should concentrate on work which potentially has eternal consequences (proclamation) and only get involved in social works when we have time and resources to spare.
However, for most Evangelicals the question is far more nuanced: Christians have a Social Responsibility, but they also have a duty to evangelise. The original Lausanne Covenant on World Evangelism placed these two side by side without ever clarifying the relationship between them. Eight years later a study group met at Grand Rapids to discuss this question in more detail and to “reach a greater unity of mind on the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility, not by a superficial semantic consensus but by a real theological agreement according to Scripture.” The Grand Rapids conference produced an excellent document which gives a historic overview of how evangelism and social responsibility have been viewed and which expressed the relationship like this:
Thus, evangelism and social responsibility, while distinct from one another, are integrally related in our proclamation of and obedience to the gospel. The partnership is, in reality, a marriage.
However, when push comes to shove, the primacy is given to evangelism:
…evangelism relates to people’s eternal destiny, and in bringing them Good News of salvation, Christians are doing what nobody else can do. Seldom if ever should we have to choose between satisfying physical hunger and spiritual hunger, or between healing bodies and saving souls, since an authentic love for our neighbour will lead us to serve him or her as a whole person. Nevertheless, if we must choose, then we have to say that the supreme and ultimate need of all humankind is the saving grace of Jesus Christ, and that therefore a person’s eternal, spiritual salvation is of greater importance than his or her temporal and material well-being (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
The Grand Rapids paper is excellent and it draws a lot of threads together. However, it leaves a number of questions unanswered. The simple distinction between evangelism and social responsibility is perhaps too simple. For example, how does evangelism relate to disciple making (Matthew 28:19). The Great Commission calls us to more than simply preaching to get people saved. And where does NT. Wright’s discussions on mission in Surprised by Hope which stress the continuity between the current earth and the ‘new earth’ fit in?
A simple binary split between evangelism and social responsibility, between the sacred and the secular does not really help us get to grips with the complexity of God’s mission to the world and pushes us to some places I’m not sure we really want to go.
To my mind, a much better framework for discussing the nature of mission lies in the Five Marks of Mission, which are:
To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
To respond to human need by loving service
To seek to transform unjust structures of society
To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
You may remember that I discussed these briefly when I reviewed Ross and Wall’s excellent book:mission in the Twenty-First Century: Exploring the Five Marks of Global Mission.
What I plan to do now is to work through the first few chapters of this book in more depth, and using the five marks as a framework to bring some order to my own thoughts on the nature of mission. I hope that others will join in on this exploration and bring their own thoughts to the process. If nothing else, you should buy the book!
The next post will appear in a few days: watch this space.
Various older posts on the nature of mission:
Is the Age of the Great Commission Over? All mine, and the answer is yes/perhaps.
Who Do We Translate The Bible For? Me again.