The relationship of evangelism and social responsibility

A Mail and Guardian infographic released earlier this month said that according to recent StatsSA figures, just over 27 Million people (that’s more than the entire population of Australia) live below the poverty line in South Africa – that’s about half of my country. They are frighteningly dreadful statistics which should grieve us, and move us to action.

What should the Christian do, and why?  I have much further to go in my thinking on this matter and in better focusing my limited resources, as well as encouraging other Christians to do the same. However, linked to this, I’m finally getting to my copy of ‘Justice, Mercy and Humility’ [1]. I’m not far in. It’s edited by Tim Chester and contains papers of the Micah Network around the subject of ‘Integral Mission’ (sometimes called ‘Holistic Mission’ in some circles). While reading this a friend also reminded me of a specific Lausanne paper on the matter. ‘Evangelism and Social Responsibility: An Evangelical Commitment[2] is the title of the 1982, Lausanne Occasional Paper 21. I believe that John Stott (who chaired this LOP – Lausanne Occasional Paper) received criticism for his partnership language from some reformed evangelicals; various liberation theology adherents (et al) from the opposite end would probably say that the paper maintains a dichotomy between evangelism and social responsibility. Nevertheless I do believe it provides a healthy framework for describing the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility – part of the ‘what we should do and why’. The paper sets out three kinds of relationships between evangelism and social responsibility: consequence, bridge and partner. These are followed by the question of primacy between the two. You can read the whole thing here, but below, with some of my own comments, is section 4 which sets out the relationship aspects.

1. Social activity is a consequence of evangelism

First, social activity is a consequence of evangelism. That is, evangelism is the means by which God brings people to new birth, and their new life manifests itself in the service of others. Paul wrote that “faith works through love” (Gal. 5:6), James that “I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18), and John that God’s love within us will overflow in serving our needy brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16-18). As Robert E. Speer wrote about the Gospel in 1900: “wherever it goes, it plants in the hearts of men forces that produce new lives; it plants in communities of men forces that create new social combinations. ” We have heard of evangelists in our own day who, during their missions or crusades, actively encourage Christians (including new converts) to become involved in programmes to meet specific local, human needs. This effectively highlights the serving dimension of Christian conversion and commitment.

This is an important starting point, for it is the difference between religion and Christianity. The former starts with our activity and largely relies on that; the latter with God’s activity to both take those spiritually deceased and give them life, and then by his grace to fuel the kind of living we were created (and recreated) for. As the LOP then remarks:

We can go further than this, however. Social responsibility is more than the consequence of evangelism; it is also one of its principal aims. For Christ gave himself for us not only “to redeem us from all iniquity” but also “to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (Tit. 2:14). Similarly, through the gospel we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2: 10). Good works cannot save, but they are an indispensable evidence of salvation (James 2:14-26).

We have not always had the activity of the new life flow into all aspects of our lives, especially in this case, in correct care of the poor and so it must lead to both confession (‘Father, we have sinned!’) and teaching on the subject (when last did your pastor teach on this? Other churches who teach on this all the time may need to make sure that Jesus’ atoning death is what directs Christian living, not just His example).

In saying this, we are not claiming that compassionate service is an automatic consequence of evangelism or of conversion, however. Social responsibility, like evangelism, should therefore be included in the teaching ministry of the church. For we have to confess the inconsistencies in our own lives and the dismal record of evangelical failure, often as a result of the cultural blindspots to which we have already referred. This has grave consequences. When we do not allow the Word of God to transform us in all areas of our personal and social life, we seem to validate the Marxist criticism of religion.

2. Social activity can be a bridge to evangelism

Secondly, social activity can be a bridge to evangelism. It can break down prejudice and suspicion, open closed doors, and gain a hearing for the Gospel. Jesus himself sometimes performed works of mercy before proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom. In more recent times, we were reminded, the construction of dams by the Basel missionaries in Northern Ghana opened a way for the gospel, and much missionary medical, agricultural, nutritional and educational work has had a similar effect. To add a contemporary Western example, a recent crusade in an American city was preceded and accompanied by a “Love in Action” programme, with the evangelist’s encouragement. Several “social uplift” groups cooperated and were able to extend their ministries to the inner city poor. As a result, we were told, a number of people came under the sound of the gospel who would not otherwise have come to the crusade.

Further, by seeking to serve people, it is possible to move from their “felt needs” to their deeper need concerning their relationship with God. Whereas, as another participant put it, “if we turn a blind eye to the suffering, the social oppression, the alienation and loneliness of people, let us not be surprised if they turn a deaf ear to our message of eternal salvation.” We are aware of the danger of making “rice Christians”, that is, of securing converts only because of the physical benefits we offer. But we have to take this risk, so long as we retain our own integrity and serve people out of genuine love and not with an ulterior motive. Then our actions will be “not bribes but bridges—bridges of love to the world.”

3. Social activity accompanies evangelism as its partner.

Thirdly, social activity not only follows evangelism as its consequence and aim, and precedes it as its bridge, but also accompanies it as its partner. They are like the two blades of a pair of scissors or the two wings of a bird. This partnership is clearly seen in the public ministry of Jesus, who not only preached the gospel but fed the hungry and healed the sick. In his ministry, kerygma (proclamation) and diakonia (service) went hand in hand. His words explained his works, and his works dramatized his words. Both were expressions of his compassion for people, and both should be of ours. Both also issue from the lordship of Jesus, for he sends us out into the world both to preach and to serve. If we proclaim the Good News of God’s love, we must manifest his love in caring for the needy. Indeed, so close is this link between proclaiming and serving, that they actually overlap.

The above is what got some reformed evangelicals hot and bothered. It is followed with some key distinctions, as well as wonderful insights:

This is not to say that they should be identified with each other, for evangelism is not social responsibility, nor is social responsibility evangelism. Yet, each involves the other.
To proclaim Jesus as Lord and Saviour (evangelism) has social implications, since it summons people to repent of social as well as personal sins, and to live a new life of righteousness and peace in the new society which challenges the old.
To give food to the hungry (social responsibility) has evangelistic implications, since good works of love, if done in the name of Christ, are a demonstration and commendation of the gospel.
It has been said, therefore, that evangelism, even when it does not have a primarily social intention, nevertheless has a social dimension, while social responsibility, even when it does not have a primarily evangelistic intention, nevertheless has an evangelistic dimension.
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.

The marriage analogy holds up as a partnership with distinctions, but perhaps not as tightly in maintaining the equality aspects of marriage.

The question of primacy

This brings us to the question whether the partnership between evangelism and social responsibility is equal or unequal, that is, whether they are of identical importance or whether one takes precedence over the other. The Lausanne Covenant affirms that “in the church’s mission of sacrificial service evangelism is primary” (Paragraph 6). Although some of us have felt uncomfortable about this phrase, lest by it we should be breaking the partnership, yet we are able to endorse and explain it in two ways, in addition to the particular situations and callings already mentioned.

First, evangelism has a certain priority. We are not referring to an invariable temporal priority, because in some situations a social ministry will take precedence, but to a logical one. The very fact of Christian social responsibility presupposes socially responsible Christians, and it can only be by evangelism and discipling that they have become such. If social activity is a consequence and aim of evangelism (as we have asserted), then evangelism must precede it. In addition, social progress is being hindered in some countries by the prevailing religious culture; only evangelism can change this.

So the first ‘a certain priority’ stems from the logical ‘social activity as a consequence of evangelism’. Namely,  evangelism makes [or should make!] socially responsible Christians. I read it ages ago and really should re-read it to see what I agree with or not, but I do remember a line from S. E. Wirt’s ‘The Social Conscience of the Evangelical’  [3] when he says ‘When a man becomes a believer he does not retreat from his responsibilities as a member of society; quite the opposite.’ And the point above is reminding us that it is the gospel awakening that must first happen and then a stepping up to our responsibilities as members of society. Otherwise again, we just have ‘good’ people doing good things – join most religions for that line of assurance-draining living.

The second situates matters in eternal perspective. This does not mean, however, using this as an ‘out clause’ to real action.

Secondly, 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 Cor. 4:16- 18). As the Thailand Statement expressed it, “of all the tragic needs of human beings none is greater than their alienation from their Creator and the terrible reality of eternal death for those who refuse to repent and believe.” Yet this fact must not make us indifferent to the degradations of human poverty and oppression. The choice, we believe, is largely conceptual. In practice, as in the public ministry of Jesus, the two are inseparable, at least in open societies. Rather than competing with each other, they mutually support and strengthen each other in an upward spiral of increased concern for both.


1. Social activity is a consequence of evangelism

2. Social activity can be a bridge to evangelism

3. Social activity accompanies evangelism as its partner.

A framework is good. And I think the one above is a good one to have or start from. It should aid the Christian in thinking about why they live as they do, as well as providing thoughts on how to live it out. Woe to us if none of this followed through with action though! I wish I had an ending with an incredible 12-step plan to particularly help the poor in my city. I don’t. I often wish I knew of multiple billionaires who I could persuade to help create jobs for the many job-less I see around in my city of Durban. I don’t know of any. And I don’t want to wait inactive until I do. At the moment the best I seem able to do is to

  • 1) engage as an individual on a case by case basis with people I meet, trying to be wise and generous,
  • 2) be involved in the projects and strategies my local church is putting in place and
  • 3) support larger Christian organisations who can do more than I can as an individual or within my local church [4]

Making sure that me, my church and Christian organisations are operating with something like the framework above should, God-willing, help cut out some of the clutter and confusion and direct purposeful living.

Oh Father help your people to live in our local communities (and beyond) as thoughtful and sacrificial followers of your Son who died for them!

[1] All quotes © 1982 Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization World Evangelical Fellowship
[2] C. René Padilla has a summary of some of the developments in his chapter, ‘Integral Mission and it’s Historical Development’ in ‘Timothy Chester, ed., Justice, Mercy and Humility: The Papers of the Micah Network International Consultation on Integral Mission and the Poor (2001) (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2002).’
In response to the third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization held in Cape Town 2010, René Padilla mentions again the dichotomy in his critique: ‘According to the official definition of its mission, the Lausanne Movement exists “to strengthen, inspire and equip the Church for world evangelization in our generation, and to exhort Christians in their duty to engage in issues of public and social concern.” Close analysis of this wording reflects the dichotomy that influences a large segment of evangelicalism especially in the West: the dichotomy between evangelism and social responsibility. Because of that dichotomy, closely connected with the dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, the Lausanne Movement intends “to strengthen, inspire and equip the Church” with regards to the former, but only “to exhort Christians” with regards to the latter. The implicit assumption is that the primary mission of the church is world evangelization conceived in terms of the oral delivery of the Gospel, while engagement in issues of public and social concern — the good works through which Christians fulfill [fulfil for those of us who are not Americans] their vocation as “light of the world” to the glory of God (Mathew 5:16) — are a secondary duty for which Christians do not need to be strengthened, inspired or equipped but only exhorted.’ (
[3] Sherwood Eliot Wirt, The Social Conscience of the Evangelical (London: S.U., 1968), 8.
[4] iCare -a Christian organisation that helps street kids in Durban comes to mind.

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