August 19, 2016

2 problems with social action in missions

by Joel James

As I survey today’s shift toward social action in missions, my concerns fall into three categories. Today’s post will look at the first two, and next week we will pick up the third (to get the most out of this post, I’d encourage you to read yesterday’s introduction, “Missions: Ecclesiology with a Passport“).


1) Are we ignoring the lessons of history?

In the late 1800s conservative evangelicals enthusiastically threw themselves into social reform projects.  They did so in response to the rapid industrialization and urbanization that typified that era.  Church projects included employment bureaus, day-care, summer homes for tenement children, and food kitchens.  However, evangelicals’ enthusiasm for social reform gradually evaporated in the opening three decades of the 1900s.  By 1930, in what church historians have called “the Great Reversal,” conservative evangelicals abandoned or severely curtailed their social action projects.  They did so primarily for two reasons:  distortion and distraction.

Doctrinally speaking, they found that social action missions too often acted like water:  it ran downhill into a murky theological swamp called the Social Gospel.  The Social Gospel is a distortion of the true gospel in which social upliftment gradually trumps the gospel of salvation from sins.  Second, evangelicals in the early 1900s also discovered that social reform had become an intoxicating, consuming distraction.  In theory, the soup kitchen was not supposed to replace the cross.  But in practice, churches found that the gospel consistently slipped into second place because social programs required so much time, attention, and money.

The evangelist D. L. Moody liked to say that when Christians go to the world with a loaf of bread in one hand and a Bible in the other, they’ll usually find that sinners will take the bread and ignore the Bible.  This, of course, is exactly the problem Jesus confronted in John 6 after feeding the 5,000.  Interestingly, Jesus’ solution wasn’t more bread.  Instead, it was a decisive, clear gospel presentation intentionally designed to chase off the insincere.

When I look at history, it appears to me that we’re on an oval track when it comes to this issue.  We’ve been around the track before:  do we really need to learn all the same lessons again?  Historically, where social action missions leads is this:  In the year 1900, mainline Protestant churches in the United States supplied 80% of North America’s missionaries.  Over time, as those churches became more and more focused on social action, the number of missionaries they sent out steadily decreased.  In fact, in the year 2000, those same social-action focused churches supplied only 6% of North America’s missionary force.[i]  Historically, making social reform an equal partner with evangelism and theological training doesn’t enliven missions:  it kills it.  Although there may be an initial spike on the graph, in the long haul, only the Word of God and the true gospel openly preached can keep churches motivated for missions, not social relief projects.

2) Is the church’s true work—that which only the the church can do—being unintentionally neglected?

Evangelicals are committed to keeping the gospel, the Word of God, and the church the main things.  However, in practice, this is very difficult to do in social relief missions.  Social relief projects are like black holes—their gravitational pull sucks up all the resources available, and clamors for more.  While the theory states that gospel proclamation is the main thing, in regard to budgets, planning, staff, time, and effort, what’s actually first is all too clear.

My friend, Brian Biedebach, who served in South Africa and Malawi for two decades, writes this about his attempt at social action missions as a young man:

I spent a year working on a holistic project in Malawi in 1997-1998.  I was responsible for the oversight of twenty-six Bible college students, fifty goats, four hundred chickens, and a large agricultural garden.  When I woke up in the morning, the first thing on my mind was getting the eggs to market.  All through the day I was consumed with making sure that water was being pumped, animals were being fed, and in the middle of the night I was awake, chasing away chicken thieves and wild dogs.

Whatever the theory, the practical realities of running that agricultural plot meant that Brian had little or no time for teaching the Bible college students he was supposed to be discipling.  In fact, examples like this could be multiplied endlessly because in social action missions, distraction is the norm, not the exception.

Even Tim Keller admits the problem.  He writes, “Churches that … try to take on all the levels of doing justice often find that the work of community renewal and social justice overwhelms the work of preaching, teaching and nurturing the congregation.”[ii]  In response, Peter Naylor offers this insightful evaluation:  “Keller speaks as if there is a certain point at which this becomes problematic, but he does not demonstrate how this effect is not already in operation the moment the church becomes involved in this kind of work at all.”[iii]

Naylor’s point is that distraction starts immediately.  As resources are fed into the maw of social projects, by default, essential ministries (what I call “book-of-Acts missions”) are underfed and begin to starve.  The displacement of the gospel and preaching is often completely unintentional, but when you push the box of social action missions on to the front of the wagon, something has to fall off the back to make space for it.

To put it in mathematical terms, there are two problems with today’s rush to embrace social reform missions.  The Social Gospel is a problem of subtraction:  it subtracts essential theology—sin and repentance—from the church’s message.  Social reform projects, on the other hand, threaten the church in a different way:  by addition.  When resource-consuming social projects are added to the church’s agenda, those resources can’t be used for proclamation ministries.  It’s a zero-sum game:  what’s given to one is inevitably taken from the other.

But, of course, the key question in all this is, What does the Bible say?  For evangelicals, that’s always the final question:  Is the current shift in missions biblical?  Are we busy redrawing the lane markers of missions without regard to how the Christ-appointed interpreters of that commission —interpreted and applied Jesus’ instruction?  We’ll address that in the final three posts.

[i] David J. Hesselgrave, “Will We correct the Edinburgh Error?  Future Mission in Historical Perspective” in Southwestern Journal of Theology, vol. 49, no. 2, Spring 2007, 126.

[ii] Tim Keller, Generous Justice (New York: Dutton Adult, 2010), 145-6.

[iii] In Engaging With Keller, 156.

Joel James


Joel is the pastor-teacher of Grace Fellowship in Pretoria, South Africa, where he has served since 1995. Joel has his D. Min. from The Master's Seminary.
  • David

    Excellent article. After two decades of work on “book-of-Acts” ministry in the Middle East, I couldn’t agree more. Yet another problem: Why is ministry that focuses mostly on social action “holistic” or integral, and ministry that focuses on proclamation not? What makes a vocational orphanage worker who occasionally shares the gospel more holistic than a vocational evangelist who occasionally meets the material needs of the poor? My experience is that few ministries do both social action and proclamation equally; almost none of them are truly balanced (not that we need to achieve such balance in every ministry), yet it’s those who focus on social action who so often claim to be “holistic” or “integral.”

  • David

    A great book on this topic: What is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert

    • I agree David. I love that book, and think it asks the right questions.

  • alexguggenheim

    Sadly this critical conversation will be swallowed by the echo chamber of Tim Keller called The Gospel Coalition, where pretense of attention and honor toward these good thoughts will be attended to with words and then, back to supporting social justice and trying to “fix” America’s Anglo-centric culture.Blah.

    Yes, I am cynical with respect to the very people who need to hear and reverse course, they won’t.
    Great essay, thanks.

  • andrew

    So you are arguing that German local churches in the 1930s-40s were “distracted” when they helped Jews to safety?

    • Maranatha

      If these Jews did not hear about their Messiah in Isaiah53 at the same time: YES.

      • andrew

        Good answers, but it’s a different answer than the post above gave, right? I thought the point of the blog post was that “social help” always crowds out the ministry of proclamation. I thought the point was that we can’t live with the “both-and” but have to be proclamation-only.

        • Maranatha

          If you give shelter to a New and you are newborn Christian, how could you miss the ministry at the same time? Jesus fed the 5000, did he not give the gospel short time later?

      • 4Commencefiring4

        You’re serious?

        So let me picture this: The Nazis are breaking down doors and rounding up Jews–men, women, children–to be sent to the camps. Panic in the streets. Chaos across the ghetto. It’s Kristallnacht. Many are going to die tonight, no matter what.

        A church decides to help as many as they can to safety–risking death to themselves and their charges. But hopefully they won’t let the SS officers at the door–the ones with the Lugers–“distract” the church folk from delivering a lesson from Isaiah 53 inside the house before Helmut breaks through and ends it.

        I think the reading may have to wait. Time to find the secret hiding place. Like now.

  • Maranatha

    What does the Bibel say… ? Well, it says: Matthew 8,22 / Luke 9,60 ” Let the dead bury their dead.” That’s it. FOLLOW ME, says the LORD. Nothing else.

    • bs

      Maranatha, is this the same bible that says: Ps 53,1 “There is no god”?

      • Jeff Schlottmann

        You forgot the rest of the verse.

        The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
        They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity;
        there is none who does good.

      • Maranatha

        @bs: Don’t know what you mean in this context, please explain this cryptic comment. 😉

        • bs

          Maranatha, do you think quoting six words answers the question “what does the bible say…?”

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