August 18, 2016

Missions: ecclesiology with a passport

by Joel James
Missions is your ecclesiology armed with a passport.

The American evangelical culture has demonstrated a remarkable confusion about the nature of the church. This in-turn has led to an equally critical confusion about the nature of missions.

While a Western missionary might need to leave his PowerPoint presentation and carpeted, air conditioned auditorium behind when he hikes over the mountain to a remote village, the important things that make a church—the biblical things—transfer directly and immediately into any culture.

In the past, the majority of theologically conservative missionaries were sent out to do church planting, leadership training, and Bible translation.  No longer.  Today a growing percentage of new missionaries are being sent to focus on social relief, with the church and the gospel tacked on as something of theological addendum.  In fact, in my twenty years as a missionary in Africa, I’ve seen a major shift in evangelical missions away from what I call “book of Acts missions” toward social reform projects or social action missions.  

It’s no surprise.  The influential voices dominating the evangelical conversation about the church and about missions today are promoting a new kind of mission:  shalom, social justice, or the gospel of good deeds and human flourishing.  And it appears that the new generation of evangelicals—the Young, Restless, and Reformed—has bought in, enthusiastically embracing social upliftment as their central missions strategy.  Most of the resulting evangelical missionaries value the church and the gospel, but in many cases, they seem to view the church primarily as a platform from which to run their favourite relief project.  As a missionary who has served the Lord on the pointy end of the spear for two decades, I have a significant concern about these changes.

The New Testament apostles were the Christ-appointed and Christ-trained interpreters of Jesus’ Great Commission, yet it appears to me that how the apostles defined and enacted Jesus’ commission to reach the world is often being ignored by evangelicals in their rush toward social action missions.

I believe that the book of Acts should rigorously shape our approach to missions.  While no one would say that Acts is absolutely prescriptive in regard to missions, it is certainly must be considered to be more than merely descriptive.  In short, the apostles’ interpretation of Jesus’ Great Commission is a timeless, definitive, and authoritative interpretation (Eph 2:20).  What they did as the Christ-instructed interpreters of the Great Commission lays down for us the lane markers for the church’s missions efforts in any era.  And, as evangelical churches shift from proclamation-oriented missions to social-action missions, I wonder if we aren’t running diagonally across the track rather than straight down our lane.

The current tug-of-war between proclamation-oriented missions and social-action missions is not new.  However, in recent years key voices in evangelicalism have enthusiastically promoted social action missions, including prominent evangelicals such as John Stott and Tim Keller.  In fact, John Stott has for decades urged the church to make social action and evangelism equal, fifty-fifty partners in the fulfilling of the Great Commission.  Years ago, Stott wrote, “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.”[i]  More recently, Tim Keller has played a key role in promoting social action.  Peter Naylor sums up Keller’s view this way:  “Keller’s main thesis is that the church has a twofold mission in this world:  (1) to preach the gospel and (2) to do justice, which involves social and cultural transformation and renewal.”[ii]

It’s a dicey line that Stott and Keller have drawn for the church to walk.  In essence, they are saying, “We’re going to keep the gospel the main thing and focus the church on social reform; in fact, in a sense, social action is the gospel too.”  In theory, it’s a noble blend of word and deed.  Naturally, however, the further one pushes into the realm of social action, the closer one gets to the place where social involvement ceases to be distinctly Christian, and at some point, social involvement even starts to supplant that which is distinctly Christian.

In the 1990s, Stott acknowledged the danger of his dual emphasis:  “The main fear of my critics seems to be that missionaries will be sidetracked.”[iii]  In fact, I believe that fear is a perfectly valid one, and has been repeatedly proven to be so.   Today, many churches and missions committees barely seem aware of the distinction between missionaries who focus on social action and missionaries who focus on Bible translation, theological training, church planting, and gospel proclamation.  Tomorrow I’ll post on some of my concerns about social action missions.

[i]“Evangelism and Social Responsibility: An Evangelical Commitment,” Grand Rapids Report No. 21, Consultation on the Relationships between Evangelism and Social responsibility (CRESR) (Wheaton, IL: Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization and the World Evangelical Fellowship, 1982).

[ii] Peter Naylor,  in Engaging With Keller:, 137.  Peter Naylor, “The Church’s Mission: Sent to ‘Do Justice’ in the World?” in Engaging With Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical, eds. Iain D. Campbell and William M. Schweitzer, (Darlington, England: EP Books, 2013), 137.

[iii] John Stott, The Contemporary Christian: Applying God’s Word to Today’s World (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 342.

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.
  • Fibber MaGee

    Not surprised about either of those men. Stott was an annihilationist, why even present the gospel with that view? And doesn’t Keller deny the creation account? In my area many are sold the “mission trip” as a personally sanctifying event. I don’t want to down play the importance of service, but without the gospel, what’s the point? Good post.

    • Jason

      I worry that it would take a pretty low view of the significance of eternal life to think that one’s view on hell would make evangelism unnecessary (except Universalism, since everyone would get eternal life entirely independent of the faith if that were true).

      We need to be careful not to see evangelism as selling fire insurance. Evangelism is a ministry performed for the body of saints (Ephesians 4:11), not a service to the world. We are giving the elect who have not yet believed the gospel an introduction to life in the kingdom.

      Ultimately, if the only thing Christ saved us from was eternal life here in fallen creation (sadly, many even in the church have this view of eternal life!) it would STILL be worth it for the sake of glorifying God and for the good of the elect to encourage people out of that state in light of the perfection of God’s plan for his people.

      Not that one’s view on the judgement of the wicked is irrelevant, but I think it’s all too common (I know it is for me) to slip into thinking of the gospel as a ticket out of somewhere more than the gate to somewhere. I believe this view to be the leading cause of Hyper Grace theology as well as Universalism.

      • Fibber MaGee

        I was thinking more along the lines of a low view of scripture. How does eternal punishment not come up in a complete gospel presentation? Never thought about it in terms of insurance, but that we are commanded to share the gospel. I personally don’t feel like I need to convince
        someone, that’s not my job.

  • karolekay

    It seems the natural progression of dual-focused missions is to eventually (and sometimes rapidly) switch the priority of sharing the gospel while helping to helping while throwing in a little of the gospel – if it is presented at all. Alleviating suffering is admirable, but what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?

    • 4Commencefiring4

      Years ago, I knew a fellow who was–admittedly–a bit touched in the head. His morning routine was to go to the bus stop in the morning (he himself was unemployed, and if you’d ever met him you would understand why), confront commuters who were just minding their own business waiting for the #14-D bus, and yell at them about how they’re all going to hell if they “did nothing.” He would then retire to his studio apartment for the day, satisfied that he had done the Lord’s work and been a faithful witness.

      He was biblical in his message, sincere in his mission of wanting to save souls who were hell-bound, aware that time was of the essence, but his delivery needed work.

      That’s an extreme example of setting aside the needs of the target audience so that we can just get down to the essentials. Obviously, we all recognize that souls are more important, in the final analysis, than anything else. But one’s need for “anything else” can sometimes get in the way of our attention to our souls. The mission that ignores them has an extra layer of impediment to a listening ear.

      • karolekay

        It’s a spurious argument. I have never been involved with any mission whose primary purpose was to share the gospel that wasn’t also involved with meeting physical needs. I have, however, known many social gospel organizations that only wanted to “show” Jesus and never present the gospel verbally. The Word says faith comes by hearing, not by showing.

        • 4Commencefiring4

          But this article says if you come with bread in one hand and a Bible in the other, pretty soon it’s all about the bread. And therefore don’t do it.

          So the issue is, Shall we not concern ourselves with the stomach and instead focus solely on the spirit? Or shall we mix–some would say “water down”–our message with meeting those needs, too?

          I can see the error of turning a church, for instance, into a soup kitchen. But a typical mission (as in the old Pacific Garden Mission) does outreach to the community with shelter, food, clothing, mentoring, etc. A lot more than “just” the Gospel.

          If we’re going to say such entities are compromising the Great Commission by diverting resources into physical needs, then the review of our deeds when the King goes over them with the sheep and the goats on That Day may be pretty uncomfortable.

          • karolekay

            I don’t understand this article to be saying don’t give food to the hungry or help the poor. I don’t think that’s what Moody meant either, since he suggested the name of Pacific Garden Mission. I have yet to be involved with a mission outreach whose primary purpose was to spread the gospel that refused to help those in need when they could. The difference is the priority, and the social gospel people always end up focusing on the wrong one. It is easy to understand, because human suffering is visible: their eternal state is not. The social gospel advocates claim they are doing what Jesus did, but He never did anything to bring about “social justice” or encourage His disciples to take that track either. If they have to misquote, misinterpret and misapply God’s word to advance their agenda, then it’s not GOD’s agenda.

  • Reuben

    Making the world a better place to go to hell from…

  • 4Commencefiring4

    The cynic in me says that one advantage to engaging in “pure” evangelism, rather than trying to meet the immediate needs of the people first (so they might be more receptive to the message?), is that it saves time: If they don’t receive you and the proclamation of the Gospel, naked and famished though they may be, you can quit wasting time with them and go on to the next place where, perhaps, they aren’t as desperate for survival and are more willing to sit and listen to a sermonette.

    I hope that’s not what you’re advocating, because that’s a reasonable inference. What’s happened to concern for “the least of these, My brethren”, ala Matt 25 and the provision of food, clothing, medical aid, etc to those who are in need? Is that part of “social justice” that the article devalues, or is that part of the Gospel itself?

    If I were relegated to living in some of the areas where you’ve probably ministered and had the acquisition of food and maintenance of health as my primary fixations on a daily basis, I think I’d be a lot less willing to hear someone tell me about his views on the next world until he did something to make my life in this one a bit more tolerable.

  • Jason

    I think it is in line with the book of Acts (and numerous other references in the New Testament) to provide aid for brothers and sisters in other nations when they’re struggling (look at all the offerings collected for other cities in the epistles).

    However, aid in supporting the fellowship of the saints definitely needs to be more than that. Even people who go into countries just to preach the gospel to people and then leave really haven’t done much for the Great Commission (which encourages us to make DISCIPLES and not merely converts).

    Until a few years ago, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as missionaries who actually set up seminary schools, and while I’d heard of people “building churches” it was usually more about constructing buildings than actually cultivating a healthy church body (as encouraged in the letters to Timothy). Since learning this, I’ve developed a new passion for supporting missions and my wife and I have discussed participating in them ourselves.

    With the right perspective “support” just makes sense. However, it needs to be seen as supporting the church and not just the “bait” in a bait and switch tactic to make the world stop hating Christ (it ain’t happenin’).

  • bs

    Joel, at one point you mentioned traditional missionaries being sent out to do Bible translation. I assume then that you are including Bible translation in your “book of Acts missions”. I am wondering why?

    • Doulos

      Question was to Joel, I realize. Pardon my butting in. This afternoon we finished exegetical checking our draft of Revelation. A decade ago when we began there were no believers of any tradition in this half million language group. Today there are. More than two thousand vital language groups still have no Acts, no Revelation. It was necessary to appoint seven to serve widows so that the twelve could dedicate themselves to the preaching of the Word. (Acts 6:2). I am grateful for those who have dedicated themselves to ministry like that so that we can dedicate ourselves to translating the Word for those who cannot understand Acts because it does not exist in the language they understand best. Dedicating ourselves to this type of “ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4) has not meant withdrawing ourselves from other ministry for example in the local orphanage. But we have dedicated ourselves to Bible translation, as without that focus, it will not be completed (or will be completed very poorly.) The translation of Scripture into the mother tongue of the people is proclamation. Even before the translation is completed and published, we are proclaiming the truths of God’s Word every day around the translation table as we exegete and check the word with native speakers, many of whom have never before heard the Word, some of whom may have only a few years left to hear it. And the carefully translated Word, with the Spirit, empowers them to be proclaimers themselves, of course. Pray for us and for them. We are grateful for those who have heard, for the first time, the first in their “nation” ever. So many still have no idea what the name “Jesus” means.

      • bs

        Doulos, I am with you 100% in what you have said and in the ministry you have. Translating the Bible is certainly crucial work. As indeed is its partner — literacy/education (and, I would add, language development in general). But this is not what Joel seems to be saying when he now writes: “In fact, missions efforts in which the preaching of the Word and the
        proclamation of the gospel are an afterthought or a _hoped-for byproduct_
        bear no resemblance to the missions efforts of the apostles in the book
        of Acts” (emphasis added). As Frank suggests below, his good points need a bit more probing otherwise they are simply lost.

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  • Frank Turk

    Hi Joel — I’m reading this series with interest because the idea that the local church is at the center of missions is an idea which, it seems to me, is lost on most people in this age of parachurch ministry and hyper-atomization of faith. What I particularly like in this section of your argument is the idea that somehow the book of Acts, while certainly /descriptive/ of the apostolic activity of missions, describes the apostolic understanding of Jesus’ commission to them to preach the Gospel to the world and make disciples everywhere. At face value, I am also very wary of the idea that somehow social action is the Gospel or is even one of the necessary consequences of the Gospel. Having said this to establish my place as a friend to your message, I have an important question for you which I think has to be dealt with as we oppose anti-Gospel missions. Your plan may be to address this in another section of your series, but I’ll ask, and I hope you have time to respond.

    The church in the book of Acts, as it spreads through the ancient world, is said to turn the whole world upside-down (cf. Acts 17). It seems to me that this means that there are, in fact, necessary consequences of the Gospel which cause more than just the recitation of Greek and Hebrew texts. For example, the actual calling out from the culture and calling into Christ which makes the church a local body and not merely an rumor or a conspiracy means people have done something. The litany of things at the end of Acts 2 are necessary consequences, and it’s not too far fetched to say that verses 45 and 47a say that there are relationships built upon the overflow of peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (not to mention love and joy) which are necessary consequences of hearing the Gospel, believing it, and repenting.

    In my view of it, this is what a truly-robust ecclesiology bears out, and it is my hope that this is what you mean by it when you say these things — but I think that the shorthand you are using obscures that from some who are technically on our team but find themselves in favor of churches in which fellowship is more like symmetrical proximity than it is like what Paul praises the Thessalonians for in his letters to them.

    So my question is this: what is the right distinction between “social Gospel” missions and the right-minded manifestation of what the book of Acts describes as the true fellowship among believers?

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