Last week I explained the importance of understanding that for missions to truly succeed, it must be built on the foundation of strong ecclesiology. I then wrote a critique of the approach to missions that focus on social action. Today I want to expand on that post, and describe what exactly my concerns are with this approach to missions.
There are at least eight biblical problems with the social action model of missions. Of course, not all social-action advocates exhibit all eight of these problems, but naturally, since this is a survey, I need to paint with a broad brush.
Problem 1: A redefinition of the gospel.
Many social justice advocates argue that the incarnation was, at least in part, about bringing shalom, human flourishing, or general well-being to the human race. Therefore, they say that any Christian effort which increases human flourishing (such as digging a well or starting a medical clinic) is gospel ministry. Although this may initially seem compelling, it is a very dangerous one because it involves a significant redefinition of the gospel.
As D. A. Carson points out, any such redefinition of the gospel is categorically wrong. He writes, “[The gospel is] the good news of what God has done, not a description of what [Christians] ought to do in consequence …. One cannot too forcefully insist on the distinction between the gospel and its entailments.”[i] In other words, by definition, digging a well is not the gospel, because the gospel is about what God has done in Jesus Christ, not anything we do. How did we forget that?
Furthermore, to represent the gospel of Jesus Christ as being about the general upliftment of unbelieving society is, in fact, to misrepresent the gospel. John MacArthur writes:
I recently mentioned to a friend that I was working on a book dealing with sin and our culture’s declining moral climate. He immediately said:
Be sure you urge Christians to get actively involved in reclaiming society. The main problem is that Christians haven’t acquired enough influence in politics, art, and the entertainment industry to turn things around for good.’ That, I acknowledge, is a common view held by many Christians. But I’m afraid I don’t agree …. God’s purpose in this world—and the church’s only legitimate commission—is the proclamation of the message of sin and salvation to individuals.[ii]
Problem 2: An inexplicable preference for indirect gospel ministry over direct gospel ministry.
In most social action mission efforts the actual gospel ministry is quite limited—more of a hoped-for byproduct than the overt goal. For example, school teachers and doctors naturally have to spend the majority of their day teaching arithmetic and peering into ears and down throats. A church planter, on the other hand, spends his entire day doing direct gospel ministry. Based on the book of Acts, I would argue that the gospel is not merely a hoped-for byproduct of missions. The gospel is the mission. An indirect approach might be necessary in Islamic countries where Christians need secular employment to get into the country. However, there is no need to adopt indirect strategies when reaching open countries.
Often lurking behind this preference for expensive, roundabout, indirect-gospel ministry is the notion that the church must first portray the gospel by means of social action before it can preach the gospel. I find no basis for this in Acts or the Epistles. 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.
Problem 3: The new pragmatism.
John MacArthur has said that one of the key crippling weaknesses of the evangelical church in our era is “a spiraling loss of confidence in the power of Scripture.”[iii] I often see this reflected in the social action movement. The argument is, once the church’s social relief programs make unbelievers amiable toward us, then we can nudge them toward Christ. It’s a new expression of the old notion that the gospel needs an enticing lead-in because it will never succeed by itself.
Let me illustrate. The following description of a social-action church plant in the Baltimore, Maryland area, comes from a book on urban missions written by graduates of Westminster Seminary. This quote, which is fully representative of the book, provides a rather bare-faced example of doubting the power of the gospel and of the medium becoming the message:
Without a holistic faith, there is no gospel in Sandtown. Living out the gospel in this context has meant building a collaborative network of church- and community-based institutions that focus on housing, job development, education and health care. In 2001, the full-time staff numbered over eighty …. Seeking the shalom of Sandtown means a concentrated effort to eliminate vacant and substandard housing, a K-8 school … a job placement center that links over one hundred residents a year to employment, and a family health center …. Simply ‘preaching the gospel’ would have failed.[iv]
According to that author, the gospel in Sandtown includes housing reform, job development, quality education, and health care. In fact, it appears that about the only thing that the gospel in Sandtown does not include is Jesus Christ crucified for sinners. Jesus as Savior from substandard housing and unemployment is highly visible. Jesus as Savior from sin and hell is nowhere to be found, and frankly, isn’t even necessary to most of what is being done. The power of the gospel is openly doubted (imagine if eighty full-time church planters had been sent there!), and the medium—social reform—has become the message.
In the end, the new pragmatism leads one very far from book-of-Acts kind of missions.
[i] D.A. Carson, “The Hole in the Gospel” (http://thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/ article/
the_hole_in_the_gospel). Accessed 31 January, 2014, emphasis original.
[ii] John MacArthur, Jr., The Vanishing Conscience: Drawing the Line in a No-Fault, Guilt-Free World (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994), 12.
[iii] John MacArthur, Jr., Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1993, 2010), 23.
[iv] Mark R. Gornik, “Doing the Word: Biblical Holism and Urban Ministry,” in The Urban Face of Missions, eds. Manuel Ortiz and Susan S. Baker (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 194.