Author: R. York Moore
Category: Evangelism Training
“I understand that these things are important but when the students I send to your conferences come back caring more for the environment or slavery or clean drinking water than the gospel and evangelism, I have a real problem!” These were the frustrated words of a mega-church pastor as we shared lunch together after I had delivered evangelistic messages for his four services. The comment came as we were discussing the new face of evangelism and how addressing the gospel through the lens of justice has produced so much fruit in our ministry nationally. This pastor’s concerns or not rare, there is a growing frustration with conservative evangelicals regarding the direction of the church, particularly when it comes to social justice issues. Racial reconciliation, caring and loving the creation, AIDS, child prostitution, urban poverty, immigration-the list of issues and causes Christians are awakening to is long and growing and the pastor’s “problem” is a good one to have. The questions of why we should and how we should care about the injustices and needs of the world around us need to be answered. Embracing causes without critique just because we think God cares about them is not a good trend.
The short answer to why we should care about injustice is because God does, but the deeper question is why does he? Certainly, all causes aren’t equal-caring for animals is not equal to setting children free from the brick kilns of India. Does God care about animals? Proverbs 12:10 says, “The righteous know the needs of their animals, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel,” (NRSV). Certainly, God and His people do and should care for the creation. While finding passages that demonstrate God’s love for animals is a bit challenging (even in my ‘Green Bible’!), it is nearly impossible to miss God’s concern and passion for the poor, the oppressed, and for those despairing. There is a hierarchy of needs so to speak when it comes to things that we are to be about. The needs of peoples both physical and eschatological certainly are at the top of such a hierarchy but this is where the lines get fuzzy. If a family of farmers on the Malaysian coast can no longer farm because of the effects of climate change and are thrust into abject poverty and are thus at a greater risk to be trafficked into forced labor by the powerful, it is difficult to untangle their temporal needs from their eternal needs. Additionally, we can see from this illustration how directly linked the issue of climate change is to poverty, oppression, and ultimately conversion. This may seem like a leap for many conservatives, but I don’t think it is an irrational one. Charles Finney said that one of the greatest obstacles to salvation was the blinding that comes from being worldly, or preoccupied with the overwhelming temporal needs of the world. Certainly, these Malaysian farmers need Jesus but they also need to be productive, own their own land, have access to the fruits of their labor, live free and enjoy the earth. These issues are not mutually exclusive and Jesus Christ is the answer to both sets of needs.
How we should care about issues is probably the main concern of my mega-church pastor friend. Certainly, it would be a calloused and out of touch Christian to hear of the needs and have no regard for the 13 year old African child who lives alone because both his parents have died of AIDS. Even if such a so-called Christian existed, she would keep such disregard private. Every day, however, we demonstrate our lack of love for God’s creation and the people of the world by the way we care or fail to care for the temporal needs of those around us and by doing so we allow Finney’s conception of worldliness to proliferate, blinding hundreds of millions to the great news of Christ. For the on-looker, the Church seems aloof, unconcerned about the real needs of people and this disillusions them to the person and message of Christ. For those caught in the cycle of poverty, oppression, and despair, such lack of action and concern by the Church prevents them from hearing and seeing Christ and, according to Luke 10, is tantamount to being complicit in their victimization. We must care, but how? How do we stay committed to the gospel and avoid a new kind of liberation theology or spiritualized activism? Are we doomed to the same dichotomization that produced left and right, conservative and liberal? The answer is to never allow such a schism between gospel proclamation and Kingdom demonstration to appear practically in our lives and ministries. This may be easier said than done but it must be done and done right.
For instance, recently I spoke at a large Presbyterian church and was excited to see their commitment to recycling everything from light bulbs to Sunday morning brochures to bottles and cans. I asked my guide at the church about their program and she said, “We are so excited to help our people understand the importance of caring for God’s creation and it really helps us connect with other non-Christian organizations in our community!” This is the right attitude! Why does our care for the earth need to be separate from our concern for non-Christians? I think the concern for many, and legitimately so, is because so often one comes at the expense of the other or for many “evangelistically minded,” the care for an issue is really a cloaked mechanism to get a gospel presentation in with little or no real concern for the issue. Both concerns are important to note but should not prevent us from creatively and sincerely committing do both-to proclaim Christ and demonstrate His Kingdom. We should never even try to conceive of providing clean drinking water or AIDS relief or freedom for slaves without also thinking about the eternal needs of those we are seeking to help. This is not to say that caring for the poor or the earth does not have intrinsic value that is worthy to be expressed even if people don’t “get saved”-this is what worries some. However, it is often short-sightedness, a lack of creativity, and a stunted theology that prevents us from bringing the two mandates-proclaiming Christ and demonstrating His Kingdom-to bear in our expression of Christian evangelization.
Back to my pastor friend. What I shared with him was that we stand to lose on both sides if we allow the old dichotomization to emerge in our generation’s expression of the faith. If we don’t care for the earth and for the peoples of the earth, we lose our legitimacy in the eyes of the watching world and will perpetuate spiritual blindness through our complicity of inaction. If we continue to evangelize without demonstrating God’s Kingdom power and love, we may win individuals souls for Christ for a season, but end up losing the battle for the hearts and minds of a generation. If we divorce our cause, whichever cause that may be, from the transformative power of the gospel, even at our best we will continue to perpetuate the spiritual damnation of the lost, God’s chief concern in sending Jesus to be our propitiation for sin. Human flourishing is God’s ultimate goal for us, eternal, abundant life and this starts with conversion. We must be saved. We must proclaim Christ, calling women and men everywhere to repent but we do so through the lens of demonstrating God’s Kingdom power and love as Paul says in I Thes. 1:5, “…the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.” The word of the Lord-thanks be to God!