What Is the Mission of Missions? Part 4
In part 4 of this series, Joel continues his discussion of eight biblical problems with the social action model of missions.
Problem 3: An inexplicable preference for indirect gospel ministry over direct gospel ministry.
In most social action mission efforts—such as medical clinics, well digging, and school teaching—the actual direct gospel ministry is quite limited, more of a hoped-for byproduct than the overt goal of what is done. However, based on the book of Acts, I would argue that the gospel is not an addendum or 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. The apostle Paul didn’t say that God was pleased to save sinners through the foolishness of the gospel mercied, rather, through the foolishness of the gospel preached (1 Cor 1:21).
After noting that studies have shown that Christians spend nearly five times more money on poverty relief than on evangelism and church planting, D.A. Carson warns that the gospel is often the missing component in supposedly “holistic” missions. He writes:
At one time, “holistic ministry” was an expression intended to move Christians beyond proclamation to include deeds of mercy. Increasingly, however, “holistic ministry” refers to deeds of mercy without any proclamation of the gospel—and that is not holistic. It is not even halfistic, since the deeds of mercy are not the gospel.... Judging by the distribution of American mission dollars, the biggest hole in our gospel is the gospel itself (“The Hole in the Gospel”).
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. Although surrounded by social ills easily the equal of today’s, the early church intentionally focused on direct gospel ministry.
Problem 4: 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” (Ashamed of the Gospel, 23). 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. Although certainly more noble than the seeker movement’s Las Vegas-style stage shows, it’s still an expression of the notion that the gospel needs a lead-in because it will never succeed by itself. And the dangers of this new pragmatism are the same as the old: the gospel is demoted to second place, and the medium becomes the message.
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 (Mark R. Gornik, “Doing the Word,” in The Urban Face of Missions, 194).
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, and the medium—social reform—has become the message. I can in no way reconcile the philosophy of missions reflected by that quote with the efforts of the apostles. In the end the new pragmatism leads us very far from book-of-Acts kind of missions.
Joel James has served as the pastor-teacher of Grace Fellowship in Pretoria, South Africa since February 1995. This series was adapted from Joel James and Brian Biedebach, “Regaining Our Focus: A Response to the Social Action Trend in Evangelical Missions,” MSJ 25, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 29-50.