What is the Mission of Missions? Part 2
As I survey today’s shift toward social action in missions, my concerns fall into three categories.
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 the late 1800s. Church projects included everything from employment bureaus to 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 some 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, 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, all-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 often warned the churches of that era of this problem. He 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. 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, and 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. Historically, making social reform an equal partner with evangelism and theological training doesn’t enliven missions: it kills it. 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 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 serves as a missionary in Malawi, 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” (Generous Justice, 145-6). 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” (Engaging With Keller, 156). 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 put it in mathematical terms, there are two problems with today’s rush to 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 has to be taken from the other.
Now, history is important, but not authoritative; concerns about resources might be able to be worked around. But 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 apostles—the Christ-appointed interpreters of that commission—interpreted and applied Jesus’ command? These are the questions to be considered next week in part 3.
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.