Gospelizing the Social: Why Social Justice & Evangelism Work Together
by R. York Moore
While the Church’s historic engagement in justice issues is well documented, there is a sense in which a renewed commitment to the missiological integration of justice and evangelism is drastically needed to uncover a contextualizable way forward.
Young girls rescued from slavery and sex traffickers in India learning to sew. Photo courtesy Baptist Press
Maria sat toward the back of the room as I called students in Los Angeles to give their lives to Jesus. “Tonight, the Christ who calls you is the Christ who has not only come to save the world from the hell to come, but also from the hell that is now,” I pressed. “Jesus has an answer for five-year-old Jyoti [a child-sex slave in Myanmar], and he has an answer for you here tonight as well. Whether our chains are physical or spiritual, Christ came to break the chains of slavery and tonight you can be free just as Jyoti is now free because of what Christ has done.”
I was speaking to a large crowd of college students on the forced prostitution of children at an InterVarsity event designed to raise money and awareness for International Justice Mission (IJM). I had been speaking across the U.S. about slavery, something I’ve now invested over twelve years of my life doing.
On this night, God got a hold of Maria’s heart. After responding to the call to faith in Jesus, she walked up to me and spoke passionately: “I came into this room with my walls up, but as soon as you began speaking of a Jesus who cares about the suffering and injustices of this world, I knew that this was the Jesus who could do something in my life too.”
Maria continued to confess her belief in Christ, to express a desire to leave her ongoing lesbian relationship, and to profess her desire to really engage her newfound faith through action. Her weeping, mascara-stained admonition was so intense that the so-called “Christian” who brought her that night stepped forward as well to confess her sins and claim Jesus as her own for the first time in her adult life.
Evangelism, Justice, and New Lives in Christ
Stories like Maria and her friend have become commonplace across the United States for us in InterVarsity. In fact, while integrating social justice practices with the proclamation of the gospel, InterVarsity has seen increases in conversions for seven years, as well as increases in InterVarsity chapter size growth and the establishment of new chapters. In InterVarsity’s 70+-year history, we have never seen as many students come to faith as we recorded in the 2011-2012 school year.
While not all of InterVarsity’s evangelistic strategies and practices revolve around a substantive integration of social justice and evangelism, this practical integration is a significant factor in the increased visibility, effectiveness, and relevance of one of America’s oldest collegiate ministries. There is no doubt that America’s collegiate environment is one where there is a substantial interest in global social justice.
While the Church’s historic engagement in justice issues is well documented, there is a sense in which a renewed commitment to the missiological integration of justice and evangelism is drastically needed to uncover a contextualizable way forward (Glasser and van Engen 2003, 311). This way forward is needed, particularly as the Church in the West faces new challenges, not the least of which is the fast-changing mainstreaming or normalizing of homosexuality.
A Second Look at Jesus and Ministry Success
My journey as a justice evangelist and abolitionist began at Urbana 2000 after hearing Gary Haugen of IJM speak. Prior to this “second conversion” moment in my faith journey, I had led thousands of students to faith in Christ through my preaching ministry. I had been converted radically from atheism as an honors philosophy student at the University of Michigan in 1989. Growing up, I was steeped in philosophic atheism, being named after and reared in the teachings of Ayn Rand (Rand being my first name).
Growing up, we had a sign on the front of our home that read, “The Moore’s, the Atheists” and a barrel on the side of the house for Bible burning. After coming to Christ at the age of 20, I dedicated my life to sharing Jesus in the university context. Sitting at Urbana 2000, however, Haugen’s message of the plight of children forced into slavery challenged my conception of Jesus and my missiological metrics for how ministry success was measured. I came away from that conference determined to figure out what Christ could mean for engaging modern-day slavery and so began my journey as a justice evangelist and abolitionist.
Justice Invitationals as Models for Integration
My 12-year journey of integrating social justice into my practice as an evangelist has led me to create a campaign model that has proven to be transformative for InterVarsity. This campaign model, referred to as a Justice Invitational, combines evangelism with a substantive engagement with social justice (see tellthestory.net for the Justice Invitational manual and source files).
The model revolves around Christians and non-Christians working together to create sustainable solutions to complex problems in the context of spiritual dialogue and mobilization. Engaging culture-makers in business, medicine, law, politics, sports, entertainment, activism, and academia, InterVarsity’s Justice Invitationals have helped change laws, establish foundations, increase funding and facilities for frontline anti-trafficking organizations, capture national media attention, and establish new ministries.
In addition, Justice Invitationals have helped lead thousands of students to faith in Christ and have propelled many into a career of missions in a variety of ways. InterVarsity’s Justice Invitationals have provided resources and visibility for some of the world’s best and most effective non-governmental organizations as well.
Currently, we are conducting our largest Justice Invitational to date—the New York City Price of Life Invitational scheduled for October 2013 (priceoflifenyc.org). Through this Invitational, we hope to see tens of thousands exposed to the gospel through eighty events on ten college campuses in ten days. We also hope to engage political and business leaders in Cambodia, New York City, and the U.S. government in order to accelerate changes in legal, political, and business practices in New York and in Cambodia’s largest and fastest developing city—Phnom Penh.
Three Necessary Components
Integrating social justice into organizational missional practice has not only proven to be incredibly effective for InterVarsity, it is also an expression of true kingdom ministry. Paul states in 1 Thessalonians 1:5a, “…our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.” When the gospel came to Paul’s hearers, it was distinct from other religious teaching because it came incarnationally (deep conviction), with a supernatural presence (the Holy Spirit), and with a demonstration of its legitimacy (power).
Engaging in substantive ways with enduring and complex issues of injustice, like slavery, is one of the most important ways the Church can demonstrate the transformative power of the gospel in today’s milieu. Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians has become the template for my missiological praxis as a justice evangelist. Regardless if one’s organizational orientation comes from the trajectory of evangelism or that of engaging the temporal needs of people, Paul’s template and the first Church’s missiological practice demonstrates the both/and of preaching Christ and doing good in the power of the Spirit.
Grounded in Scripture, Responding in Culture
InterVarsity’s integration of social justice and evangelistic practice provides the opportunity to incarnationally relate not only with the non-churched, but the anti-church people. For example, the president of the GBLTQ (gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, questioning) community at one of the largest campuses in America recently came to faith in Christ and left the gay/lesbian community through a weekend program InterVarsity led around sex trafficking.
Missiologically, engaging in social justice in parallel or serial with more traditional missional practice (discipleship, evangelism, scripture teaching) is insufficient. We need to find ways to holistically integrate, in real time, the practice of justice with the rest of the mission of the Church. In fact, missiological practice needs to be as much defined by what we discover in the pages of scripture as it does by the unique contours of our current ministry context—i.e., we need to respond to our time and to our context (van Engen 1991, 116).
In fact, our time and our context in the U.S. is increasingly becoming hostile, particularly around issues of sexual identity and practice, and we must find a way forward. The result of doing this well produces what I refer to as a “transformative dynamism”—a power that is much more than merely the addition of two good things, but rather an expression of the multi-dimensional, eschatological kingdom breaking into real time and space. The alternative of failing to live into this transformative dynamism is increased marginalization and eventually total cultural irrelevance (see Figure 1 below).
In the area of engaging culture missiologically around sexual identity, I believe the Church is falling into the latter category. This both/and integration of justice and evangelism through mobilizing the non and anti-churched student base through Justice Invitationals has helped lead InterVarsity to new heights of ministry fruitfulness and societal impact. It has also opened new doors to engage incarnationally with cultural gatekeepers around issues of human worth, dignity, and sexuality.
While the expansion of Christianity in the Global South is demonstrably rooted in the gospel’s unique ability to address supernatural powers, injustices, and to provide a cohesive worldview which deals with the imbalances and abuses of the powerful, in the U.S., the Church’s lack of practical application to these elements of the gospel has led to a withdrawal from the Church (Jenkins 2007, chaps. 1-4).
Responding to Relevant Issues from the Margins
While there are numerous issues we need to deal with in this time of cultural transformation, one issue at the very top is the transition toward broad acceptance in the U.S. of the gay and lesbian lifestyle. As the acceptance of homosexuality broadens in the U.S., so will the Church’s need to find new ways to engage both the gay and lesbian community, as well as the broader social conversation in an effort to engage culture with the gospel.
The Church in the U.S. no longer has the privilege of doing so from a place of power and influence, but rather has begun to operate from the margins. Finding common points of conviction around the values of justice will become an increasingly important first step toward articulating a gospel that can both save from the eschatological hell to come as well as to provide the freedom from bondage and the hope of being restored to God.
A comprehensive, holistic, real-time integration of social justice in mission creates the opportunity to engage people, even those far from the church, with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If it is true that the gospel comes to particular people who are incapable of escaping their cultural particularity, Christian mission then must involve the detangling work of becoming the “peculiar people of God” with an allegiance and mission that is transcendent and increasingly antithetical to the identity and purposes of present-day allegiances (Walls 2009,133-145). What we have found through holistically integrating social justice with evangelistic practices is that often the engagement with people and communities not only produces the kingdom fruit of addressing injustices, but often brings an embrace of the person of Christ through the lens of justice.
These conversions of hearts and minds are strategic in cultural transformation. As I’ve seen through mascara-smeared confessions across America, these conversions also carry with them the capacity to break through some of the toughest identity and cultural obstacles facing the Church today.
Glasser, Arthur F. and Charles Edward van Engen. 2003. Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God’s Mission in the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
Jenkins, Philip. 2007. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Rev. and expanded ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Van Engen, Charles Edward. 1991. God’s Missionary People: Rethinking the Purpose of the Local Church. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
Walls, Andrew. 2009. 2009. “The Gospel as Prison and Liberator of Culture.” Landmark Essays in Mission and World Christianity. Eds. Robert L. Gallagher and Paul Hertig, 133-145. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
R. York Moore is the national evangelist for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, USA. As a “justice evangelist,” York has led over ten thousand students to Christ, largely through his “Justice Invitational” campaigns. York is the author of Growing Your Faith by Giving it Away (IVP) and the newly-published Making All Things New: God’s Dream for Global Justice.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 222-227. Copyright © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.