by Bryant L. Myers
Answering this question requires some nuance. It was useful once, but it
is now neither useful nor does it point us to a better, more important
question which evangelicals have yet to address to any substantial
degree (more on that later).
Posing this question in the late 1970s and 1980s was critical to getting
evangelicals (particularly from the North) in missions to break out of
their self-imposed withdrawal from social issues and humanitarian
actions. Without the struggle with the question of evangelism vs. social
action, we evangelicals might still be on the social action sidelines.
At the same time, this question was unhelpful. While standing firm
against the social gospel and what we saw as the accommodation of
mainline churches to modernity, we failed to detect the underlying
modern frame that separated the spiritual from the material. We allowed
ourselves to retreat into the spiritual realm of the church, the
biblical and theological fundamentals, and our passionate concern for
saving souls. The material world of injustice, poverty, business, and
wealth was left on its own.
Today, we have come to understand and reject this accommodation to
modernity and, for the most part, accept the idea of holistic ministry,
seamlessly integrating the spiritual and the material, evangelism and
social action, the gospel as word and deed. In this sense, the old
question is no longer relevant. Evangelical missions are deeply and
missionally engaged with the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten.
Churches are directly involved in relief and development partnerships
all over the world. Funding for holistic mission is growing and now
dominates the mission-giving landscape.
But ultimately evangelism vs. social action was the wrong question. Its
deep connections to church growth and the need to complete the
unfinished task of world evangelization meant that we focused on the
goal of increasing the number of Christians.
While every evangelical yearns and prays for people to come to Christ,
the better and more theologically sound question is, What kind of
Christians are we making? Today, we see the fruits of having missed this
key question. Ron Sider has described research that shows that the
social behavior of Christians in the U.S. is indistinguishable from that
of non-Christians. African theologians such as Cesar Molebatsi,
Emmanuel Katongole, and Tinyiko Maluleke agonize over the corruption,
poverty, political instability, civic unrest, and ethnic tensions in
Africa, a continent predominantly Christian in parts.
We need to answer the more demanding question of what kind of
discipleship and ethics formation the Church needs in order to create
Christians who love God and their neighbor, and act as Christian
consumers, voters, and activists.
Bryant L. Myers is professor of international development in
the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. For
thirty-three years he worked with World Vision International.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 269-270. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.