By Doug Priest
If you want to start an argument, ask a group of involved church members this question: “Of all the ministries this church performs, which is the most important?”
Stand back and watch the fireworks begin.
When I was a missionary kid growing up in Ethiopia, the government required the missionaries to establish and manage primary schools. These schools provided the only opportunity for the local children to receive an education. My father oversaw the expansion of the school, and one of the tasks was constructing outhouses for the students. This meant that funds given for missions were used to build toilets. Nobody had a problem with this use of his time and their mission dollar.
I have walked in many urban areas of the world and smelled the odor of raw sewage flowing through concrete pipes open to the air above. Here is my question: If it was acceptable to use mission money to dig latrines in rural Ethiopia, cannot mission money be used to help with sewage problems in urban parts of the world? Can somebody who has a degree in engineering, urban planning, or sanitation from one of our excellent universities put that experience to use for God in expanding the kingdom in the urban centers of the world, using mission funds to do so?
What exactly is the primary ministry or mission of the church? How should the church balance the focus between word and deed? Is evangelism more important than social action?
Word And Deed: Before 1900
Through its history, the church has been actively involved in addressing the social problems of the world. During the Middle Ages, church members ministered to those suffering from the plague while many of the medical practitioners ran away. The abolishment of slavery came about because Christians stood up against this evil.
The church established orphanages, emancipated women, educated prisoners, and extolled temperance, all the while exalting Christ and extending his kingdom. Through the centuries, ministries of word and deed went hand in hand. They were two sides of the same coin.
Word Or Deed: 1900-1975
But a century ago the rise of modernism and theological liberalism came onto the scene, largely from seminaries in Europe. Many Christians reacted, holding tenaciously to the biblical fundamentals of the past in the face of higher criticism. When some began to openly question the authorship of various books of the Bible or the virgin birth, others broke away and formed new associations of like-minded believers.
The rift between liberal Christians and conservative Christians (first called “fundamentalists,” later called “evangelicals”) widened. As a result, denominations split along these lines. The mainline denominations adopted a more liberal agenda that included active response to the social ills of the day. This intellectual movement sought to apply Christian ethics to social problems and became known as the Social Gospel. The messy here and now became more important than the sweet by and by.
The more conservative churches gave rise to new efforts of evangelism and starting new churches (i.e., Billy Graham, area evangelistic associations). Their focus became piety along with sharing the gospel widely so that all would have a chance at salvation. Much stress was given to methods of evangelism.
A growing focus on Heaven and eternity meant there was less emphasis and time to address social problems. By and large, Christians were forced to choose between word or deed, between faith or works. To put it bluntly, one could study the Bible or one could serve in a soup kitchen at the rescue mission. Most chose Bible study.
Through these 75 years, the ministry options of word and deed were like going to a closet and having to choose either a brown shirt or a turquoise shirt. Both are pieces of clothing, but they are completely different. However, as David Moberg reminds us, “The rejection of either the evangelistic or the social-involvement perspective in favor of the other does violence to some of the clear teachings of the Bible. To succumb to either extreme to the exclusion of the other is to sin against God and man.”1
Word Over Deed: 1975-2005
The Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization in 1974 marked a watershed event in the life of evangelical and conservative churches. The conference was devoted to world evangelism, so delegates from all over the world attended. The context of Christianity in their world was poverty, lack of food, minimal education, and environmental degradation.
While the attendees from the West spoke in terms of evangelism vs. social action, the delegates from the majority world rose up en masse wanting nothing to do with such a one-armed ministry. They noted that in the rich West, where one’s needs for food, housing, employment, and clothing were met, it was easy to speak disparagingly of social action. But in their context, they could not afford an amputated gospel. To them, the need to evangelize involved such social activities as feeding the hungry, freeing the oppressed, and bringing sight to the blind.
From that conference onward, conservative Christian thinkers began to break down the absurd dichotomy of word or deed and began to see both were necessary to be true to the Bible and to the world situation.
One does not change one’s opinion on deeply held theological positions overnight, and so a compromise in word and deed thinking was reached. Evangelicals now understood that neither evangelism nor social action should be left off the ministry agenda. Both were necessary. But evangelism was seen to be primary, while ministries of social action were seen as secondary.
In community after community the church began to involve itself in social ministries as had earlier generations. The concept of meeting people’s felt needs (secondary purpose) as a means of attracting them to Christ (primary purpose) became a prevailing ministry strategy.
Not only was word seen as primary, it was also seen as priority. Many believed the best way to change a society was to introduce individuals to Christ. These people then, as they came to understand the implications of their faith, would naturally address social needs and society would benefit.
As plausible as this strategy sounds, it usually worked only at the individual and immediate family level. Society as a whole remained unchanged. The rich got richer while the poor got poorer.
Christians in the West diet. Christians in the majority world starve.
Word With Deed: Currently
As Christians look at their communities and, indeed, at the world, they are confronted with a myriad of images demanding their attention—tsunamis, abortion clinics, declining inner-city schools, Katrina-force hurricanes, starvation, HIV/AIDS, rampant poverty, racial prejudice, other religions, lack of prayer, shallow levels of commitment, and the large number of unbelievers. Concerning all of these needs, we have the struggle to juggle.
The church wants to be involved, wants to be externally focused. Every community, every context, has different needs crying out for attention. Where do we begin?
Picture a circle. At various stopping points of the circle are listed the specific needs of the community. In one area, the needs might be the rising divorce rate, the influx of Internet pornography, the plight of the homeless, those without Christ, or the recent flood. Perhaps the obvious starting point on the circle is the most pressing need.
How then do word and deed fit together? What is the correct relationship between the two? Christopher Anderson suggests an answer as we examine the various points of need on our circle. He says,
Ultimately we must not rest content until we have included within our own missional response the wholeness of God’s missional response to the human predicament—and that of course includes the good news of Christ. . . . Mission may not always begin with evangelism. But mission that does not ultimately include declaring the Word and the name of Christ, and faith and obedience has not completed its task.2
In other words, Anderson believes in the ultimacy of evangelism rather than the primacy of evangelism.
The relationship of word and deed in ministry has varied over time. The results have been varied. Evangelism or social action has presented a truncated gospel. Evangelism as primary and social action as secondary has not measurably affected societal ills. Social action as primary has seen evangelism’s decline in the face of so many pressing needs. But evangelism as ultimate—that is, ministry has not been completed unless evangelism has taken place—provides the balance we seek.
Build houses in the slums, bandage the wounded, pick up the trash in the park, and ensure that when all is said and done, the name of Christ has been proclaimed as both word and deed. Those who have been ministered to have now joined the family and are ministering to others.
May it then be said about us,
Those Christians are the ones who run in when everyone else is running out. Those Christians are the ones who didn’t give up on the crumbling inner cities. Those Christians are the ones who brought peace to Darfur. Those Christians are the ones who put an end to human trafficking. Those Christians are the ones who helped with the war on AIDS around the world. . . . Those Christians are the ones that made me want to believe in God.3
1David Moberg, The Great Reversal (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972), 25.
2Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 318, 319.
3David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 234.
Doug Priest, executive director of Christian Missionary Fellowship, is a Christian Standard contributing editor.