Author - Dr Allan McKinnon - Principal, Tilsley College
Allan is Tilsley College Principal. He and his wife, Jacqui, served in Tanzania, East Africa for seventeen years at Moshi Christian Children’s Centre and Berea Bible College. Allan is an elder at Greenview Church and is leading a small team exploring church planting in Darnley – a southwest suburb of Glasgow. Jacqui and Allan have three grown children and seven grandchildren.
Global mission has long since been re-categorised as being from everywhere to everywhere, rather than from the West to the rest. Yet still, from our side of the globe at least, mission activity from the Western hemisphere in the early 21st century is more usually characterised by social engagement in the fields of medical interventions, social justice, education, leadership development or even micro-finance projects.
What about the gospel?
There is no question about the wide acceptability of social enterprise in the world today, marked as it is with overwhelming suffering, injustice, ignorance, exploitation and poverty. Everyone ‘from secularists to Islamists’ welcome such ministry, but when the gospel of the crucified Saviour, Jesus, is proclaimed then attitudes quickly change.
How is Christian mission enterprise to be shaped and accomplished in Jesus’ name? Is the gospel a social gospel?
Certainly, Jesus’ own ministry is summarised by biblical authors in phrases like ‘he went about…teaching… and proclaiming’ (see Mat 4:23, 9:35), and ‘he went around doing good and healing…’ (Acts 10:38). The apostle Paul’s ministry is best known for his gospel preaching and his clear doctrinal teaching, yet neither did he overlook or neglect the social needs and concerns of those whose lives crossed his path (e.g. see Acts 28:7-9). Some have read Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone to exclude ‘works’ as having no place in Christian faith, but surely this is misconstrued. Paul’s own message of ‘the gospel of God’ for which he was set apart incorporates ethical and moral teaching that would point his readers towards living out the gospel ‘in view of God’s mercy’ (see Rom 1.1; 12.1) and ‘working out’ one’s salvation while looking to the interests of others (Phil 2.4-13).
Evangelical Christians reacted strongly against the lines of the gospel being redrawn in the mid-60s, under the influence of liberal theologians in the Word Council of Churches (WCC). The Christian church at large was facing considerable uncertainty about the truth claims of the Bible in light of pluralism, materialism and globalisation. As a result, ‘mission’ was being redefined. ‘Spiritual’ ministry was under threat as a somewhat inadequate response in the face of rising media presentations about the massive needs of an exploding global population confronted by natural and manmade crises of all sorts. ‘You can’t just preach to a man who has an empty stomach,’ was the response of many. Others were afraid of seeing evangelism and ‘traditional missionary work’ being excluded from their agenda – they could not remain silent despite the calls from the liberal wing ‘to do good works while keeping their mouths shut’.
…it is a call to remember the centrality of the gospel as a spoken message, proclaimed so that it might bring people into fellowship with God through faith in the cross-work of the Lord Jesus Christ
Prominent evangelicals, like John Stott, sought to offer a balanced theology to explain the relation of evangelism and social action, seeing them as two sides of one coin. ‘Neither is a means to the other, or even a manifestation of the other. For each is an end in itself.’ His conclusion was expressed in the saying: ‘Mission describes… everything that the church is sent into the world to do.’ This approach to making the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ known has been the holistic guidepost for evangelicals in mission since. Unquestionably, it has been a mission approach that has brought Christian blessing, transformation, increasing self-sufficiency/prosperity and even spiritual growth and development across the globe.
Holistic approaches to mission enterprise are to be valued.
However, there is a subtle danger inherent in the ‘roundedness’ of this Christian ministry strategy. In the midst of good works and social engagement we might be tempted to downplay, to re-construct or even omit the gospel of salvation from sin and its terrible consequences. Stan Guthrie reminds us of the pressure to compromise gospel truth:
‘While advocates of holistic mission usually stress that evangelism and acts of compassion must work side by side, in practice this is not always possible.’
Renowned missiologist, David Hesselgrave, shares our concern:
‘Unless this… understanding of mission is successfully challenged, the likelihood of retaining the biblical priority of world evangelization in the face of unprecedented needs of every kind will become increasingly difficult.’
Challenging holistic mission as the current mission paradigm is not a call to a moratorium on social engagement by evangelicals by any means. However, it is a call to remember the centrality of the gospel as a spoken message, proclaimed so that it might bring people into fellowship with God through faith in the cross-work of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is only by His risen life that we can know fullness of life, wholeness and well-being, and not for this life only, but more importantly, for the life to come.