Is Social Ministry Missions?


A. Scott Moreau noted in his book, “Contextualization in World Missions,” that social ministry as a part of missions has been a matter of controversy among Evangelicals for 80 or 90 years. With William Carey, there seemed not to be a strong problem with seeking social justice along with evangelizing and disciplining. William Wilberforce, a noted 19th century British statesman, found his Evangelical faith fully in line with his active opposition to slavery, as well as other causes supporting the oppressed (even laws against animal abuse).<Consider watching the 2006 movie “Amazing Grace” if you are unfamiliar with Wilberforce.>

But with the Liberal-Fundamental debates of the 1920s, Liberals drifted towards social ministry only or mostly as missions, Fundamentalists and Evangelicals tended towards spiritual ministry only or mostly in missions.  This tendency against social ministry in missions was enhanced with the argument that that because Christ is coming soon there is no time for social ministry, only direct proclamation. I don’t recommend basing a methodology on reacting to what someone else is doing. Likewise, to argue for a Biblically doubtful methodology based on a equally doubtful interpretation of Scripture is, well, doubtful. Moreau goes on to note that with the Millenial generation, the nervousness of combining missions and social ministry is fading away. I believe that is a welcome thing… although that does not necessarily mean that the result would be good missions.

But that is not the question. The question is whether Social Ministry is still Missions. On one hand, since the term “Missions” is largely a modern construct, Social Ministry can be considered legitimate or illegitimate legislated by definition or common usage. But legislation is not the only criteria. Two other criteria include the Bible (as canon) and Effectivity.

I would rather not start from the analogy of  wings of a plane, or the two blades on a pair of shears, where one said is “spiritual ministry” and one is “social ministry.” This begins from the paradigm that they are separable and comparable. I would rather start from the view that spiritual ministry (proclamation of the gospel message, leading to conversion, discipleship, and churchplanting) is built on a foundation of social ministry.

Biblically speaking, this seems to be a strong point. A number of the prophets including, but not limited to, Isaiah, Micah and Amos, place a higher value on righteous acts and social justice over mere piety. James does the same thing noting that talk (as well as faith) is cheap without action. However, that does not necessarily speak regarding missions. But when we get to Jesus, the connection becomes stronger. The John 20:21 version of the Great Commission seems to suggest that the model for carrying out God’s mission is that of Jesus. So while the Matthew version of the Great Commission sounds as if limited to proclamation of the Gospel, baptizing people into the church, and discipling, the John version appears to expand the concept. Jesus linked his missional ministry with acts of compassion for the poor and oppressed. This is reinforced in Matthew 25 where serving Jesus is tied to serving people in need. Additionally, if one accepts the idea that the Great Commission is an application of the Great Commandment, then missions is an application of expressing one’s love to God via demonstrating love to others. Failing to demonstrate compassion through tangible acts for those in need (materially, physically, socially) is not loving— and if not loving, can hardly be said to be missional.

Effectively, the case is even stronger. Proclamation that is not tied to visible actions in caring has a shaky track record. In fact, one of the greatest hindrances to response to the gospel message is the living testimony of uncaring or unrighteous Christians. The early Church without the financial means of modern Christians, and without the weaponry of the spread of early Islam, grew at a sustained rate over nearly three centuries that was simply amazing.

For the role of the common people in the spread demonstrated by their faith and actions, as much as their word, I would point to the quote by Von Harnack HERE. It is worth noting that Von Harnack in his book “The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries” made the case that the roles within the Universal church that most correspond to the present idea of Missionary– that of Apostle, Evangelist, and Prophet– generally faded out as the church moved into the third century. And yet to Harnack, many roles in the church (teachers, apologists, martyrs, for example) could be seen as active in missions. Then he goes on to see all members of the early church as having a missional role… and often embraced the role of missionary within their own spheres of influence.

Now we can combine that with a bit more of early church history as described by Charles Moore (you can read it HERE) who notes not only that missions in the early church was dominated by laypersons, but were strongly empowered by acts of love and service to unbelievers in their vicinity.

Neither the Biblical argument nor the Effectivity argument is here covered in detail. And if you find them less than compelling, that is not a problem. The goal is not to compel belief, but present a thesis that can be analyzed further.

My thesis is that Missions should have loving acts/social justice/felt needs-meeting, as foundational to gospel presentation. mission-houseOne can look at my drawing of an overly simple and ugly house. If the house is Christian Missions, then loving acts is the foundation, and gospel proclamation is the primary structure of the house. Without gospel proclamation, one cannot say Christian missions is occurring any more than a house can be said to exist without its structure. On the other hand, a house can be said to exist without its foundation, but such a house is unstable and prone to collapse. It is not that social ministry is equal in importance to gospel proclamation. In fact, comparing the two is a bit inadequate. So is Social Ministry Missions? Yes and No. Gospel proclamation is essential to missions, but social ministry is foundational to that proclamation.

<By the way, please don’t  send a comment that says something like “Christ” is the foundation of missions, or that the Bible is the foundation of missions. This analogy is self-contained to make a point regarding the relationship of social ministry and gospel proclamation. I have no intent to extend the analogy beyond the confines of this relationship.>

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