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.>

Wings versus Springs

I have been reading Christopher Wrights’s book “The Mission of God”… I am a slow reader. But I was also reading a review of that book by Trevin Wax… actually a very good review… but there was a part that got me thinking. 20130809105526u20220dTrevin was noting some disagreement (or apparent disagreement) with Wright’s focus on holistic missions (as opposed to “spiritualistic missions”).

But if eternal suffering in hell is one of the motivations for evangelism, then it should follow that evangelistic outreach is of the utmost importance. Political and social activity will be of eternal significance only insofar as they demonstrate the truth of that evangelistic message.

In other words, the weight of eternal suffering ought to make ultimacy pulse with passion for proclamation and demonstration – not as if they are two equal planes that need to be kept upright (one temporal and one eternal), but in seeing everything related to mission as ultimately designed to proclaim the gospel that relieves all suffering, especially eternal hell.

Therefore, it is not enough to say that mission is deficient if it does not contain gospel proclamation. We ought instead to say that mission is non-existent if our deeds are ever disconnected from the motivation and intention of proclaiming the gospel verbally.

John Stott would describe spiritualistic (or proclamation) ministry and social (demonstration) ministry as being two wings on an airplane (or a bird), are two blades for a pair of scissors. But the reviewer is suggesting that the implied symmetry is misguided. One is clearly more important than the other.  So for him, the plane model is inappropriate, and scissors (symmetrical) should be replaced with shears (that are typically assymetrical).

But I like the metaphor generally but there are clear problems with the metaphor.  Let’s elaborate problems and value associated with the metaphor. (Don’t get me wrong… every metaphor fails on a certain level… knowledge of the limitations of a metaphor is needed for the metaphor to be useful.)

1.  Two wings gives to impression that proclamation evangelism and demonstration evangelism are connected (in the middle) and aid each other but are otherwise independent of each other. For example, I think few of us could imagine a bird (let’s use a falcon as an example… why not?) that could fly if it only had one wing. We probably are pretty convinced that a one-winged falcon could not fly. However, we probably can imagine a falcon with only one wing. A one-winged falcon would still be a falcon, even if it could not fly. But I would suggest that proclamation without demonstration is not evangelism and is not missions. One is reminded of the “gospel bombs”– paper gospel tracts dumped into people’s back yards in the short story “The Gospel Blimp.” This, and other forms of “evangelistic littering,” is something… but it is not evangelism and it is not missions. Donating money to a secular charity is nice and it is kind and it is loving… but it is not evangelism and it is not missions. Prayer walking may or may not have value… but it is not proclamation and it is not demonstration. It is not missions or evangelism. It is now something else.

2. The two-wings metaphor suggests that holistic missions can be discretized… disconnected into two separate things. The term “holistic” (I do prefer the spelling “wholistic”) fights against this. It suggests an integratedness, a gestalt, a synergy, that defies dividing them into two camps. Successful missions is neither really proclamation nor demonstration….. but RELATION. Relation cannot be broken down into words and actions… they join together inseparably. While I understand that from a taxonomic standpoint, one could possibly separate mission/evangelism into two categories… the question is, is there any usefulness in such categorization (functionally speaking)? I think the usefulness is often lost in the confusion it creates.

3.  As noted before, there is a huge inequality between the two wings. In the quote above, Trevin noted that if one views eternal destination as more important than present circumstances (an understandable viewpoint) than proclamation must be seen as the more vital. But one can reverse it pretty easily to suggest that the other side is greater. Consider the argument used. One side is proclamation… but what does that entail?

  • Wing 1:  “verbal communication of adequate facts/data to allow another to make an informed decision whether or not to follow Christ.
  • Wing 2: Everything else.

If that is how the two wings are divided, Wing 2 would take up most of the activities of any evangelizer or missionary no matter how much one tries to focus on Wing 1. One may seek to prioritize Wing 1, but in the end, Wing 2 is likely to be dominate in one’s time and effectiveness. The question is whether one does Wing 2 well or does it poorly. The two wings are unequal in various ways. As such the model is challenging.

An additional assymetry is effectivity of separation.

  • Wing 2 (Social ministry) without Wing 1 (proclamation) is clearly inadequate. However, behaving in a loving manner to those who need such love, but without proclamation of the gospel), while (again) inadequate, at least can serve as a preparation for the gospel.
  • Wing 1 (proclamation) without Wing 2 (social ministry or demonstration) may be effective in some circumstance. However, it is also quite likely to lead to rejection. How many non-Christians have been turned off to the gospel by people who preach up the love of Christ, but are not able to live out the love of Christ.

The first scenario is inadequate but neutral to somewhat positive. The second scenario ranges from negative to positive. On the other hand salvation comes from a response to a message, not to demonstrated love without the object of that love presented.

4. Talking about which is more important is ultimately foolish. Looking at point #3.  In terms of adequacy, proclamation is more important… the message is adequate for response, while this is not true of demonstration not linked to the message. On the other hand, in terms of size of ministry, social is greater. And in terms of effectivity, social is greater (in the sense that proclamation is more harmed by divorce from its partner than is demonstration).

The two wings suggests, incorrectly, that one can do one or the other or both. In the quote above the reviewer rightly noted that demonstration without proclamation is not missions. But he needed to go further. Proclamation without demonstration is not missions either. Doing one without the other is not Christian missions. Trying to do proclamation without demonstration is difficult, and likely to backfire. Arguably, it is impossible since to proclaim without focusing on demonstration (“social ministries”… everything on Wing 2) simply means to demonstrate poorly. To demonstrate God’s message poorly is to effectively preach against one’s spoken message. And to demonstrate God’s love without God’s message of hope is so incomplete as to arguably not ultimately be missions.

Ultimately, I would suggest a different metaphor… not to replace the wings, but to supplement them. I would suggest the metaphor from James of a fountain. or a spring. James 3: 11-12 suggests that we cannot use our mouths to both curse and bless. After all can a single spring bring forth both fresh and salty water or both sweet and bitter? Of course, we know that people both bless and curse with one mouth. The point is that it is unnatural… a violation of how things are suppose to be.

Let’s bring the idea of a spring 2over to evangelism or missions.

A. A spring has a source… which in this case is God and God’s mission.

B.  It has an outward flow from a place of abundance to a place of lacking. I would argue that this flow is love… relational. God loved us first, and we respond with love for God and love for who and what God loves. The reality of hell, for example, may inform the message, but should not compel the action. Likewise, the Great Commission may inform our methodology, but it should not be our motivation… one simply of duty. Love compels word and action.

C.  To love halfway… such as loving with word that is disconnected from deed, or deed disconnected from word… is unnatural… and a violation of what it truly means to love just as it would be unnatural for the spring to be both salty and fresh.

Ultimately, I believe the reason we have these arguments is that we don’t truly love those around us (yes, I am including myself here). Therefore, we find ourselves playacting… guessing at… how one is supposed to act if one loves. Does one focus on words? Does one focus on doing nice stuff? Does one focus on programs, formats, or anything else?

If we did not playact loving God and loving others as we love ourselves… we would not have to figure out all of this stuff… working out methods and priorities. It would flow… like a spring of cool pure water for a parched land. (see Isaiah 58:11)

A Walk Down Main Street


Yesterday we were walking down Session Road, the “Main Street” of Baguio City. There were the normal crowds of walkers, strollers, and peddlers. It is kind of nice to find a bustling downtown when so many downtowns in the US have been destroyed by the automobile, suburban sprawl, and big box stores. Going further we periodically see beggars. Most are old, sitting barefoot or hunched over, head and eyes cast downward with a thin arm out with a disposable plastic cup in hand to receive coins. Others are handing out flyers for different things… commonly to buy a house or condominium, go to a certain restaurant, or to convert one to their religion. It is a lively place to be.

As we were walking down towards Burnham Park we started hearing yelling. At the top of some steps was a man holding up a large Bible. Behind him in a semi-circle were others dressed similarly holding up signs and Bibles. It was classic street preaching/evangelizing. They were wearing red shirts with a verse from the book of Romans on it. There were perhaps 15-20 people idly watching and others, like us, passing by with modest curiosity.

File:Session Road, Baguio City.jpg

Going around the corner was a woman wearing the same red shirt. She was yelling at a young man leaning against a wall, standing up but still a bit curled up as if (perhaps) he wanted her to go away, but did not have the gumption to walk off. She sounded rather angry as she was saying “YOU GOT TO BE SAVED!! YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE IN JESUS!!”

We continued walking, but it gave me something to think about.

1.  Is this method a good thing?  I recall being in seminary and being told that one of the distinguishing characteristics of every “Revival Movement” has been open air preaching.  I have always wondered about that. First, the great movement in China over the last few decades occurred with little to no open air preaching. The great church growth during the time of Antonine plague (for example) appeared to be triggered by the response of the church to suffering around them. Open air preaching appeared to have little to no connection. Even in cases where open air preaching clearly had a role (such as in the Great Awakening), was the open air component a universal or cultural characteristic? Perhaps it was a cultural characteristic since large public speaking events were popular back then and open air was a logistical necessity. I guess in the end, I am left with ambivalence. Clearly open air preaching can be useful in the right circumstances. But I have to doubt whether it has the magical quality ascribed to it by some who focus on it as engendering “revival.”

2.  Is this evangelism?  Evangelism is presentation of the good news of Christ in a way that can be understood and appreciated. Now suppose we accept this definition (hypothetically speaking). Then evangelism has an input component (divine revelation) and an output component (understood and appreciated). I believe both sides are important. If we only accept the second part (understood and appreciated) one can be left with an unhealthy pragmatism (whatever gets people to respond the way we want) springs up. Why not simply pay people to convert? I know of both Christians and Muslims doing this… if it works, how could it be wrong? Yet it could be wrong… and ultimately ineffective. On the other hand, one can picture the other extreme where presentation of the gospel is success in itself, regardless of the response. Anything that allows one to carry a message to another is justified. Why not hold someone at gunpoint and give them the message of the Gospel? If the message is given, who cares if it creates a positive response or an angry rejection?

I believe God cares.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not attacking this group. I don’t even know them. I was a bit surprised that the preaching was all in English, especially since all of the team members appeared to be Filipino. But I don’t know if they were a local group or a group that came on a short-term mission. They appeared to be (at least loosely speaking) Protestant. I don’t know if it is a heterodox group, orthodox group, or semi-orthodox group (all three groups are pretty common in the Philippines).

I do know that the group was loud, abrasive, and appeared kind of angry. The God they described sounded pretty unpleasant. (I do know that God has given us a choice between life and death, yet some evangelism methods seem to spend more time on God’s wrath than on His love and mercy.) Were they doing God’s work? I am sure they felt like they were? I don’t know. Were they effectively evangelizing– adorning the Gospel of Christ (as described in the book of Titus) or were they making the Gospel (and God) look ugly. Again I don’t know.

I really really really don’t know. Our group, Bukal Life Care (, focuses on psychoemotional care, and other types of ministry that could be described more as social ministry. Some would argue that we are failing to obey God since our normal methodology rarely includes a direct presentation of the gospel. Guilty as charged on that. Yet, because of our helping ministry, it is surprising how often people ask what group we are with, and what we believe. They actually appreciate that we work with a number of Christian groups (not just one) and that we focus on helping people understand God’s love. Very often we end up sharing the Gospel because we are asked to.

Is that better than trying to shove the Gospel down the throats of others? I think so. Those that argue otherwise like to quote verses talking about the power of God’s Word (sharper than any two-edged sword and not returning void). However, power without control can be more destructive than constructive. The power to harm and heal is in the instrument used… but being able to guide such power to heal instead of harm takes wisdom and skill.

I am not sure we all will ever agree. I am a BOTH/AND person in the area of ministry and evangelism, not EITHER/OR. However, I think it is important that we think about what we do and why. Much of the bumper sticker theology we are given for missions and evangelism seems to get people to do without meditation or reflection. “Just Do It” still demands “Do What? And How? And Why?”