SYMPOSIUM: Bad Question of Proclamation vs Social Action
Proclamation or Social Action? Let’s Get Rid of a Bad Question!
Good questions provide moments of clarity which are catalytic and lead to greater wisdom and increased fruitfulness in ministry. Bad questions, while appearing to foster clarity, actually bog us down, drain our energies, and foster unnecessary conflict within the Body of Christ.
A bad question has been harming the Body of Christ for too long. It is this: Which has priority—proclamation or social action?
Proponents of the bad question argue that people must choose one or the other. One of the two must have priority. Once the choice is vocalized, into a category you go. You are now classified as “one of us” or “one of them.” Openness and learning together become far more difficult because each side is now focused on defending its own position.
A Brief History
There are historical roots from which the bad question emerged. In the early 1900s a growing mission movement emerged from the West. Differing eschatological views caused some to hold more tightly to social transformation, while others felt their responsibility was to facilitate individual spiritual transformation.
As the century progressed, church and mission leaders in many parts of Latin America were experiencing conditions far different than many contemporaries receiving theological training in the United States. In many locations in Latin America, vast quantities of wealth and power were held by a tiny percentage of families. Writers like Karl Marx and Paulo Freire were igniting the passions of people daily experiencing injustice and oppression. Church and mission leaders believed scripture had answers to the social questions being raised, and they sought theological solutions to address the realities facing their people.
At the same time, the United States was enveloped in a Cold War with Russia, fearing anything that even hinted of an expansion of Communism into the hemisphere. Since the writings of Marx and Freire were frequently used by Communist rebels, anything remotely connected to their teaching was categorized as dangerous. Another social dimension at work was the way the United States had been shaped from its infancy. The power of words was always important. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were meant to inform society. Certain words were invaluable, and it was the supreme duty of all leaders to uphold them, regardless of the cost.
Diverse eschatological views and contexts were yielding vastly different perspectives regarding what constituted mission. This history partially led to our current situation in global mission.
What Are Bad Questions?
“Bad” questions require us to make distinctions or prioritizations that God, in his word, never requires us to make. If someone said I had to choose between the creation narrative or the Book of Romans, that would be a bad question. Why? Because God has given both to inform my faith and to foster growth in my knowledge of him. Both are also to inform my mission practice.
Asking people to prioritize which is more important—proclamation or social action—is asking followers of Christ to make a choice God never asked them to make. The query creates a false dichotomy. If such prioritization were so critical to our faith and mission practice, would God not have made it clearer in his word?
Bad questions create conflict and schisms in the Body of Christ. John 17 indicates that the most powerful of all witnesses occurs if there is unity among Christ’s followers. Yet the proclamation/social action question created an historical split between evangelicals and many denominational leaders in the 1900s. Today, the bad question is positioned to possibly split the evangelical community as it exacerbates already challenging generational differences.
If this bad question is not replaced with better ones, wisdom from the older generation will not be passed on and heard by the younger generation. Younger leaders will feel judged and will judge in return, declaring that older mission leaders are simply “out of touch.” When this happens, the passion and vitality of younger leaders is not able to rejuvenate and encourage the older generation. Everyone loses. As one who stands between the two generations, I yearn for us to reach a better place in this dialogue. The question as to whether proclamation or social action is more important needs to be set aside once and for all.
Mark Long (pseudonym) has worked in global missions for fifteen years. He has an MA in intercultural studies and is engaged in a PhD program. He also serves as an adjunct mission professor at two reputable Christian schools in North America.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 264-266. 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.