SYMPOSIUM: Response 3: Itís the Wrong Question
Bryant L. MyersAnswering this question requires some nuance. It was useful once, but it is now neither useful nor does it point us to a better, more important question which evangelicals have yet to address to any substantial degree (more on that later).
Posing this question in the late 1970s and 1980s was critical to getting evangelicals (particularly from the North) in missions to break out of their self-imposed withdrawal from social issues and humanitarian actions. Without the struggle with the question of evangelism vs. social action, we evangelicals might still be on the social action sidelines.
At the same time, this question was unhelpful. While standing firm against the social gospel and what we saw as the accommodation of mainline churches to modernity, we failed to detect the underlying modern frame that separated the spiritual from the material. We allowed ourselves to retreat into the spiritual realm of the church, the biblical and theological fundamentals, and our passionate concern for saving souls. The material world of injustice, poverty, business, and wealth was left on its own.
Today, we have come to understand and reject this accommodation to modernity and, for the most part, accept the idea of holistic ministry, seamlessly integrating the spiritual and the material, evangelism and social action, the gospel as word and deed. In this sense, the old question is no longer relevant. Evangelical missions are deeply and missionally engaged with the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten. Churches are directly involved in relief and development partnerships all over the world. Funding for holistic mission is growing and now dominates the mission-giving landscape.
But ultimately evangelism vs. social action was the wrong question. Its deep connections to church growth and the need to complete the unfinished task of world evangelization meant that we focused on the goal of increasing the number of Christians.
While every evangelical yearns and prays for people to come to Christ, the better and more theologically sound question is, What kind of Christians are we making? Today, we see the fruits of having missed this key question. Ron Sider has described research that shows that the social behavior of Christians in the U.S. is indistinguishable from that of non-Christians. African theologians such as Cesar Molebatsi, Emmanuel Katongole, and Tinyiko Maluleke agonize over the corruption, poverty, political instability, civic unrest, and ethnic tensions in Africa, a continent predominantly Christian in parts.
We need to answer the more demanding question of what kind of discipleship and ethics formation the Church needs in order to create Christians who love God and their neighbor, and act as Christian consumers, voters, and activists.
Bryant L. Myers is professor of international development in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. For thirty-three years he worked with World Vision International.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 269-270. 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.