Evangelism and Social Action: They Belong Together

© 2014 Robert Osburn

In those waning weeks of the 1960s, when God planted in me a confident faith in Jesus Christ, social action consumed campus life: daily demonstrations, bombings, pamphleteering, strikes, or threats thereof.  The University of Michigan campus was virtually aflame.  Social change was in the air.

But at Grace Bible Church, planted at Huron and State streets across from the campus, I learned social action was taboo.  The Bible fueled our fundamentalist pastor’s commitment to racial equality, but, otherwise, social action was off-limits for born again believers whose job was to evangelize people desperately in need of a savior.  Evangelism, yes; social action, no.  

History lesson: The opposition between evangelism and social action started in early 20th century conflicts between Christ-preaching evangelicals who treasured the Bible and social gospel advocates that believed real Christianity had to make a difference in society first of all. Few know that the founder of the Social Gospel movement, Walter Rauschenbusch, was a Baptist evangelical deeply worried that the movement he founded would turn away from faith in Christ. (His worries were justified: His grandson, Richard Rorty, was a leading academic postmodernist who eschewed all things Christian.) Until the 1960s, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians sat on the sidelines of this conflict. 

Now, in the early decades of the 21st century, the old conflict has largely subsided and is alien to current university students.  But, should evangelism and social action be linked, and, if so, why?  There are two common answers, both of which assume a positive answer and both of which are inadequate.

The first answer resorts to utilitarian, rather than principled, reasoning: Caring for people’s felt needs, such as hunger, powerlessness, and injustice, opens doors for evangelism.  It’s hard to argue with this, especially since the Four Gospels parade those who embrace Jesus’ kingdom message after receiving His healing touch.   The problem is that this makes our faith look like a trick, albeit a generous one, to get decisions for Jesus. 

The second answer prioritizes meeting social needs as an expression of Christian kindness and compassion in a hurting world.  The link with evangelism is vague at best, and is currently very popular, epitomized in Rick Warren’s announcement (in The Purpose Driven Life) that we are saved to serve.  He also says our service is a function of our passion. Unfortunately, we end up prioritizing physical over spiritual needs, emotional responses over careful reasoning. 

The answer to the question (Should evangelism and social action be linked?) matters to the large church, but also to Wilberforce Academy because our mission is to train redemptive change agents who apply a Christian worldview to challenges in society and the workplace.  As it is, there are solid, principle-oriented arguments linking evangelism and social action. These four arguments are buried in the text of the Bible (special revelation) as well as in the natural and social order (natural revelation). 

First, evangelism, by virtue of changed lives, generates positive social outcomes, in three ways: a) Virtuous behavior generates a virtuous cycle whereby virtue encourages a virtuous response from others; b) A sacrificial lifestyle foregoes “personal peace and affluence” (Francis Schaeffer’s memorable phrase) in order to foster others’ success; and c) Social capital is generated as the new believer invests in activities and organizations that enhance the well-being of others.

Secondly, the Kingdom of God both welcomes new citizens (often the product of evangelism) and the practice of Kingdom citizenship (often through social action).  Thanks in particular to the biblical teaching of N.T. Wright, we understand that Jesus taught the “Gospel of the Kingdom.”  This means He brings us, our social structures, and the natural environment under His lordship, along with forgiveness from sin and the assurance of eternity with God. When people openly-heartedly embrace the salvation offered through Jesus, they become citizens in the “Kingdom of His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).  As active Kingdom citizens, believers help ameliorate the suffering of neighbors, redeem social institutions, and steward the natural world in obedience to the King. Thus, evangelism qualifies people for Kingdom citizenship, while social action brings everything under the redeeming influence of the King (Colossians 1:19-20).

Thirdly, evangelism restores the human capacity to keep the cultural mandate in Genesis 1:26-28.  Embodied in the words “rule and dominion” found in these biblical texts, humans are designed to protect God’s creation and to produce those things that make humans and the rest of creation flourish. Sin tragically dampens, diminishes, and distorts our capacities to protect and produce (Genesis 3).  Christ’s redeeming work restores those capacities and reorients them to purposes that honor God and promote human and natural flourishing (Colossians 3:10).

Fourthly and finally, lasting social change can’t occur without an active movement (evangelism) that promotes personal transformation through faith in Christ.  While converted Christians are not a sufficient basis for widespread and lasting social change, they are necessary in order to create a culture of moral self-restraint that prioritizes love for neighbors (Galatians 5:13). 

It’s like the old song about love and marriage that Frank Sinatra sang: “You can’t have one without the other.”    Neither can you have evangelism without social action.  They just belong together.  On principle.