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Social Justice vs. Evangelism

There's always been tension between doing good deeds and sharing the Good News.

The underground railroad was a social justice movement that led thousands to freedom long before slavery was abolished. Organized primarily by Quakers, white evangelicals and black churches, many risked everything to host and care for the runaway slaves, working together to answer a truly biblical call.

The same call heard now.

Social justice is a complex subject for Christians. No one can disagree that Scripture commands to love the poor and oppressed, but what that looks like practically today is largely debated and at times ignored. As the world becomes increasingly more globalized and information more accessible, awareness along with responsibility has grown.

This responsibility comes multiple fold. Why, how and even if we combine social justice with evangelism is an ever-evolving discussion that must be considered from a local and global level. Both the individual and the church must play a role for the Body to have the impact Scripture intended—an impact we’re capable of but nowhere near.

The Two Sides of Holistic Ministry

Dr. Ron Sider, a professor of theology and author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, doesn’t believe structural change is complete without sharing the Gospel. Referring to the active combination of word and deed as “holistic ministry,” Sider says that without social works, evangelism appears to be all talk. But without sharing the hope and good news of the Gospel, ministry lacks the Holy Spirit’s transformative power. Neither side of social justice ministry is complete without the other.

“People are both spiritual and material beings,” Sider says. “Addressing only half the problem only gives you half of the solution.”

This doesn’t mean the Gospel should be forced, Sider says. Offering to pray for those being ministered to or sharing evangelism through friendship can reveal Christ—without giving the impression that the material items given to them come from a place of self-righteousness or have strings attached.  

“Each of us has contributed to the pain and suffering and decay in the world,” Sider writes in an essay on holistic ministry. “We thus serve with a posture of gratitude and humility, acknowledging our own brokenness before the cross. We recognize that ministering Christ’s wholeness to others is part of what makes us whole.”

But ministering the wholeness of Christ comes with a cost. With the average churchgoing Christian giving less than 3 percent of their income, the Church is lacking the necessary resources to make the changes the Gospel demands. Most Christians, Sider says, could afford to give 10 to 20 percent. And that disparity could mean a world of difference.

“We’re doing significant things, but the amount is pitiable. If Christians were giving what they are called to, we could vastly increase change,” he says. “We know how to reduce poverty—it’s just a matter of resources.”

The problem could possibly be starting from the pulpit. Fewer than one in 50 preachers stress responsibility to the poor as much as the Bible does, Sider says.

“God has a special concern for the poor, there’s no question about it,” he says. “If you don’t care for the poor and oppressed folk, then you’re not a biblical Christian.”

The Collaboration of Callings

One person whose life’s work is to care for the poor is Shane Claiborne. The Kingdom isn’t something Claiborne hopes for when he dies—it’s something he’s building now.

 As a hands-on social justice activist, the author and Simple Way founder believes solutions must begin with relationship. Person-to-person contact is what will eventually lead toward reconciliation between the oppressor and the oppressed.

“It’s tempting to have virtual movements without roots on the ground,” he says of today’s society. “It’s often easier to care about the invisible children more than those right next to us. But without the relationship, it’s like eating virtual food: You end up starving.”

Acknowledging the call on each Christian’s life to be active in social justice, Claiborne believes much of the beauty of God’s plan is in the combined roles each individual can take, based on their own unique calling.

Claiborne references something the famous writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said about calling: “You have to ask yourself, ‘Where do my greatest gifts intersect with the world’s greatest need?’”

Changing How We Make a Change

Living in a community that cares for those nearest them, prays together, eats together and shares a love for God’s people has given new monastics like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove—an author, speaker and minister—a glimpse of what it looks like when people stop building walls and start building bridges. The emphasis on community is key. Although it’s necessary at times, individual activism, Wilson-Hartgrove says, can sell Jesus’ original intentions for the Church short.

“The Church is Jesus’ plan for saving the world—which includes redeeming its broken social structures,” he says. “A conscientious objector to war is one thing, but a community of people who live peaceably together and do not return evil for evil is a more powerful witness, I think.”

In agreement with Sider, Wilson-Hartgrove believes social justice and structural justice cannot be separated when introducing God’s just order.

“Jesus doesn’t start a popular movement to take Jerusalem or Rome and institute God’s new order,” he says. “We’re practicing social justice when we invite friends into relationships of economic sharing. We’re practicing it when we live as communities of hospitality to those who are homeless. Jesus says the Kingdom is here—right here, right now—and you can begin living it.”

If the Kingdom is indeed here and now, then so must be the effort to increase the effectiveness of the Christian response to social justice crimes in the world today. For significant and lasting change, the solution must address the structures, it must have a long-term goal and it must always be a face, not a number. Whether giving shelter to people who need it, like those along the Underground Railroad years ago, or befriending the homeless in our city, that face must be His who called us in the first place.

Want to read more about issues like these? This article is adapted from a feature in the premiere issue of REJECT APATHY, which you can preview here


When have you seen evangelism and social justice work well together and when have you seen them butt heads? Comment below: 



Anonymous commented…

My Facebook comment on this article:

Noam Chomsky observed correctly that the U.S. is not a two party state, but a nation with one political party divided arbitrarily into two factions, who use terms like 'liberal' and 'conservative' like they actually knew what these terms meant. Having said that, I think the 'this versus that' nonsense is the big lie here. Ron Sider could not be more correct; social justice and evangelism are not mutually exclusive, nor should they be.


Kevin Palau commented…

Here in Portland OR 400 evangelical churches are working with our Mayor to serve the City related to trafficking, gang violence, hunger, and homelessness. It's broken down a ton of barriers in this very progressive city and has led to a lot of relational evangelism...


Anonymous commented…

What a great article! Having spent A LOT of time overseas doing missions and coming from a family where both sets of grandparents have been serving overseas since I can remember, these issues really hit home. It's hard for me, sometimes, to look around me when I'm in the States and see the poverty that is all around. I have come to think that poverty looks like smelly alley-ways, rotting teeth, and mud huts. But, as Christians, poverty is a heart-issue. Yes, serving the poor is Jesus' heart. It is true Chrisianity to care for the orphans and the widows and to follow Christ without the stains of the world. BUt when this article talks about community, it hits the nail on the head. We have to become one in order to become strong and serve together. The church must also, at some point realize that good intentions are simply not enough. We have to focus on holistic healing. Christ-like healing. Too often I see candy passed out to children in third-world countries, children who have no access to a dentist. Are the intentions good? Always. Is the help going to lead to healing? Unfortunately, no. Part of knowing how to meet needs in a holistic manner is to take time to build relationships and know the people you're serving. We can speculate all we want about what someone's needs may be by looking at them. Until we know them, though, (or in the case of virtual support, know someone who knows them) we cannot effectively meet their needs. I like the mantra of a ministry based in Belgium called "Serve the City", "We know their needs, but do we know their names?" Needs and names go hand in hand, in my book.


NtdMBD commented…

I don't think it's a dolllar amount, I think it is a mentality process.

James Gleason


James Gleason commented…

I don't understand why this issue gets presented as an either/or situation. It should be a both/and. I just took a carload of food to a poor family in our city where the mom is in the hospital dying of cancer. We gave them this food with no strings attached. They asked us to visit the mom in the hospital and she prayed to receive Christ. Our Hispanic ministry is now reaching out to them for the Christmas season and beyond. Our church has a homeless shelter every winter for 90-days (the longest our city will allow) and we house up to 45 men, women, and children each night. They get a great dinner, breakfast, sack lunch, a warm place to sleep and the love of many volunteers. Every winter we see people come to Christ, get jobs, get housing, and find a bit mor dignity. Can't we do both effectively without swinging the pendulum too far to one side? As Kevin said, it's working here in the Portland area (full disclosure, Kevin's a good friend and an even greater man of God).

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