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Proclaiming the Gospel in Word and Deed

by Joseph Anfuso

I had no idea in the spring of 1980 that a two-day trip to Nicaragua would not only change the trajectory of my life, but cause me to reimagine Jesus’ commission in Mark 16:15: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”

At the time, I was a leader in a church-planting ministry birthed during the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jesus was coming back soon, we were convinced, so our highest priorities—perhaps our only priorities—were preaching the gospel and making disciples.

That’s why my trip to Nicaragua was so impactful. I had gone there to visit my friend, Bob Trolese, who had recently moved to Nicaragua to plant a church. Since the Sandinistas had just taken power in Nicaragua after years of bloody conflict, many affluent Nicaraguans, as well as foreign missionaries, were fleeing the country—something that made Bob’s arrival wonderfully counter-intuitive.

As I said, what I saw and heard during my two-day visit to Nicaragua altered my perspective on world evangelism. I visited the farm where Bob was growing crops for desperately poor families; the children’s home he’d started for local street kids; and two schools the Sandinista government had entrusted into his care. “They’re Christian schools now,” Bob told me with obvious satisfaction. “The Sandinista government doesn’t care what we do at the schools, as long as we run them.”  

I was deeply moved. Bob’s approach to ministry was so different from the “verbal-only” approach I’d grown accustomed to, and it instantly appealed to me. Yes, Bob was preaching the gospel and making disciples. But he was also addressing the physical, social, and economic needs of Nicaraguan people. It was a holistic approach that would soon inform my vision for Forward Edge—the ministry God used me to launch three years later.     

A 100-Year-Old Controversy

For more than 100 years, the relationship between evangelism and social action has been a bone of contention among evangelical Christians. Starting in 1910, various groups of evangelical leaders have come together to discuss and adopt positions on this topic—ultimately very different positions. There were conferences in Edinburgh (1910), Berlin (1966), and Lausanne, Switzerland (1974). Some groups adopted positions that emphasized the importance of social action: caring for the poor and addressing structural injustice. Others adopted positions that acknowledged the importance of social action, but emphasized evangelism—the verbal proclamation of the gospel. Over the years, the debate raged on.   

Now, you might think: “What’s the big deal? Of course we’re supposed to engage in both evangelism and social action. Where’s the controversy?”

But there are at least three reasons why a clear understanding of the relationship between evangelism and social action is vitally important—perhaps now more than ever.

1. Individual Jesus followers and Christ-centered organizations can easily drift away from any proclamation of the gospel, gravitating instead toward charitable activities that are readily accepted, even celebrated, by secular society. There are many organizations in the U.S., in fact, that started out as Christ-centered ministries only to remove any reference to God and Christ from their mission statements and programs.

2. A growing number of young Jesus followers today are also making engagement in social action and issues of justice their highest priority when it comes to mission and ministry. While many in previous generations dedicated themselves to putting the gospel into words, many in the current generation are more interested in putting it into their walk—a walk marked by justice and social action.

I believe this is something to celebrate! It’s a sign that the Spirit is at work, leading young men and women into lives marked by the belief that all of life matters to God, not just the parts we might call “spiritual.” At the same time, there’s a growing number of Jesus followers who seem to believe that doing justice is spreading the gospel. And I believe this is something to be concerned about.

3. And finally, there’s a growing awareness among young believers that the old “sales pitch” approach to evangelism—where the evangelizer buttonholes a potential convert and takes him or her through “The Four Spiritual Laws”—is just not authentic, and therefore not very effective. Understandably, many young believers are gun-shy of such approaches, and have turned away from them in droves. Consequently, there’s a genuine need for a new approach to evangelism that doesn’t require becoming a confrontational street preacher or religious telemarketer.

The Missional Paradigm

A relatively new understanding of mission and ministry has emerged in recent years, an understanding or paradigm called “missional.” In a nutshell, proponents of missional ministry believe the primary thing Jesus and the Bible call us to do is proclaim and demonstrate the reign of God through Christ, that is, the coming of His kingdom, and the unprecedented events that marked His time on earth: His birth, death, burial, and resurrection. David Bosch, a South African missiologist, summarizes the missional paradigm like this: “Mission is more and different from recruitment to our brand of religion; it is the alerting of people to the reign of God through Christ.”

In the words of New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright: “The New Testament picks up from the Old the theme that God intends in the end, to put the whole of creation to rights: ‘The earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.’ That is the promise which resonates throughout the Bible story, from Isaiah all the way through to Paul’s greatest visionary moments and the final chapters of the book of Revelation. The great drama will end not with ‘saved souls’ being snatched up into heaven, away from the wicked earth and the mortal bodies which have dragged them down into sin, but with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, so that ‘the dwelling of God is with humans,” (Rev.21:3).

What proponents of missional ministry are essentially saying is that mission is larger and more expansive than simply evangelizing with words. Evangelism, in their view, is a part of God’s larger purpose, not the sum total. It is one of the ways we alert people to the universal reign of God in Christ, and the coming of God’s kingdom to the earth.

Now, while I admit to feeling uneasy with an understanding of mission and ministry that could end up devaluing verbal evangelism, I appreciate the point proponents of missional ministry are making…that fulfilling the Great Commission involves more than just communicating Christian doctrine. Words and information need to be backed up by a radical transformation in the life of the person speaking, and by a demonstration of God’s love that touches every aspect of life.

In the words of missional proponent Michael Frost: “Healing the sick, challenging unjust political and social structures, feeding the poor, embodying the values of the reign of God are all facets of God’s mission in this world, the mission of putting all things right. Our involvement with [making things right] will include both our lips and our hands. It will involve evangelism, advocacy, peacemaking, worship and proclamation, as well as service, justice-seeking, healing, building, and feeding.”

I like and agree with this understanding of mission. But does this understanding mean that social action and evangelism are of equal importance? The following three points reflect my personal response to that question.

1. Evangelism and Social Action are Distinct Activities

Social action is about affecting change in history. It has a limited lifespan, and can even be undone. For example, a disaster-recovery effort lasts for a certain period of time, and then it’s over; a well can break down and go unrepaired and unused; a building that was once a hospital can become a casino.

Social action and community development are also about harnessing the resources within a community. It’s about empowering a community through their participation. In good development work, like Forward Edge’s programs in Nicaragua today, an understanding of the problem and its solutions come from within a community.

In contrast, the message of the gospel is that we’re powerless and can never achieve or even participate in our salvation. An understanding of the problem and the solution comes from outside the community. This outside message does not come from western technology, money, expertise or market capitalism. It comes from heaven.

2. Proclamation is Central

I believe the greatest need of all people, including the materially poor, is to be reconciled to God. And I believe that only the message of the gospel can do that. Social action can demonstrate…commend…adorn the gospel. But without the communication of the gospel message, it’s like a signpost pointing nowhere.

In fact, without the message of the gospel, it can point in the wrong direction. If all we’re doing are good works, people may think well of us, but not necessarily of Jesus Christ.  We may even convey the message that reconciliation with God is achieved by good works or that what matters most is a better economic and social life.

What Jesus had to say on this topic is telling, and deserves serious consideration: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

In his book, Generous Justice, Tim Keller agrees: “Evangelism is the most basic and radical ministry possible to a human being,” he argues. “This is true not because the spiritual is more important than the physical, but because the eternal is more important than the temporal …To consider deeds of mercy and justice to be identical to gospel proclamation is a fatal confusion.”

3. Evangelism and Social Action are Inseparable

If the greatest need of people is to be reconciled with God, and if this need can be met only through the message of the gospel, it might seem logical to say evangelism should be “the priority.” But if we think in terms of prioritizing—of making a list and doing the activities at the top of the list first and getting around to the things at the bottom only if we have time—then we’re essentially saying the things at the bottom of the list are of little importance, so if we never get around to doing them it doesn’t really matter.

But such choices rarely bear any relationship to reality. In our involvement in the lives of others we can’t ignore their physical and social needs. When the Good Samaritan came across the stranger who’d been beaten and robbed, he didn’t fill his pockets with evangelistic tracts and walk away.

In the words of James the apostle: “Suppose your brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead,” (James 2:14-17).   

Something else that’s worth acknowledging here is that gospel proclamation can have a very practical and holistic impact on the lives of the materially poor. I saw this for myself on a trip to Guatemala, also in the early 1980s, when I visited the Ixil Triangle, a region populated entirely by indigenous people groups.

It was here in the Ixil Triangle that I met a local mayor and church leader named Tomas. According to Tomas, when the men in his region began following Jesus, they not only started attending church, but also started attending to their crops and their children’s education. They stopped getting drunk and beating their wives. The proclamation of the gospel didn’t just benefit them spiritually; it benefited them and their families in many other ways, too.

I’m deeply grateful for that brief trip to Nicaragua more than 40 years ago now. It helped open my eyes to a truly holistic way of “going into all the world to preach the gospel”—one that includes both gospel proclamation and social action—with gospel proclamation being preeminent. As we each respond to Jesus’ commission in Mark 16:15, may we do so with our lips, and also with our hands.     

30 years after Joseph's first visit to Nicaragua, Villa Esperanza was born.

Since 2008, Villa Esperanza has been a safe haven for girls rescued from abuse, neglect and trafficking in some of the most poverty-stricken areas of Managua, Nicaragua. Since then, the Villa has developed into a holistic, five-fold ministry which includes a girl’s program, a boy’s discipleship program, scholarship program, sexual purity program and community development program. Villa Esperanza is now held up as one of the most respected locally-led programs in the country.

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