The primary mission of the church and, therefore, of the churches is to proclaim the gospel of Christ and gather believers into local churches where they can be built up in the faith and made effective in service; thus new congregations are to be planted throughout the world. Of course, there are many other important tasks to be carried out by Christian believers both individually and corporately. But few of these objectives will be realized unless new believers are constantly being added to local churches, unless new local churches are being added to the universal church, and unless existing churches are growing up into the fullness of him who is their head.
– David Hesselgrave, Planting Churches Cross-Culturally:
North America and Beyond, 17-18
Last week, I had the opportunity to spend five days with some of Southern Seminary’s sharpest students discussing the biblical foundations of Christian missions. We walked through the Scriptures together and identified how God’s Word speaks to our missionary task. One of the topics that always arises is the relationship between evangelism and social ministries like hunger relief, community development, and justice ministries.
Most evangelicals “get” the importance of gospel proclamation. At the same time, our hearts ache for suffering people, both inside and outside the global church. Billions live today without access to the gospel, millions without adequate nutrition, clean water, basic education or medical care. Thousands of children die every day from preventable diseases, and thousands more are caught in a web of modern-day slavery. We who follow Christ yearn intuitively to do something about it.
At the same time, missionaries and missions leaders struggle to avoid the temptation to do the “good work” of meeting physical and social needs without the “best work” of sharing the gospel and calling people to faith in Christ.
With all that in mind, here are three basic biblical foundations for social ministries in the local church and across the globe:
- Every believer is subject to a three-fold call: Love God (Matt 22.36-37), Love neighbor (Matt 22.39), and make disciples (Matt 28.18-20). How exactly these play out in terms of geography and vocation varies, but all are key to the Christian life. Luke recorded that one particular lawyer asked about these commands then, seeking to “justify himself,” asked Jesus to define “neighbor” (Luke 10.25-37). Jesus did so in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Without ever raising care for the suffering above any other part of the Christian life, Jesus made clear that we are to be involved in ministries to those who hurt, who are hungry, and who are in need.
- At the same time, the Scriptures teach that our greatest suffering is the result of our sin and separation from God – and that suffering is eternal outside of Christ. As John Piper said recently at CrossCon, “There are thousands of needs in the world, and none of them compares to the global need for the gospel.” In Romans 6.23, Paul wrote that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Later, he reminds all of us that all who call on Jesus will be saved from eternal suffering (yes, Hell is real), but that nobody can call on Jesus apart from our proclaiming the gospel (Romans 10.13-15).
- If, then, we are called to make disciples (evangelism) and love our neighbor (care), we can ignore neither the evangelistic mandate nor the social mandate. These are not completely separate things, however. Paul reminded the believers of the Colossian church, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Col 3.17). We as believers both speak the Word and do the work, but in all things we point to Jesus. The globe is covered with people doing good things – digging clean water wells, caring for orphans, providing basic medical care, fighting modern slavery. What separates Christian missions from all the rest is that in all things, we speak the gospel.