There is an old debate among Christians that no less affects those involved in faith and work initiatives: is evangelism the highest priority, or is it acts of justice and mercy?
On one side, theologians will argue that declaring the gospel and preaching the Word is most important. After all, eternal souls are at stake. The other side will argue that Jesus taught, “May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The priority is not in “other-worldly” pursuits, but in establishing God’s kingdom now through acts of justice and mercy.
Lesslie Newbigin, in his seminal The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, argues, “If we turn to the Gospels we are bound to note the indissoluble nexus between deeds and words.” For example, in the Gospel of John, there is a large portion of teaching from Jesus, but it usually follows something Jesus has done: the healing of a blind man, the feeding of the 5,000, raising Lazarus from the dead. Again, in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus calls “his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and infirmity.” Yet as they were doing all this, he gave them a message to bear as well: “The kingdom of God is at hand.”
If we lose either part of this formula – word and deed – we miss the message of Jesus. On the one hand, acts of justice and kindness are dumb without an explanation. In Jesus day they were misinterpreted (some of his opponents said he came from Satan), and in our day there is no shortage of justice-loving people from other faiths, or no faith at all. The message of the gospel,the actual testimony to the life, death, resurrection and Second Coming of Jesus, is what calls this present world into question and reveals “the hidden secret” (one of Newbigin’s other books) of God’s reign.
However, without action, preaching is meaningless. Words can be brushed aside as mere talk. In contrast, nearly all the great sermons in the book of Acts are in response to a question. Something had happened, and the masses were asking, “What is this new reality?”
So, should faith and work initiatives prioritize evangelism or justice and cultural engagement? Most emphasize one or the other. The ones closest to local churches tend to prioritize sharing your faith at work, and those with weaker ties to the church make faith and work programs primarily about doing good things (the latest phase is ‘seeking the common good of the city’). What makes Christian mission distinctive is that deeds of justice, kindness, and mercy are done “in the name of Jesus.” This does not need to be annoying – making every meeting into a chance to tell a Bible story – but it certainly requires not being ashamed of the verbal proclamation of the gospel when the time comes.
It should also be said that the primary “deeds” of our lives, for the majority of people, are found at work. And ministers have the responsibility to equip their congregations for deeds that reflect the kingdom of God. As Newbigin said,
“It follows that the major role of the Church is relation to the great issues of justice and peace will not be in its formal pronouncements but in its continually nourishing and sustaining men and women who will act responsibly as believers in the course of their secular affairs.”
In my faith tradition, evangelicalism, historically we’ve done well with evangelism. We’ve improved greatly in the past 50 years in the area of justice. But what about cultural engagement “in the course of our secular affairs?” Will we too find the words and deeds to do this with faithfulness?
Discussion question: In your work, do you tend to favor evangelism or acts of justice, that is, words or deeds? Why?