Sorting out priorities

Mark Pickett After studying Geology at Aberystwyth, Mark journeyed to South Asia, where for twenty years he was involved in evangelism, Bible teaching, leadership training, research, writing, and publishing prin
01 February, 2009 6 min read

Sorting out priorities

When the risen Lord Jesus commissioned his followers to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19) he set in motion a great movement that continues to gather momentum today.

As we know from the book of Acts, it took time for the new church to appreciate the full implications of that commission. But it wasn’t long before congregations throughout the eastern Mediterranean were sending out men to preach the gospel and plant churches in regions where the Bible was previously unknown.

Today, the Holy Spirit continues to equip and lead missionaries to cross social, political and cultural boundaries to take the good news to those who have not yet heard.

Show and tell

Missionaries and missions-minded churches look to the Bible for help in understanding the missionary task. The emphases in the ministries of Jesus and the apostles must be seen within the context of the Bible as a whole.

Missionaries are often brought face to face with the overwhelming needs of people with no access to healthcare and have sought medical training so that they can provide physical as well as spiritual care. Orphans have been provided with homes, the destitute with food and work.

In the early twentieth century, liberal theology in the church led some to shift their emphasis from seeking spiritual transformation to working to civilise societies. Inevitably, this ‘social gospel’ led to disillusionment and many abandoned missions altogether. Evangelical churches and missions, however, pressed on with the task of world evangelisation, knowing that without spiritual transformation there could be no lasting positive changes to a society.

Evangelical rethinking

However, in the face of massive social needs, the last half-century has seen a growing emphasis on social action by Evangelicals in mission. Two congresses held in 1966 – the Congress on the Church’s Worldwide Mission in Wheaton, Illinois, and the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin – brought the church’s involvement in social action into sharp focus.

The 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation is seen by many as the turning point in the rediscovery by Evangelicals of social involvement in mission.1 The South American evangelists René Padilla and Samuel Escobar made a great impression on the congress, and John Stott’s drafting of the Lausanne Covenant was hugely influential in this respect.

Advocates of this ‘new’ approach to mission called attention to the ministries of Christ himself and his apostles in the early church. Their mission, it was asserted, was holistic in that they ministered to the whole man, not just to his soul (e.g. John 10:10; Matthew 9:35-38; Luke 4:18-19).

A hot debate

Not all were happy with the emphasis on social action in the Lausanne Covenant, however. Arthur Johnstone, especially, voiced concerns that this was a return to the old liberal social gospel. Much discussion led eventually to the Consultation on the Relationship between Evangelism and Social Responsibility that met in 1982 in Grand Rapids.

The Grand Rapids Report affirms the importance of both tasks, but asserts that evangelism has a logical priority because Christian social responsibility presupposes socially responsible Christians. Furthermore, the gospel carries the offer of eternal life – something that social action cannot give.

However, the precise relationship between the two tasks continues to be hotly debated. One might be forgiven for wondering why church and mission leaders don’t give up arguing and just get down to the job! But the issue is so basic to the nature and task of the church that we must work towards a better understanding.

Mission leaders are entrusted annually with enormous amounts of money donated by Christians for the furtherance of the Kingdom. How should these millions be spent? What kinds of ministries should new missionaries be directed into? The spiritual and material needs of the globe’s six billion people continue to place huge demands on those who minister to them. So priorities must be set.

Radical holism

Some writers have argued strongly for a radically holistic missionary vision. In Changing the mind of missions: where have we gone wrong? Jim Engel and William Dyrness assert that social transformation must be a full partner with evangelism. ‘Missions, therefore’, they argue, ‘require a fundamental association and identification with the most marginalised, because the essence of the good news is liberation, justice and shalom’.2

David Hesselgrave, professor emeritus of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has long opposed this approach. In his recent book Paradigms in conflict: 10 key questions in Christian missions today he defends what he calls ‘traditional prioritism’, affirming that it does indeed recognise the importance of ministries that address medical, educational, economic and social needs. However, ‘at the same time’, he says, ‘it sustains the time-honoured distinction between the primary mission of the church and secondary or supporting ministries’.3

Liberation theologians and many holists assert that God has a preference for the poor. Hesselgrave counters this with a detailed study of the word ‘poor’ in the Old and New Testaments,4 asserting that in Isaiah 61:1 the word ‘poor’ refers to ‘people who humbly look for the hope of Israel above and beyond anything else’. It is this spiritual dimension, he adds, that is bequeathed to the New Testament.

A moderate approach

Not all advocates of holistic mission would accept the radicalism of Engel and Dyrness. In Good news to the poor, Tim Chester argues that though proclamation and social action are both important they should not be regarded as equal partners. They are not, as some suggest, like the two wings of a bird or two scissor blades. ‘Evangelism and social action should be viewed as distinct, but inseparable activities in our mission to the poor in which proclamation is central’.5

Chris Wright agrees. In pressing for a holistic missional response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in The mission of God, he argues passionately for what he calls the ‘ultimacy of evangelism’.6  Proclamation will lead to spiritual transformation among the hearers, but the gospel that is heard will be embraced in the context of the wider work and lives of those who proclaim it.

What about the church?

One issue that emerges from this debate concerns the role of the church in ministry to the world. If we agree that Christians should be involved in alleviating suffering and helping the needy, how far should this be expressed by the church as a whole?

This, of course, raises the same issues as the church’s involvement in politics and the wider culture. John Stott uses ‘Christians’ and ‘the church’ interchangeably, so for him the church is called to do whatever Christians are called to do.

‘But’, says Don Carson in his Christ and culture revisited, ‘suppose that ‘church’ in the New Testament cannot be reduced to a collective of Christians: immediately the possibilities are more subtle’.7

Carson argues that the church is more than just a group of Christians. There are many injunctions in the Bible to do good, show mercy, care for the poor and be concerned with matters of justice. But ‘if all such responsibilities belong to the … church as an institution, then surely the leaders of the church … should take responsibility for them and direct them’.8 But we find that the priorities of the pastors of the early church were the ministry of the Word and prayer. Nevertheless, Christians are busy fulfilling their responsibilities as salt in a corrupt world.

Carson suggests that there are two opposing dangers. On the one hand, those Christians who think only of evangelism and Bible-teaching are in danger of a ‘docetic Christianity that overlooks the wholeness of the Bible’s teaching … that simultaneously recognises our heavenly citizenship and (with Paul) our citizenship in Rome (or France, or Australia, or Kenya)’.9

On the other hand, some Christians are so busy with issues of justice and compassion that evangelism and Bible teaching are neglected. They marginalise their responsibilities as members of the church.

As gospel churches continue to carry the torch of mission to the world in the 21st century we need to pray for discernment to ensure that our priorities are those given us in Scripture. It is only as we align our mission to that of God’s that we will bring glory to him and truly be a blessing to a hurting world.


1. Tim Chester, Good news to the poor: sharing the gospel through social involvement (IVP, 2004), p.59.

2. Engel, J. F. & W. A. Dyrness, Changing the mind of missions: where have we gone wrong? (Inter Varsity Press, 2000), p.95.

3. David J. Hesselgrave, Paradigms in conflict: 10 key questions in Christian missions today (Kregel, 2005), p.121.

4. Ibid., pp. 125-35.

5. Tim Chester, Good news to the poor, p.67 (original emphasis).

6. Christopher J. H. Wright, The mission of God: unlocking the Bible’s grand narrative (Inter-Varsity Press, 2006), p.439.

7. Don Carson, Christ and culture revisited (Apollos, 2008), p.150.

8. Ibid., p.151.

9. Ibid., p.152.

Mark Pickett

After studying Geology at Aberystwyth, Mark journeyed to South Asia, where for twenty years he was involved in evangelism, Bible teaching, leadership training, research, writing, and publishing prin
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