Is Jesus, food, or both the good news?

  • 10 days in October
  • 4000 invited guests
  • 198 countries represented
  • Cape Town, South Africa
  • International Congress on World Evangelization
  • Beamed to 650 global sites in 91 nations
They called it Cape Town 2010.  Perhaps the largest gathering of international Christians…, ever.

The Lausanne Movement is the brainchild of Dr. Billy Graham.  Preaching in more and more foreign countries the great evangelist pondered how the world’s evangelical Christians could work together to evangelize an increasingly complex and unstable world.  After sharing his vision with 100 world leaders, in 1974 Dr. Graham gathered 2700 Christian leaders from 150 countries in Lausanne, Switzerland (hence the movement’s name), a congress TIME magazine described as “a formidable forum, possibly the widest ranging meeting of Christians ever held”.

Lausanne launched a movement.  A second congress was held in 1989 in the Philippines, and this year’s was the third.  The impact Lausanne has had on world evangelization and Christian unity has been far reaching.  But there’s always been a current of tension in each congress as well as in the dozens of conferences sponsored in between, over the relationship of evangelism and social efforts to relieve suffering.  Which claim is right?
  1. The primary work of the Church is evangelism 
  2. Although the primary work of the church is evangelism, working for things like feeding the hungry should be the result of individual faith and a call on the church.
  3. The work of evangelism and the work of meeting people’s legitimate needs are equally the work of the Church, are equally the work of the gospel.
In his address to the delegates Pastor John Piper preached that Christians must respond to all kinds of suffering of all people.  Then he added, especially respond to the threat of eternal suffering–in other words, without neglecting social justice, evangelization is at the front of the line.  World Vision’s Corina Villacorta emphasized that the acts Jesus did when he was here was riddled with compassion for people’s sufferings.  She decried the inequity between rich Christians and poor ones.

In the face of such tensions Denver Seminary president Dr. Mark Young quipped from Cape Town, “Those primarily engaged in social justice and development ministries quote St. Francis, ‘Preach the gospel at all times —  necessary, use words.’  Those involved primarily in preaching wish that St. Francis had said, ‘Preach the gospel at all times — If necessary, don’t use words.'”

It’s not just Lausanne.  For over a hundred years this tension has pulled the American church back and forth.  Many remember how mainline Protestants in the early 1900’s got so preoccupied with social justice issues they dispensed with evangelism.  (Remember Glenn Beck famously warning his listeners that if their church talked about social or economic justice, they were code words for communism?)  Some of these denominations never recovered biblical Christianity but preached a “social gospel”, a form of good news which turned out to be bad news: Jesus got demoted from atoning sacrifice to nice example.  Certainly in this case, the food was not the good news.

Fearful of this slippery slope, some Christians wash their hands altogether of things like soup kitchens, health clinics–of anything that smacks of “social services”.  But repeatedly the prophets, Jesus and the apostles send us to meet people’s needs: the poor, the widows, the orphans, lepers, aliens (outsiders).  The Scriptures say…
  • Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.
  • Share your food with the hungry…, provide the poor wanderer with shelter…, when you see the naked…, clothe him.
  • Faith without works is dead.  
  • Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.
  • Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?
  • Sell everything you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.
There’s no way to dodge the Bible’s mandate to care about–and for, those in need.  Nor any way to dodge the Bible’s mandate that every Christian is a missionary (Acts 1:8, Matthew 28:18-20) tasked with taking the message that Jesus died and rose again to save sinners like me, to other sinners.

Again, it’s the relationship between the two that’s dicey.  Which takes priority–should a local church give both equal attention?  In a recent discussion with Capitol Baptist Pastor Mark Dever, Sojourners editor Jim Wallis insisted everything from racial reconciliation to helping the poor should be the  church’s work–they’re “integral” to the gospel he said.  Dever agreed that the gospel has social implications and that people genuinely transformed by the gospel should care about anyone in need.  And help individually as led.  But he couldn’t agree that it’s the church’s main job.  That, he said, is evangelism and discipleship.
Manhattan pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian will keep the discussion alive with his just-released book Generous Justice about which he asserts: “All I know is, if I don’t care about the poor, if my church doesn’t care about the poor, that’s evil.”

I think I can agree with that.  However, the enemy is happy to use bad or good things to supplant the gospel.  For example, until Jesus returns, there will always be hunger, poverty, suffering.  Jesus said so.  True, some of our forebears used that to excuse a lack of concern and assistance for the poor.  Because we cannot erase something does not mean we cannot alleviate it.  

But the danger to Christ’s church remains that if the magnitude of evil, suffering, hunger, AIDS, poverty, and sex trafficking gets to us, we may throw all of our time and resources at those great needs and perhaps neglect the good news whose effects transcend this life.  

Author: Keith Rohrer

Husband, Dad, Grandpa, Gospel-lover, churchplanter, pastor, woodworker, biker.

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