I’ve been reading late missiologist Ralph Winter‘s essay on predictions for Evangelical missions. He traces a loss of social conscience in evangelicals from the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th. Think the difference between Wilberforce or the early Temperance movements and the ‘just save souls’ emphasis of the likes of DL Moody.
Winter argues that evangelicals have continued to do social justice throughout the 20th century, but more ‘intuitively’ than because of theological impetus, and often on the sly: missionaries have written home about conversions but glossed over their social projects. He argues for a recovery of the theological basis for transformation, not only of individuals but of society.
In doing so, he puts forward a fascinating argument about the benefit to the west of majority world mission. He argues that the evangelical failure to work for social change in the majority world may well be a contributor to the loss of confidence in a God in the western world. He quotes atheist Steven Pinker: ‘If the god of the Intelligent Design people exists, he must be a divine sadist that creates parasites that blind millions of people.’
Leaving aside the red herring of Intelligent Design, Winter argues that this westerner’s rejection of God is a damning indictment on the failure of evangelicals to be a part of transformation in the majority world. Why should Pinker believe in our God when we have so failed to manifest his glory in recognisable signs? We may have seen individual lives transformed: a new convert may find that honesty or abandonment of liquor and drugs or their hard work gradually lifts them out of poverty into the middle class. But where has been our concern to see diseases like malaria (which devastates workforces and therefore economies) eradicated? Why hasn’t our confidence in the risen Jesus grown in us a desire to see microbiological evil expelled? Winter argues that transformed individuals ought to work for change such that we will see transformed societies as well.
This is a great rationale for student work in Tanzania of course! That’s exactly what we want to see and be a part of: individuals so transformed by the Holy Spirit that they are empowered to work for change in their societies as well.
But Winter reminds us that such work not only benefits the majority world but also the west. We in the west need to see this witness to God’s glory and his transformative work to give credence to our faith in a transformative God. This is not ‘using’ the majority world: it’s about partnering to see renewal everywhere. Winter brilliantly highlights the inter-dependence of the west and the majority world. The next time we’re asked why we believe in a God the divine sadist, we need to be able to combat that by pointing to his body working for hope, healing and transformation.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.