How do we join together word and deed, evangelism and social engagement, conversion and liberation?
The problem has been posed in various ways by different people, and with a range of answers. It’s an issue I’ve been dancing around for some time, and last year at St Andrew’s Hall I began to continue this under the umbrella of Mission as Transformation. First, some history.
It’s the nineteenth century. North America. Society and culture are changing. Everyone’s trying to adjust. Protestant Christians begin to respond. React. And disagree about it.
So, for example, when mainline-liberal Protestants started the Social Gospel movement, evangelicals responded by emphasising evangelism and right doctrine. Evangelicals began speaking of evangelism and social engagement as separate, even competing things. This had the effect of moving evangelicals away from their own heritage: it wasn’t just a rejection of the Social Gospel movement, it amounted to a rejection of the Christian social imperative, as Carl Henry noted in 1947. David Moberg called it the Great Reversal because it unravelled the way in which evangelicals had traditionally combined word and deed.
Since then, there have been various attempts to address the situation. The Lausanne Movement has been home to both constructive work as well as ongoing tension. The spectre of the Social Gospel still spooks us sometimes. A widespread evangelical response has been to reaffirm social action, while claiming that evangelism must have priority.
Here’s my take on it. Even if it’s certain we can speak of evangelistic priority without making social engagement optional, we’re still left with a preventative measure designed for the controversy of a previous generation. Priority doesn’t address the root issue because it perpetuates the dichotomy between evangelism and social engagement. It leaves us thinking that word and deed can be separated, and that we need a hierarchy of Christian activities. These assumptions, these categories, and the tension itself, are products of the Great Reversal. The language of priority reveals the problem rather than solving it.
As I see it, the Great Reversal isn’t so much an equation in need of a solution as a dead end in need of a detour.
Instead of continuing to puzzle over the question, Mission as Transformation speaks as if the Great Reversal never took place.
As Al Tizon puts it, this is a conversation in which we ‘refuse to understand evangelization without liberation, a change of heart without a change of structures, vertical reconciliation (between God and people) without horizontal reconciliation (between people and people), and church planting without community building’.
- Whereas priority reflects an in-house debate, Mission as Transformation flows out of solidarity with people of the margins. Theological conservatism goes hand in hand with radical social engagement.
- Whereas this in-house debate has been a Western experience on Western terms, Mission as Transformation involves the voices of the Global South. It starts from the understanding that all theology is contextual, and it puts the issues and categories relevant to majority world churches in full view. It is a conversation from the Global South, in which the churches of the majority world are speaking and observing, not merely being talked about or spoken for. Lausanne 1974 was one of the first places where Western evangelicals were able to hear the voices of their majority world brothers and sisters, and Mission as Transformation has continued that trajectory.
- Whereas many evangelicals never stopped persisting with social engagement, Mission as Transformation creates theological impetus for social engagement to flourish.
It’s a privilege to be an onlooker to this conversation, yet Mission as Transformation holds the promise of a truly global discussion. Western missiology has the potential to take a global perspective insofar as it is able to align itself with conversations like this one.
I hope, too, that Western evangelicals will recognise the appeal of the word ‘transformation’. Just as the early revivals emphasised ‘vital piety’, evangelical faith has always been concerned with the changed life: we don’t simply value the Bible and the finished work of Christ, we want to live in compassion and action. And it is a relatively small step, perhaps, from the changed life of an individual believer to the renovation of communities and cultures at large. It’s something we’ll continue to explore here in future posts.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.