Don’t you love the smell of a new car, the sight of a newborn baby or the prospect of a New Year? Newness is often so appealing and can fill us with hope. Nevertheless, newness also has its drawbacks.
It’s easy to be enticed by the newest improved version of one thing or another, not to mention that brand new gadget that promises to streamline our lives or increase our productivity. From the hoola-hoop to the Cabbage Patch doll to the iPod, people of all ages become convinced that we just have to have it.”
The same is true with the next great idea or strategy, even within our churches. Who doesn’t want to keep current, especially if proponents of a new idea or strategy declare with any kind of believability that those who hang on to previous ideas or strategies are obsolete, narrow-minded or short-sighted?
The problem is, some of the new programs, books and ideas that abound in Christian circles are as faddish and fleeting as the fashions featured in department store windows. Some may apply this analogy to church dTcor or styles of musical worship, but I am not so concerned about new forms as I am about new content—especially when it comes to missions and evangelism.
I don’t mean to discourage innovation or creativity in our efforts to make Christ known. I still believe that the best, most creative means of ministry—and especially the best methods of introducing people to Jesus—are yet to be discovered, developed and deployed. But sometimes we become so enamored with the latest trends that we can fail to recognize compromises that go along with certain so-called innovations. The well-worn adage often applies here: “If it’s true, it’s not new; if it’s new, it’s not true.”
I am particularly concerned about trends that view social action as the new paradigm for missions and evangelism, and I predict that this year we will see many more such trends. Many worthwhile efforts, such as those concerned with fighting world hunger and implementing green technologies, have begun to capture the attention of church leaders who seem to believe that such efforts amount to a new approach to missions and evangelism.
Do I think that Christians ought to be at the forefront of meeting the needs of the poor and disenfranchised? Absolutely! Do I think Jesus wants us to be good stewards of this planet? Without a doubt! We need not leave it to celebrity trendsetters to be the main proponents for feeding the hungry and caring for our environment. Christians should be involved in just causes simply because it is right—but we should not confuse these causes with the Great Commission.
Am I being a missiological troglodyte? I don’t think so, but you’ll decide for yourself.
The “wedding” of mission and social action is nothing new. Back in the early 20th century this kind of blended approach was called the “social gospel” and it led to the demise of true missionary efforts in many mainline churches. Many people don’t remember that the World Council of Churches was once committed to the uniqueness of Christ for salvation and the fulfillment of the evangelistic mandate. What happened to the WCC is happening right now in some evangelical circles. Failed ideas have been repackaged and recycled, and many evangelicals are greeting them with great enthusiasm as new missions programs. These ideas aren’t new and they aren’t true to the Great Commission.
Why was it, and why is it popular to blend evangelism with social action? Can’t each stand on its own merits? Some believe it is necessary to combine them in order to gain an entrTe for the gospel, or to earn respect from those who think Christians don’t care about social concerns. The problem is, since social action is far more acceptable to unbelievers than attempts to point them to Jesus, it is easy to convince ourselves that our social actions will speak volumes about our faith. And people will want to know more about Christ, some insist, without our having to offend them by talking about sin and the Savior.
We all prefer appreciation to rejection—I know I certainly do. And isn’t it wonderful that some of the things God commands us to do may lead people to appreciate us? But if we try to blend that which people usually appreciate with that which they often reject, we should not be surprised to find ourselves giving precedence to the former at the expense of the latter. That’s how many “missions” programs minimize the difficult doctrine of the uniqueness of Christ for salvation, undermining the gospel message and rendering it essentially powerless. Hence the phrase “social gospel” implies a lot of social, but not much gospel.
Many of our evangelical churches today have returned to the trend that mainline churches embraced nearly 100 years ago, and those who have a heart for evangelism and missions should be very concerned.
The very word “missions” has become a catch-all for any good work Christians engage in, whether or not they proclaim the good news of Jesus. “Missional” has become a trendy adjective applied to “doing church” in a way that emphasizes social action. This not-so-new trend is resurfacing to water down the Great Commission among evangelicals today.
Some critics say that evangelicals have been too narrow in our understanding of the gospel. They say that missions and evangelism are not limited to seeing individual lives transformed through the message of salvation in Christ, but that missions should be seen as the transforming of society by bringing in the kingdom of God. That definition is so broad that it causes confusion and dilutes the directive to go out and make disciples.
As is often the case, Jewish missions and evangelism help to provide a corrective. You won’t see many medical missions for Jewish people these days. After all, many Christians tell me their doctor is Jewish. Nor do Israelis—who are at the forefront of farming innovations such as desalinization projects—need outside agricultural help. Some Christian organizations that do provide relief aid in Israel are constrained by Israeli law from overtly proclaiming the gospel. That law forbids offering financial inducement for the purpose of conversion, so these groups offer the aid without the gospel. But they are still viewed with great suspicion by many who suspect they have “ulterior motives.”
What does the church have to offer to Jewish people? The message of the gospel, plain and simple. If you love Israel and want to support missions to the Jewish people, it’s easy. Just ask yourself, “Do any organizations I give to focus on getting the gospel to Jewish people?” Unless you can say “yes,” you aren’t yet supporting Jewish missions. You may choose to support other Jewish causes—but hopefully not in place of missions giving.
Why not apply the same test to other missions endeavors? It’s a good test, and it need not stifle new and creative evangelistic efforts. The fact is, we need innovative ways to move forward in missions and evangelism. But we need benchmarks to ensure that we don’t miss the mark in our efforts to make Christ known. We need principles to undergird our efforts and provide a context for discerning whether a new idea is properly grounded in the “old, old story.”
Some people may get hung up over forms, but just because a form is new doesn’t mean the content is not true. I am encouraging our upcoming generation of Jews for Jesus to try new things to communicate the gospel. I am very encouraged by some of the ideas and approaches they are developing. They are creative, bold and unashamed of the gospel.
Forms might change, and in some cases that change is much needed— as long as the underlying principles and content remain the same. With those principles and content firmly in place, we can embrace the new as still true.