Social Justice. Christian Advocacy. The Gospel of the Kingdom (in contrast to the Gospel of Atonement). Incarnational Living. Environmental Justice. Holistic Salvation.
Explore any Christian magazine, faith-based website, or sampling of last Sunday’s sermons, and you will hear the same idea expressed in a variety of ways. The idea is that believers in Jesus Christ should not just be in the church singing, praying, and listening to sermons. They should be out there, doing something. They should be involved in social action.
The something can be almost anything that meets a need: feeding the homeless, clothing the needy, mentoring at-risk youth, providing transitional housing for struggling families, or cleaning up the neighborhood. On a global scale, the fight against human trafficking is on the forefront of social action. And Christian groups, among others, are rescuing some of the millions who are oppressed by such evils, following Jesus’ call to care for “the least of these.”
But what about evangelism: the call to a conversion of the heart; as G.K. Chesterton called it, “a backwards somersault” that changes everything? Does conversion still matter?
When you study church history, you discover that there has often been a pendulum swing between evangelism and social action. But what is happening today seems to be more than a pendulum swing.
Today’s call for social action (or social justice) is urging the church to be both Liberator of the Oppressed and Advocate of Justice—a welcome restoration of one of the church’s vital roles that was largely ignored by evangelical churches for decades. But, in the midst of it, there seems to be not just a downplaying of evangelism but—dare I say it—even a ridiculing of the importance of a call to conversion. The word evangelism itself has in some circles taken on the connotation of a heavyset, sweaty-browed preacher beating his podium and calling for the flock to be “saved” while ignoring the human plight outside his door.
In the course of just two weeks, I’ve heard words like this from three different pastors: “Salvation is not just a ticket to heaven”—those last three words delivered in a pejorative tone. These pastors go on to explain that salvation is a holistic restoring of our lives and purpose before God that should result in service. That is true. But what is also true is that the conversion of the heart to faith in Jesus Christ is, and will always be, the heart of the Christian message.
In the biblical account, when a woman named Mary poured a vial of very expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet in front of his disciples, Judas Iscariot protested that the money could have been spent on the poor. Jesus replied, “You always have the poor with you; but you do not always have me. For when she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.” (Matthew 26:11-12)
Jesus wasn’t saying that we should ignore the poor. His teachings are filled with commands to care for those in need even at the cost of personal sacrifice. What Jesus is saying is that Mary was participating in the drama of redemption. And there can be no higher calling, not even social justice. That is because, without the work of Jesus to redeem, rescue, forgive and restore us, even the most fulfilling, healthy, and joyful earthly life ends.
And so Christian social action needs to engage both the temporal and the eternal. Helping the needy without any invitation to conversion (in its appropriate place and time) makes our social justice indistinguishable from that motivated by humanism, Buddhism, Taoism, or compassionate atheism. It is no longer distinctly Christian. It is incomplete. Why?
First, social action without the conversion of the heart does not hold within it the seeds of its own reproduction. Christians have recently been celebrating the work of Chuck Colson in the wake of his death, work that has brought compassionate care to millions of prisoners and their families. As Colson himself often shared in retelling his story, this work stemmed from his powerful conversion to faith in Jesus Christ.
In a similar vein, St. Francis of Assisi’s care for the poor, former slave trader John Newton’s push to end slavery in the United Kingdom, and Salvation Army co-founder Catherine Booth’s efforts to banish lethal factory conditions in England were all motivated by belief in Jesus Christ—a conversion of heart resulting in a commitment of life to social action.
If today we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner without ever sharing the hope of reconciliation with God, what will motivate the recipients of our care to, in turn, love and serve others? We may cross our fingers and hope they will find some such motivation. But better, we can share with them the story of the great Mover of Hearts, the one whose followers have fueled the greatest social reforms in the history of the world—Jesus Christ. St. Francis, John Newton, Catherine Booth, and Chuck Colson all engaged in social action that held within it the seeds of its own continuance beyond one generation. How? By including in their social action a call for the conversion of hearts to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Second, if we pursue social justice without a call to conversion, do we not risk the idolatry of the temporal? The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “We know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Corinthians 5:1) And Jesus commanded, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”
When Katharine Jefferts Schori was installed as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States in 2007, she put forth a gospel that is solely temporal. Asked if she believed in an afterlife, Jefferts Schori responded, “Well, I don’t think Jesus was focused on that; what I think Jesus is more concerned about is heavenly existence, eternal life, in this life.”
Besides skirting Jesus’ numerous references to a life beyond this one, Jefferts Schori was forgetting that real people in real pain long for more than material relief now; they long for eternal hope in a new heaven and new earth.*
Just a few weeks ago, my neighbor Nina’s mother was diagnosed with a severe form of cancer. Nina describes herself and her family as “mostly Buddhist.” When she first shared the news with me, I assured her I would pray for her mother and we talked about the sadness we feel when someone we love is sick (I lost my Dad to cancer in 2007). I didn’t want to push the whole “Jesus thing” too quickly, so I simply tried to answer Nina’s questions about why bad things happen as best I could. And I prayed.
In the quickest answer I have ever experienced, Nina came to my house less than 10 minutes after I prayed and said, “Guess what? My mother has decided to become a Christian. She is going to be . . . what’s that called? . . . on Easter.”
“Baptized?” I ventured.
“Yes, that’s it, baptized.”
Since then Nina and I have had many discussions about Jesus and eternity, but what stands out is this: After Nina’s last conversation with her mother, she came to my house radiant and said, “I just spoke with my mother. She is so joyful after becoming a Christian. Her spirits are lifted!”
I don’t know if my neighbor will come to faith in Jesus, but I do know that her mother’s bout with cancer has caused her to ask questions about life and death and hope. And she has seen the newfound peace of a loved one who has found hope in the only place where it may be found: Jesus of Nazareth.
So in our push for social engagement that is a vital and necessary obedience to Christ, let us not downplay the importance of conversion. All the food, education, clothing, and freedom we can offer in this life are ultimately no substitute for eternal hope.
*To read a fuller treatment of Ginny’s response to Katherine Jefferts Schori’s statements about the afterlife, visit Ginny’s blog at www.theogirlonline.blogspot.com, 2007 archives.
Ginny Mooney is a freelance writer and Emmy Award-winning television producer.