Ben Thurley is the National Coordinator of Micah Challenge Australia.
I remember when I came to faith as a young man and being gripped, absolutely caught, by the love of God in Christ. I still am. And I remember being challenged and compelled to understand myself as both a recipient of God’s abundant, overflowing, costly love and a vessel for bearing and sharing that love, in word and action, out into the world. To understand myself as a person saved and being renewed by grace, and to reflect that grace more and more in how I speak, live, love and serve. That challenge and compulsion hasn’t lessened over time. Receiving and knowing God’s love, we are called to be “imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us” (Ephesians 5:1-2).
All of which is to say that I have often found the notion of a conflict between evangelism and social concern puzzling. Surely both are necessary and fundamental to our identity in Christ. I find it difficult to see where and how a conflict could arise between loving my neighbour in practical action and advocacy and sharing words of life that point to Jesus. I struggle to understand this supposed conflict in the same way I would be confused by a debate on the topic: “Eating or Drinking: Which Should Be Our Priority?” or “Does Breathing Distract Us From More Important Work Of Talking?”
We are captured by God’s love and called to be agents of God’s love in the church, in our communities and in our world. While there are certainly different gifts within the body of believers, the call to love with everything we are, everything we have, everything we do, and everything we say, is not an optional or divisible task. We cannot choose to love people in word, but not in action. Equally, we can’t be people who love in action without also wanting to share the saving words of God’s forgiveness in Christ. We are created anew in Jesus to be a people who are, and who do, good, seeking opportunities to share the hope that we have in Christ.
In practice, of course, there really is no conflict between social concern and action and sharing the words of life. Far from it. Acts of loving service inevitably point towards the one who is the source of love and justice and lead to evangelistic conversations. When Christians stand with suffering people and communities, we will inevitably be asked “why”, and have the trust of those with whom we share the gospel.
And, conversely, in order for our telling of the stories of God’s work in Christ to have integrity and power, our words must be embodied in lives and communities of love and grace, just as the Word of God himself took flesh and lived among us. Without this embodiment, our speech can sound cheap or exploitative and we diminish powerful words of the gospel by failing to be obedient to our confession. (2 Corinthians 9:13)
Let me share two examples of social concern and acts of justice and mercy which are themselves evangelistic – they demonstrate the truth of gospel words of love and forgiveness, grace and healing – and open the way for people to encounter Jesus and heed his claim on their lives.
At a Jubilee Debt Campaign meeting in the year 2000, calling for the cancellation of unjust and unrepayable poor-country debt, a group of campaigners shared why we were involved in the movement. A trade unionist, himself agnostic about God, spoke about his concern for poor workers and struggling families. A seasoned campaigner spoke about her hope for a world free from poverty. When it came to my turn, I said that I shared those concerns and was part of the campaign because Jesus wanted his followers to stand with the poor against injustice and that God had commanded his people to cancel debt if it drove people into poverty and enslavement. (Leviticus 25)
I was asked to explain what I meant, so the meeting included a brief and informal Bible study among Christians, atheists, Jews and agnostics, suddenly and unexpectedly appreciating that a concern for justice and love for the poor was at the heart of biblical faith. At that moment, people whose hearts beat with a passion for justice and mercy were made aware of the heart of God, the source of justice and mercy. In subsequent meetings, my trade union friend and I had several conversations about God, the Bible, Jesus and our need for personal faith, forgiveness and renewal to be the people God wanted us to be.
In a small town in the southern plains of Nepal in 2009, a local church hired a hall from the district branch of a Hindu Nationalist political party in order to meet with community groups to discuss and seek solutions to shared concerns – such as unemployment, corruption, discrimination, violence and immorality. Christians are a small minority of the population and have often been viciously persecuted in Nepal, a majority Hindu nation. Indeed, the restoration of the Hindu monarchy and restriction of the rights of Christians and other religious minorities are major planks of the political platform of the Hindu Nationalist Party, which owned the hall.
After hearing the church share their heart for the community and watching them plan ways to serve the community and to protect the poorest and most vulnerable people, the secretary of the local branch spoke to the group, which had been convened by the local church but included Christians and Hindus. “If we had known,” he said, “how much you Christians love Nepal and want to serve the community, our party’s platform would have looked very different.” That man is not yet a Christian but he still meets every month with church leaders in his community and speaks in support of the rights of churches within his party.
In small and large ways, Christians have always lived and acted to demonstrate the love of God, which we share in our proclamation and preaching. Through cafes set up as social enterprises in poor communities. Through refugee support groups, mothers’ clubs, or tutoring help for disadvantaged students. Through fundraising for charities, action to challenge politicians to increase and improve Australia’s aid program or protect refugees and asylum seekers. These aren’t distractions from evangelism; in fact they create opportunities and demonstrate integrity for our proclamation. They are not lower-priority ways to love. And this unity of speech and action – of living, sharing, acting and speaking – is what really matters: “faith, working through love.” (Galatians 5:6)