An etymologically based proclamation-centered evangelism is insufficient to reflect the reality of the presence of the kingdom of God, and, as well, disconnects evangelism, not only from the full life of the church, but also from the public and social implications of the kingdom. True, it might be anachronistically incorrect to jump completely from Jesus’ deeds straight to social action, but it is equally wrong to turn Jesus’ parables into mythic stories that affirm “traditional” American values, limited government, and a political and legal agenda that seeks to promote “our way of life” [note A]. Although leaping from the text to “Christian humanitarianism” is an over-simplification, we cannot ignore that Jesus engaged social institutions, nor overlook that Jesus had immense theological conflicts with temple leadership that reached back to Exodus stipulations and their social implications regarding the vulnerable.
The kingdom context places evangelism directly in the midst of the public realm where the Christian community is obligated to deal with structural sin and be an advocate for the vulnerable and the poor. Also, to not include social action outcomes in evangelistic activities, limits the possible outcomes where God’s rule and reign can be expressed, realized, and experienced. Such limiting is the result of a privatized and dualistic understanding of the gospel. Rather, a kingdom-centered evangelism allows for the fullness of the gospel to be realized in individuals, groups, structures, systems, and even culture. Evangelistic strategies and actions ought to enact, demonstrate, fulfill, and advocate for outcomes consistent with God’s reign over all the realms of humanity. Evangelistic outcomes ought to include both personal decisions for Christ and actions that promote God’s righteousness and, in particular, social action that engages the needs and welfare of the vulnerable and the poor.
Almost four decades ago, David Moberg, in his The Great Reversal: Evangelism and Social Concern, asked how Christians were to deal with the issues of poverty. This continues to be a pertinent question for the Christian community today—let the debate be lively! However, the topic should not be shrunk to public vs. private, government vs. church, or red vs. blue politics. The gospel of the kingdom is “multidimensional and all-encompassing” and is concerned with both the individual and society. Of course, the gospel calls individuals to a right relationship with God, but it goes beyond private piety, calling Christians, especially Christian leadership, to engage, not only with direct action (i.e., social action) on behalf of the economically vulnerable, but also social and institutional structures that work against fulfilling the church’s obligations toward the poor. The Exodus land-laws, operating behind Mark’s programmatic theme, were given to ensure that the vulnerable (i.e., the land-less) were full participants in the benefits of living in the land. Social Action is a means to ensure that the blessings and benefits of living in society reach to the poor. The parable of the Sower who sows encourages the Christian community to waste its seed, sowing it into every realm and every corner of society “in hopes that good soil might somewhere be found,” because it is “our area.”
Note A: Actually, it is not altogether inappropriate to make a logical leap from Jesus’ deeds—miracles, exorcisms, healing, over-turning temple-trading tables, cursing a fig-tree, and the ultimate temple-destruction announcement—for it has been noted that some of the miracle stories contain references to actual political referents, and the miracles themselves carry a contrast to a social-political dynamic of crowd control.
Note B: For insight on “the land” and the land-less poor, see Walter Brueggemann, Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Fortress).
*Excerpt from the 2nd chapter of Wasted Evangelism: Social Action and the Church's Task of Evangelism (Resource Publications, an imprint of Wipf & Stock).
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.