Evangelism? Social Justice? What is the Primary Focus of the Church?
Is the mission of the local church to evangelize and produce disciples? Or is it to do justice and transform culture? Or is it an equal emphasis and combination of both?
Those who talk more of justice and cultural engagement are fearful of social marginalization. Without that emphasis, they believe, non-Christians in their settings will see the church as a useless and divisive institution that should not be tolerated. Those who stress evangelism and discipleship talk instead of the reality of limited resources. It would simply overwhelm the local church to try to meet the endless economic and material needs of the city, they say. Besides there are plenty of agencies doing that, while the church alone is calling people to conversion through faith in the gospel. So the church should use its limited financial resources almost exclusively on evangelism and the ministry of the Word.
How do we resolve this? First, we should establish that the ministry of the Word is the priority for the local church. The first thing I need to tell people when they come to church is “believe in Jesus,” not “do justice.” Why? First, because believing in Jesus meets a more radical human need and, second, because if they don’t believe in Jesus they won’t have that gospel-motivation to do justice in the world. So the first priority of the local church under its elders is to make disciples, not to do housing rehabilitation or feed the poor.
However, the church must disciple and support its members so they “love their neighbor”, integrate their faith in their work, and seek a more just and wholesome society and culture. This means that within the church there must be a great deal of teaching, preaching, and emphasis on how to be Christian in the public sphere and how to be loving servants in our neighborhood. And of course there should be strong “diaconal” or mercy ministry within the congregation to meet the economic and material needs of members. Nevertheless, while the church disciples its people to help the poor and be Christian film-makers, the congregation should not, for example, own low income housing nor start a film production company. So, we hold that the institutional church should give priority to Word ministry. However, we also teach that Christians must do both word and deed ministry in the world, and the church should equip them to do so.
What about the idea of “limited resources”? Most of the money our church members give for mercy ministry within the congregation and service to the needy out in the city comes through annual special offerings and designated giving. One special offering is taken at Christmas and goes to diaconal ministry within the church. Another special offering is taken at Easter and goes to Hope for New York, a Christian 501(C)3 birthed out of our church that does all sorts of mercy and justice ministry in the city. A lot of other giving to mercy and justice comes from our membership through individual gifts. Many Reformed churches have funded diaconal ministry this way over the centuries, with second or “special” offerings taken on communion Sundays or on other special occasions for the diaconal fund. The money was then used to meet needs inside the congregation and in the neighborhood. Meanwhile basic Word ministry is funded from regular offerings and not from special or designated giving.
This works very well. The special offerings do not cut into the regular offerings very much. They are generally new monies over and above regular giving. The existence of dynamic and compassionate ministry to the needy draws out giving that would not come if you did not give people the opportunity to give as their hearts direct.
So Word ministry and acts of service are not an “either-or.” It is not a zero sum game. In fact, I have seen that when people see a church caring about its community in tangible ways, there is a lot of goodwill, and it makes people more willing to give to the regular offerings as well. So there is no trade-off. We have found that if you fund mercy-justice in this way, it only increases the overall giving to Word ministry.
What about the charge that “we don’t have the money or resources to feed all the hungry”? But we do not have the money or resources to “take the gospel to every creature” in the city either. We do what we can with what we have.
What about the concern for “relevance”? If the church is giving a priority to Word ministry, will our city think us useless? No. We have shown how a church can give priority to the Word and nonetheless show great concern for the poor in its message and raise lots of financial and human resources for the poor in its ministry. And the better the church’s ministry of the Word, the more it will fill the city with mature Christians doing “salt and light” work, tackling the needs of the needy in sympathy and service. The local church and its Lord can and should get a lot of credit for that.