How can evangelism and social justice work together to promote the gospel?
I have pastored in three urban centers: Chicago, Ill.; Paterson, N.J.; and Grand Rapids, Mich. In all three settings, evangelism and social justice were closely connected in proclaiming a holistic gospel that spoke to the real issues of life. Word and deed ministry would have been truncated had it emphasized evangelism without addressing the social needs of people or social justice without being “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).
In Chicago, a multiracial congregation that cared about the souls of African Americans and held tutoring groups at church for kids like me who attended subpar schools drew me to the Reformed faith. My church did not compartmentalize social ministries and evangelism ministries.
As a pastor in Paterson, I saw the work of tireless leaders such as the late Rev. Stan Vander Klay, Rev. Sheila Holmes, and numerous lay leaders who worked hand in hand to change political systems that kept its citizens from truly thriving while drawing many people into soul-caring small groups and Bible studies. Evangelism without seeking to address the powers that erect or enable poverty, crime, poor schools, and other social issues promotes a gospel out of touch with real life.
In Grand Rapids, my former church began a nonprofit ministry that sought to empower families by working with them on education, financial independence, and overcoming other challenges that prevented them from thriving. Along with small groups for encouragement and spiritual care, the church became an attractive picture of the face of Jesus.
I have an opportunity to visit South Korea this year. The history of the country’s global presence in missions, dispatching leaders around the world, was anchored in its close connection of evangelism and social justice. Early missionaries to Korea built hospitals and schools and fought for justice against foreign powers who sought to oppress them. Their actions modeled a powerful holistic gospel that became a powerful witness.
Our churches are called to explore various ways to reach their communities through both evangelism and social justice.