While I was a theological student, a heated debate broke out during one of the Principals lectures around the issues of evangelism and suffering.
The Principals view w
as that preaching faith in Jesus to hungry people was unhelpful because it did not meet their need for food. He argued that salvation had to be socio-economic, as well as spiritual, or it was of no use.
In my youthful zeal I reacted strongly against this deviation from the truth that people really need to be saved from hell, so they can go to heaven when they die and I shouted across the room,
Jesus is the answer! Now, whats the question?!!
Fast forward nearly three decades to last summer, when I was visiting development projects in India…
On this particular occasion a man – who insisted on calling me Master despite my strong protestations – fell to his knees and asked me to bless him.
I found it excruciatingly uncomfortable.
His mother needed medical treatment and his father could not work because of an infection that has now rendered him incapable of doing the hard manual labor he has done all his life. This man had prayed and searched for many hours for a job, or for some way of paying for his mothers medical treatment, but had no answer.
Now he hoped that my prayer would be more effective than his own.
But what should I pray? Jesus is not the answer to this mans prayer – he already knows Jesus! so what is the answer?
What is the Good News?
As evangelicals, we have often reacted badly to anything that puts a greater emphasis on peoples physical wellbeing over their spiritual well being. We have labelled those who believe in bettering peoples physical lives as do gooders, or we accuse them of believing in a social gospel, like some kind of heresy, because it lies outside the narrower view of a gospel that saves souls for heaven when we die.
In the 1920s a progressive movement came to prominence, led by liberal theologians, that believed the Lords Prayer to be a mandate on Christians to be operational: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). These Social Gospellers, as they became known, believed that the Second Coming could not happen until humanity had freed itself of all social evils, and that the Churchs role in society was to work to that end.
The movement was influential, inspiring people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and Gandhi, and eventually seeing most of its ideals enshrined in todays labor laws.
It was also controversial, with many Christians rejecting the Social Gospel in favor of a theology that focused only on peoples spiritual salvation, whatever their physical circumstances.
That was where I was at, in that rather explosive lecture many years ago, and many evangelicals still remain largely single agenda Christians. That is to say, willing to consider social action only if it leads to conversion.
When good for goods sake is not good enough
Now, when I speak on behalf of Signpost International, the Christian development agency that I work for, I tell stories of the hungry being fed, children going to school, jobs, livelihoods and incomes being created.
And there is always someone who asks me, But how many got saved?
I usually answer them by asking how many people they would like to see saved, with All of them, I guess, being the usual response.
Fortunately I can guarantee that!
Before we build another house, dig another well or create any more small business opportunities I promise you that I will first ask who, in that community, wants to become a Christian, I say.
And I can assure you that everyone in that village will put up their hand and then pray the sinners prayer
The problem, of course, is that it isnt real.
When William Wilberforce set out to end the slave trade, no one asked how many got saved? Wilberforce worked for justice, to right a terrible wrong and to see people set free in this world.
When we work to end poverty we work for justice, to end the slavery that comes from poverty, and so that there is not food for some, while others starve, or that some have houses while others live in slums.
And as I read the gospels, I find that salvation just for heaven was not on Jesus agenda either. He quite gratuitously, as Luke put it, went about doing good; healing sick people, feeding hungry people, loving the unlovable, and befriending and accepting even those on the fringes of society.
So, when Jesus talks about separating the sheep from the goats, it is not on the basis of belief but on doing good. Because, if worship is to acknowledge the worth of God, then reaching out in love to those made in His image is true worship. Or, as it says in James 1:27, religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Doing good cannot be an optional extra for Christians, but must be at the core of our existence. For our faith is not measured by a list of sound doctrine, but instead by the fruit it produces in doing good.
Returning to my friend in India, I would have to say that it is not a lack of prayer or faith that stops this man. Rather, it is a lack of answered prayer.
But this is not because God does not hear this mans prayer – or the prayers of the millions like him but maybe it is because those of us who live in plenty struggle to hear Gods call to us for a different way of living.
What happens when spiritually regenerated people see their loved ones suffering for the lack of small amounts of money, while others of us live lives of luxury and comfort unimaginable to most people in the global South?
You either have to conclude – like the man who asked me to bless him – that we are somehow the spiritual elite, whose prayers answered because we are somehow more worthy than those who live in poverty.
Or we may have to consider that God wants those to whom He has given much to take seriously our responsibility and requirement to share. As the Bible puts it,
The heart regulates the hands. This isn’t so others can take it easy while you sweat it out. No, you’re shoulder to shoulder with them all the way, your surplus matching their deficit, their surplus matching your deficit. In the end you come out even. As it is written,
nothing left over to the one with the most, nothing lacking to the one with the least.
2 Corinthians 8:14 (The Message)
It is this shift in the way we live our lives that is at the heart of the Gospel, as we follow the example that Jesus set for us and do the good works that has God prepared in advance for us to do.
I would love to see the evangelical church reconnect with the social gospel, seeing thousands of small projects spring up around evangelical churches in the West, all working for justice and doing good.
Because, for the times when Jesus is not the answer to the question, then maybe we are?
Kerry Dixon is the Executive Director of , a UK-based international development agency that fights poverty and the causes of poverty in disadvantaged communities around the world.