Why is it that evangelical Christians (of which I am one) are often so apologetic about meeting the physical needs of people? Why is it that we think we have to justify social ministries by appealing to something I presume is thought to be higher or more noble? How often have I heard Christians say, “Well, yes, we’re running a soup kitchen but we’re trying to use it as a bridge to evangelism.” Or, “Yes, we’re supporting the food bank; after all, people can’t hear the gospel on an empty stomach.” Or, “Our church has opened a clothing depot for homeless people; we hope to let them know we care about them so we can share the Gospel.” It’s as if meeting the physical needs of people is not a valid mission of the church; somehow, we have to justify social ministries by appealing to evangelism.
Where did we ever get this idea into our heads? It certainly didn’t come from Scripture! Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for evangelism. There is nothing more wondrous than seeing people turn their lives over to Jesus Christ. Churches need to take advantage of every opportunity to share the Gospel. I’m not against evangelism—I’m simply challenging the idea that social ministry can only be justified by appealing to evangelism.
Let me elaborate. In fact, let’s try a little experiment with the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Find an old Bible and a pair of scissors. Now, cut out every reference in the Gospels to the Kingdom of God. It’ll take you awhile and, when you’re done, you’ll find holes on just about every page. Why? Because Jesus’ entire ministry was intricately connected with the Kingdom of God. When Jesus began His ministry, we’re told that He came into Galilee preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Jesus, Himself, described the preaching of the Kingdom as the reason He entered the world: “I must preach the good news of the Kingdom, for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). Over and over again, Jesus talked about the Kingdom, saying, “The Kingdom of God is like this . . .” or “The Kingdom of God is like that . . ..” As I said, references to the Kingdom of God are on virtually every page of the Gospels.
So, what is the Kingdom of God? The key to understanding what Jesus meant by the Kingdom is found in, of all places, the Lord’s Prayer. In this prayer, Jesus actually defines the Kingdom of God. Do you remember how the prayer begins? “Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name.” Now, note the next part: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” There you have it! In a nutshell, that is a definition of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God exists wherever God’s will is done! So, Jesus came to bring in His Kingdom and, as His followers, we are called to make His agenda our own. We are called to seek to bring in God’s Kingdom—that is, to bring about God’s will in this world.
So, what is God’s will? The answer to that question is found on every page of the Scriptures. Is it God’s will that people live their lives alienated from God and lost in their sins? Of course not, so evangelism is part of our mission. Is it God’s will that men and women and children go to bed on empty stomachs? Of course not, so feeding the hungry is part of our mission. Is it God’s will that people wallow in poverty or drug addiction? No! So, helping the needy and the addicted is part of our mission. Is it God’s will that people spend years languishing alone and isolated in prisons? No, so ministering to the incarcerated is part of our mission.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Both evangelism and social ministry are part of building God’s Kingdom. They are both parts of bringing about God’s will “on earth as it is in Heaven.” Each is valid. Each stands on its own. Neither needs the other to justify its existence. Let’s not fall into the trap that so many churches do of prioritizing one over the other. Let’s recognize them both for what they are—equally important and valid expressions of God’s Kingdom.