In The Radical Disciple, the book by John Stott mentioned in a post last week, I finally found a great explanation of how to walk the tight-rope between evangelism and mercy ministries. Though I haven’t mentioned my confusion for a while, it hasn’t been far from the surface.
Tim Keller’s Ministries of Mercy was an excellent theological thesis on why mercy ministry is important, but somehow I found it academically interesting, but neither motivational nor compelling.
Stott devotes one chapter, entitled “Simplicity”, to the paper produced by the 1980 International Consultation on Simple Lifestyle of which he was a participant. Entitled ‘An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Lifestyle’, the paper covers nine areas, two of which stood out to me in particular; ‘Justice and Politics’ and ‘Evangelism.’
Forgive this lengthy extract, from them, but I felt it was both easier and better to excerpt it than to try to put it in my own words. The bold emphases, however, are mine:
We are convinced that the present situation of social injustice is so abhorrent to God that a large measure of change is necessary. Not that we believe in an earthly utopia. But neither are we pessimists. Change can come, although not through commitment to simple lifestyle or human development projects alone.
The Christian church, along with the rest of society, is inevitably involved in politics, which is ‘the art of living in community’. Servants of Christ must express his lordship in their political, social and economic commitments and their love for their neighbours by taking part in the political process.
While personal commitment to change our lifestyle without political action to change systems of injustice lacks effectiveness, political action without personal commitment lacks integrity.
We are deeply concerned for the vast millions of unevangelized people in the world. Nothing that has been said about lifestyle or justice diminishes the urgency of developing evangelistic strategies appropriate to different cultural environments. We must not cease to proclaim Christ as Saviour and Lord throughout the world. The church is not yet taking seriously its commission to be his witnesses ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).
So the call to a responsible lifestyle must not be divorced from the call to responsible witness. For the credibility of our message is seriously diminished whenever we contradict it by our lives. It is impossible with integrity to proclaim Christ’s salvation if he has evidently not saved us from greed, or his lordship if we are not good stewards of our possessions, or his love if we close our hearts against the needy. When Christians care for each other and for the deprived Jesus Christ becomes more visibly attractive.
Justice is a huge and urgent need, but we mustn’t focus on it to the exclusion of evangelistic witness. Evangelism, though, if not backed up by our lifestyle, is empty and hollow.
Eggs, in the UK, are stamped with a little picture of a lion if their producers (by which I mean the farm, not the chicken!) pass a series of quality-control tests and inspections. Eggs without this mark may well be perfectly safe, fresh and salmonella-free, but a little red-inked mark on their shells provides an extra guarantee and peace of mind. Consumers are more likely to trust a lion-marked egg.
Mercy ministries can perhaps be seen as the ‘lion mark’ on a Christian. What you say may be perfectly trustworthy, but if people see it backed up by your lifestyle, they will be more willing to trust it.
So should we minister to people’s bodies or their souls? Yes. Both, in balance and authenticity, as occasion demands.