Evangelism vs. Social Action: A Brief History (4/4)

Evangelism vs. Social Action: A Brief History (4/4)

Section 4: Contemporary Views

[In these series of posts, doctoral candidate, Jay Flinn, underscores the the history of the evangelical holistic mission debate.]

In the ensuing decades, much has been written on the topic of holistic mission. Most of what has been written can be summarized into three primary positions related to the relationship of evangelism and social action in mission. One position retains the emphasis on evangelism and church planting with little regard to social action. A second position follows Stott’s model of evangelism as the primary mission with Christian social action a secondary partner. The third position considers social action as mission equally with evangelism. While there are variants to these positions and different terms may be used to describe them, the variants are ultimately defined by the relative priority and relationship of evangelism and social action to one another.[1]

David J. Hesselgrave (1924-2018)[2] recognizes the tensions in the various positions and suggests that holism is one of the ten key biblical paradigms that are in conflict. He places holism theology as a midpoint on a scale between “Prioritism Theology” (evangelism only) and Liberation Theology (social justice only).[3] A fervent critic of the holistic mission definitions, Hesselgrave espouses the traditional view of mission as solely evangelism, church planting and training. The Great Commandment he contends is just that, “a command to be obeyed along with all of the other things Christ commanded,” but it is secondary to the mission to evangelize the world.[4]

Bryant L. Myers, professor of transformational development at the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, defines holistic mission as “a frame for mission that refuses the dichotomy between material and spiritual, between evangelism and social action, between loving God and loving neighbor.”[5] Myers calls his model “transformational development”[6] and does not subscribe to a priority. Rather, it is a model based on immediate needs. Myers believes that the gospel should be shared in whatever way (proclamation or action) best speaks to those immediate needs. He affirms however that all dimensions of the gospel (life, word, deed, sign) should be shared over time in order for a full understanding such that “words clarify the meaning of deeds and deeds verify the meaning of words.”[7] Myers illustrates three indicators of a genuinely holistic mission: people have a chance to respond to the good news of Jesus Christ, there is evidence of lasting value change or transformation, and there is transformation of social structures, institutions and processes.[8]

C. René Padilla, a champion of “Integral mission” maintains that “concern for man’s reconciliation with God cannot be separated from concern for social justice… I refuse, therefore, to drive a wedge between a primary task—namely, the proclamation of the gospel—and a secondary (at best) or even optional (at worst) task of the church.”[9] Integral mission seeks to minister to all the human needs, both spiritual and physical. The term “integral” suggests that the parts (evangelism and social action) are a necessity to form completeness. Both are required for a complete picture of the gospel message. This interdependent relationship is inherent in its definition adopted by the Micah Network[10] in it Declaration on Integral Mission:

It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life and our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.[11]

Closing Thoughts

Visser ‘T Hooft, honorary chairman, made the following comments to the World Council of Churches at the Uppsula Assembly in 1968:

I believe that, with regard to the great tension between the vertical interpretation of the gospel as essentially concerned with God’s saving action in the life of individuals, and the horizontal interpretation of it as mainly concerned with human relationships in the world, we must get out of that rather primitive oscillating movement of going from one extreme to the other, which is not worthy of a movement which by its nature seeks to embrace the truth of the Gospel in its fullness. A Christianity which has lost its vertical dimension has lost its salt and is not only insipid in itself, but useless for the world. But a Christianity which would use the vertical preoccupation as a means to escape from its responsibility for and in the common life of man is a denial of the incarnation, of God’s love for the world manifested in Christ.[12]

His comments were a challenge to his audience in 1968 and proved to be prophetic for the twenty-first century. There is both a vertical dimension and a horizontal dimension to the Christian faith and church history reveals the dangerous results of drifting too far to either side. Fortunately, it appears that the “great reversal” is reversing as evangelicals embrace some form of holism in missions. Few evangelicals argue against Christian responsibility toward the poor and needy, however there remain uncertainties regarding the church’s involvement in society. The integration of these dimensions into the definition and practice of world of mission will continue to be debated and tested. And as they are, the theological foundation for holistic mission that includes evangelism and social action will continue to be laid.[13]


[1]See A. Scott Moreau, “Mission and Missions. “ Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Ed. A. Scott Moreau (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 636-38 for further reading and discussion regarding the various positions.

[2]David J. Hesselgrave was professor emeritus of missions at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, served as a missionary in Japan for twelve years and was executive director of the Evangelical Missiological Society.

[3]David J. Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 122.

[4]David J. Hesselgrave, “Redefining Holism.“ Evangelical Missions Quarterly Vol 35 (3) (1999): 278-84. Accessed February 10, 2017. <https://emqonline.com/node/632>.

[5]Bryant L. Myers, “Another Look at ‘Holistic Mission’: A Response.“ in Evangelical Missions Quarterly Vol. 35(3) (1999): 285-87. Accessed February10, 2017. <https://www.emqonline.com/node/631>.

[6]Bryant L. Myers, Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practicves of Transformational Development revised and expanded edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 3.

[7]Myers, Walking With the Poor, 10.

[8]Bryant L. Myers, “At the End of the Day.“ Serving with the Poor in Asia. Ed. Tetsunao Yamamori, Bryant L. Myers and David Conner (Monrovia, CA: Marc, 1995), 200.

[9]C. René Padilla. Mission Between the Times: Essays on the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1985), 42.

[10]The Micah Network is a global network of Christians drawn together with a passion and commitment to integral mission. Information regarding their mission and vision as well other pertinent information can be found at www.micahnetwork.org.

[11]Micah Network. “Integral Mission.“ accessed July 24, 2018. <www.micahnetwork/integral-mission>.

[12] William A. Visser ‘T Hooft, “The Mandate of the Ecumenical Movement. “ 1968. Wiley Online Library. Accessed July 18, 2018.

[13]A. Scott Moreau. “Looking Backward While Going Forward: A Response to Winter’s Vision.“ in Missionshift: Global Issues in the Third Millenium. Ed. David J. Hesselgrave and Ed Stetzer (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010), 195.

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