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The Gospel, Evangelism and Social Action in China

Some Considerations

Christians in China with whom I’ve talked over the past couple of years describe the gospel’s great influence in the countryside but find fewer pathways to engage emerging Chinese urban professionals. Some of this is due to the effect of Western assumptions and approaches in evangelism and missions. Much of American Protestantism is chastised because of its emphasis on conversions apart from social action and cultural change. Is it possible that these Western assumptions (i.e., Enlightenment, modernism, science etc.) that have given shape to the American Protestant church are being replicated in China?

In this article, I would like to moderate a series of conversations through questions as a means of looking for better ways to engage Chinese urban professionals. Here are some of the assumptions we are making that raise the questions we are tackling.

Does Genesis one give us “the human job description?”

Many agencies and churches cite the Great Commission as being the church’s mandate. However, some hold that Genesis 1:26 -28 is the primary “human job description.” This passage calls for humanity to “cultivate the earth,” or “have dominion,” and is known as the Cultural Mandate. Its scope is broader than redeeming people—it includes humankind. This question is important: if we are to cultivate all of creation, then the scope of our responsibilities is significantly wider than simply redeeming people. Is Genesis 1:26 -28 “the human job description?”

How are the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission related? Is there a relationship?

Some hold that the Great Commission is a continuation and reiteration of the Cultural Mandate. Christ was present at the creation. He spoke and commanded us to “have dominion.” In the Great Commission, Christ reminds his followers to teach “all that I have commanded you.” This line of thinking holds that the Great Commission is encompassed in the Cultural Mandate.

Believing (or disbelieving) that the Great Commission is a continuation and reiteration of the Cultural Man- date does not alter the strict meaning of the Great Commission passage. The command contains one verb: “make disciples.” The process is described in four participles: going, baptizing, teaching and doing. If one holds that the Great Commission is a continuation and reiteration of the Cultural Mandate, the scope of teaching, doing, and what constitutes evangelism becomes much broader. As John Stott states: “It is not just that the commission includes a duty to teach converts everything Jesus had previously commanded, and that social responsibility is among the things which Jesus commanded. I now see more clearly that not only the consequences of the com- mission but the actual commission itself must be understood to include social as well as evangelistic responsibility, unless we are to be guilty of distorting the words of Jesus.”

In what way(s) do you see the Cul- tural Mandate and the Great Commission related? What is the Gospel?

“Too many Christians,” writes Dallas Willard, “believe that Christianity will get them into heaven but has little impact on the way we live here and now. The gospel, as understood by many in America, lacks any essential bearing upon the individual’s life as a whole, especially upon occupations or work time, and upon the fine texture of personal relationships in the home and neighborhood.” Willard is one, among many, who believes that our current proclamations of the gospel promote privatized piety and compartmentalized living. In his book, The Divine Conspiracy, he suggests that when the good news is primarily about God’s love, sin and Jesus’ offer of redemption, we are offering a “gospel of sin management.” In other words, you solve the “sin problem,” but moment-to-moment human reality in its depth is not easily addressed.

Willard describes the gospel as “the presence and availability of life in the kingdom, now and forever, reliance on Jesus.” He says the prophet John understood the Gospel as the availability of the kingdom.

What is evangelism?

Evangelism simply means “to share the good news” in many ways, shapes and forms so as to reach the most people for Christ.

Throughout the ages, evangelism has been understood to include preaching, witnessing, good works, teaching, charity, activism, social improvements and many other activities. Francis of Assisi wrote: “Preach at all times, if necessary, use words.” Do you agree with this broad definition of evangelism?

There is another way to think about evangelism— from inside the creation, fall and redemption worldview. John Piper, senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, has stated that “evangelism exists because worship does not.” Before creation the angelic realm worshipped God. Into eternity, his chosen ones will worship him. Worship is the “big idea” in Scripture, not evangelism. If human beings had never fallen (Genesis 3), there would be no need for evangelism! In eternity, there will be no evangelism.

Evangelism can be viewed as a necessary and compassionate detour from God’s original plan. He never intended that we would sin, but we did. Hence, we evangelize.

The creation, fall, redemption worldview situates evangelism within worship—and cultural reform. “The idea that the gospel is addressed only to the individual and that it is only indirectly addressed to societies, nations and cultures is simply an illusion of our individualistic post-Enlightenment Western culture,” according to Lesslie Newbigin in The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society.

What is the relationship between evangelism (revival) and social action (reform)?

John Stott suggests that, at its very core, the Great Commission is about service: “It is in our service role that we can find the right synthesis of evangelism and social action.” Stott proposes three current approaches for thinking about evangelism and social action. “First, some regard social action as a means to evangelism.” Cultural reform only has extrinsic or instrumental value if it serves as a preliminary for evangelism. Stott feels this approach is problematic. The second approach is to regard “social action not as a means to evangelism but as a manifestation of evangelism.” This holds that our social responsibilities grow naturally out of evangelism. Stott sees this as an improvement over the first approach, but it still “makes service a subdivision of evangelism.” The third approach, advocated by Stott, is to see “social action as a partner of evangelism. Neither is a means to the other or even a manifestation of the other; each is an end in itself and an expression of unfeigned love.”

How do you see the relationship between evangelism (revival) and social action (reform)? If John Stott is close to the truth, what are the practical implications?

Based on his preference for “social action as a partner of evangelism,” John Stott sees three spheres of responsibilities. The first sphere of responsibility is in our vocations. He advocates a view that sees our lifework as the central setting for revival and renewal. Second, he urges that the local church understand that “its mission of service is wider than evangelism.” Third, he urges that believers develop networks, small groups and organizations that take up our responsibilities on the “national scene.”

What do you think of Stott’s practi- cal implications? How might this relate to China?

It seems to me as though the Western experience of privatized faith is being replicated in China. Theodore Roszak says that faith in America has become “privately engaging…but publicly irrelevant.” Is this happening in China—where the higher you go in society the less effective the evangelism?

A new book by Ed Keller and Jon Berry titled The Influentials: One American in ten tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy, might offer some insights into influencing culture. The authors assert that ten percent of any population basically influences the other ninety percent. In America, this ten percent is a diverse group that focuses on “learning, experimenting and creating in every aspect of life.” These “influentials” can be grouped by three themes: strong relationships (family, friends, and broader connections), integrity (honesty and authenticity) and exploration (ideas, creativity, learning, and knowledge). Is it possible to think about developing communities of Chinese “influentials” who will influence other leadership? How would this begin?

Keller and Berry suggest that anyone can be an “influential” simply by engaging in civic life. In other words, the “influentials” are not a closed society. It should be noted that “influentials” do not spend much time in front of a TV and do not respond well to technological approaches to ideas (such as film presentations of the gospel). They want conversations, art and community. We should also remember that the authors believe only “influentials” can influence the “influentials.” It places responsibility on believers— who have been mandated to “have dominion and exercise influence” (Genesis 1:26 -28)—to be the “influentials” in this generation. Does this research shed any light on evangelism in China?

Second, we might think about the relationship between “solicitation and starvation.” Decades ago, Harvey Conn’s missionary efforts brought him into contact with women who had migrated to Seoul, Korea. Most could only find work as prostitutes. The good news is that many of these women came to faith in Christ. However, Conn saw that much of our traditional evangelism inadvertently puts people in moral dilemmas.

Korean culture, at the time of Conn’s work, offered few work options for women other than prostitution. Told to “walk in a new manner,” these new converts really had only two op- tions—starvation or solicitation. They were stuck in a moral dilemma—in part due to the traditional approach to evangelism. Traditional evangelism teaches that our primary responsibility is to redeem people, not society. This demotes social reform to secondary status, using it only as a means to evangelism. In other words, “doing good” and “doing justice” only have instrumental value—if they lead someone to faith. By themselves, they have no intrinsic value.

In Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace, Harvey Conn argued for a seamless approach to evangelism—that “doing good” and “redeeming society” are all part of evangelism. The point of the gospel is not simply to reproduce souls who can reproduce other souls. It also must take responsibility for those social, political and cultural settings that enhance what it means to be fully human. This is why John Stott says social action and evangelism “…belong to each other and yet are independent of each other. Neither is a means to the other, or even a manifestation of the other. For each is an end in itself. Both are expressions of unfeigned love.”


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Michael W. Metzger

President and senior fellow of The Clapham InstituteView Full Bio