I have just finished reading an excellent book by Tim Chester called Unreached: Growing Churches in Working-Class and Deprived Areas.
In his book, Chester shares a comment by another pastor in a working-class/deprived area, Andy Mason. Mason says ‘the first thing many middle-class Christians see on council estates are the social problems…[but the estates’] fundamental problem is not social policy, but sin. And the solution is not gentrification, but Jesus’ (pg. 17).
This kind of comment reignites the social action versus proclamation debate, and to be honest I was surprised by Mason’s forthrightness in stating that gentrification isn’t the answer. However, that is not to say he wishes to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The social action versus proclamation debate is excellently tackled by Chris Wright in his book The Mission of God. Wright offers this answer to the debate: ‘ultimately we must not rest content until we have included within our own missional response the wholeness of God’s missional response to the human predicament’ (pg. 319).
For Wright the answer is both/and – it is not a question of which do we do. In fact, for Wright it is not even a question of which is more important. He steers clear of the primacy designation arguing that neither is more important. Rather, he desires to speak of ultimacy; that ultimately the gospel must be proclaimed and everything else must work to that end.
This is how Wright states it, ‘[m]ission may not always begin with evangelism. But mission that does not ultimately include declaring the Word and the name of Christ, the call to repentance, and faith and obedience has not completed its task’ (pg. 319).
This argument is not without biblical evidence. Indeed, throughout John’s Gospel it appears that Jesus approaches his mission in this way:
- In John 4:1-45 Jesus encounters the woman at the well. This woman very clearly has a social problem; she is an outcast in her society. Jesus takes this social problem as his way into conversation with her but does not rest content until he proclaims the Word and name of Christ (4:26).
- In John 5:1-17 Jesus encounters the man at the pool of Bethesda. This man has a physical problem; he had been an invalid for 38. Jesus takes this physical problem as his way into conversation with him but does not rest until he proclaims the Word and name of Christ (5:14).
- In John 6:1-15 Jesus encounters not just an individual, but a crowd of people. They have a physical problem, there is no food for them to eat. Jesus uses this physical problem once again to proclaim his Word and name (6:35).
- In John 9:1-41 Jesus encounters the man born blind. This man has a physical problem, which had impacted not just him but his family too. Jesus uses this as a way into conversation with him and continues to talk to him until he has proclaimed his Word and name (9:35-38).
Jesus does not always use this method though. In Mark 10:17-31 we read of Jesus and the rich young ruler – this time Jesus speaks directly to the spiritual issue by proclaiming his Word and name. We do not always need to begin with social action and work toward proclamation. Sometimes proclamation can and should be engaged in first.
Naturally, Jesus actions should speak to us as we consider the social action versus proclamation.
Mason is right, the problem is not social policy but sin. The answer is Jesus, not gentrification. However, this does not mean that social action unnecessary. The gospel is big enough to incorporate social action because, as we have seen, Jesus himself didn’t ignore the physical and social problems of people but joyfully met their present needs as a bridge to meet their greater need of salvation from their sin. But, proclamation is ultimate; our evangelism is not complete until the Word and name of Jesus has been proclaimed.
The answer is indeed Jesus, not gentrification.
For those involved in social action ministries, consider: Are you using this not as a proclamation, but a bridge to proclamation?
For those who are struggling to find opportunities to proclaim Jesus effectively, consider: Could you be using social action ministries to provide opportunities to proclaim?