Should Churches Get Involved in Social Programs?
February 22, 2018
By Mike Ivaska
"James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along." - Galatians 2:9-10 NIV
Over the course of the past year, our church has had the opportunity to build relationships with, and serve in one way or another, multiple non-profit organizations on the island. We have done things for, or in partnership with, VARSA (the Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse), the DOVE Project (which helps victims of domestic violence on the island), and the Vashon-Maury Community Food Bank. As a small church, of course most of what we are able to do is quite small in the grand scheme of things. We have done fundraisers. We have taken special offerings. We have provided volunteers. And so on. But all this raises the question: If the mission of the church is to preach the gospel, isn't getting involved in social programs a distraction?
There was a time when this was a hot-button issue among evangelical Christians. A hundred years ago, as theological liberalism gained the ascendancy in American churches and institutions, the question of involvement in social programs was near the center of the debate. On the left side of the Protestant church world were the proponents of what was called the "Social Gospel," who believed that the good news of the Christian message basically boiled down to Jesus' ethical teaching (especially as found in the Sermon on the Mount). Having lost confidence in the inspiration of the Bible and historic Christian theology, what was left was the social teachings of Jesus. In reaction to this, conservative Christians emphasized the proclamation of the ancient gospel of Jesus' divinity, incarnation, atoning death, and bodily resurrection. Insisting on these "fundamentals of the faith," conservative Christians earned the term "fundamentalists." It did not take long for fundamentalism to take on a separatist outlook. Social programs, such as feeding the poor, were something that liberals and Catholics did. Fundamentalists preached the "old time religion," turned their backs on the world, and waited for the return of Jesus.
Near the middle of the 20th century, after World War Two, some young fundamentalist thinkers began to question whether total separation from society and politics was the right thing to do. The brain behind this movement was a young man named Carl Henry, and the face of the group was Billy Graham. These Christians wanted to keep the biblical theology of the fundamentalist movement, but they questioned the rightness of not getting involved for the betterment of postwar America. In 1947, Carl Henry wrote a book entitled, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, which argued, among other things, that a deep commitment to the Bible's teachings led not only to a prioritization of preaching and evangelism, but that it also led to active involvement in society. Thus was launched the "neo-evangelical" movement, or what came to be known in the United States (and abroad) simply as "evangelicalism," a term dating back through the Evangelical Awakening of John Wesley to the Protestant ("Evangelical") Reformation of Martin Luther.
While the neo-evangelical movement of Carl Henry and Billy Graham may have led to some unfortunate political alliances which can still be felt today (Graham, and the conservative evangelicalism he represented, lost a lot of face for siding so closely with Richard Nixon), it raised an important point. One need not take a liberal view of the Bible to take a generous stance toward one's neighbor. In fact, one would be hard pressed to obey the call of Jesus to "love your neighbor as yourself" without personal sacrifice and generosity. The call to be "salt and light" in this world unavoidably involves doing good, a good which Jesus told us leads to the world to "glorify [our] Father in heaven."
Serving our neighbors in love is not a distraction from preaching the gospel, like our fundamentalist ancestors feared. Nor is it a bait-and-switch gimmick used to trick people into letting us tell them about Jesus (though it does build relationships where we do get to talk about faith). Good deeds and love-of-neighbor are gospel work. They show the world the love of God in tangible ways - the love of a God who clothes the naked, watches out for sparrows, and gives sun and rain to people whether they deserve it or not. Good deeds can never be a replacement for gospel proclamation, but if done with a loving heart, they are acts of obedient worship which surely please God.