“I just can’t believe that an evangelical group would be addressing these issues.” Those encouraging words were made by a female professor I met during a week of evangelistic outreach at a major university where I was speaking. With our theme being “Does God Care?”, we set up outdoor interactive exhibits on injustice issues like human trafficking and racism, resulting in numerous spiritual conversations. As a strong political activist who clearly said she was not a Christian, this professor was shocked and pleasantly surprised that InterVarsity, an evangelical student ministry, would even address these topics and tangibly get involved.
That opened the door for a wonderful conversation, as I shared about God’s care for the poor and marginalized and oppressed in our world, and stories of followers of Jesus whom I know who are actively being reconcilers and bringing hope and healing to our world. I then asked about her own faith experiences, and shared how Jesus Christ uniquely provides hope and healing for us individually and our broken world. She took it all in, and left saying, “I’ve never heard anything like that.” She wasn’t ready to commit, but had new openness to Jesus that would not have been possible if our evangelistic outreach didn’t address real social injustices of our world.
Evangelism and social justice have often been portrayed by many Christians as polarizing opposites. Passionate evangelists too frequently have avoided speaking out against injustices or getting too involved in physical and social needs, for fear of losing focus on salvation through Jesus Christ. Likewise, social justice advocates too often have addressed social injustices, while failing to address the underlying spiritual sins (e.g. pride, greed, lust for power) which fuel social injustices, and highlight the need for a Savior in Jesus Christ.
But are they really polar opposites? Can’t evangelism and social justice be integrated to address current injustices while proclaiming Jesus Christ? And what can the relationship between a gifted evangelist and social justice be? Let’s observe some principles from the only person directly called an evangelist in the New Testament, Philip the evangelist (Acts. 21:8).
- Directly address needs of systemic injustice. In Acts 6, the Grecian Jews’ widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food by the Hebraic Jews. This was a systemic injustice. Along with six others, Philip was chosen by the apostles to serve the widows, meeting this tangible physical need… a good example of a gifted evangelist who carries God’s love and justice to those being marginalized.
- As evangelists, we should speak about social, physical, emotional issues of injustice and pain today. They are the result of sin entering our world.
- Show and Tell the Gospel. In Acts 8:5 Philip “proclaimed the Christ” in Samaria. Crowds of people heard him and saw miraculous signs he did (healing many lame & paralytics, casting out evil spirits), and then they “paid close attention” (NIV) to what he said. He addressed social and physical needs — like racial injustice, distributing food, healing physical bodies, deliverance – while proclaiming the power of Jesus.
- The Gospel needs to be both demonstrated and proclaimed. When the Gospel is displayed in power — through radical love, physical healing, racial reconciliation, addressing systemic poverty, or fighting human trafficking in Jesus’ name, to list a few examples– then people often “listen intently” (NLT) to the evangelists’ message. Especially in our times, words alone often ring empty, but concern for social justice and healing our broken world demonstrates the Good News of Jesus Christ and opens doors for proclaiming the unique hope found in Jesus Christ… and actually being heard! To younger and more skeptical hearers, when Jesus is relevant to social injustices today, often they are more likely to see Jesus relevant to their own lives as well.
- The Luis Palau Association wonderfully models this “both/and” gospel by mobilizing Christians to demonstrate God’s Love (CityServe) and then proclaims God’s love through Jesus Christ (CityFest). Serving doesn’t compete with evangelism, but enhances it.
- Proclaim the Kingdom of God. Acts 8:12 says Philip “preached the good news of the Kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ.” Luke emphasized the amazing result, evidenced by “both men and women” being baptized.
- Our world is broken because humans rejected the Kingdom of God, the “reign and rule” of God in our lives, in exchange for the kingdom of darkness. Communicating sin’s comprehensive effects – in individuals, communities, sin-based systems of oppression and injustice, and natural disasters and diseases – highlights even more the Good News that God is reconciling individuals and all things to himself.
- Keep Jesus Central. Even while clearly serving and addressing physical and social needs, Philip kept the focus on Jesus Christ and the new life found in him. In Acts 8:26-40 Philip takes the initiative in explaining to the Ethiopian that Jesus as the Messiah foretold in Isaiah 53.
- Based upon different spiritual gifts and callings, Christians will live out integrating evangelism and social justice in different ways. Gifted prophets, political social activists, or policy makers will lean more to the social justice side. But for evangelists, while addressing social injustices, we must keep proclaiming Jesus as central and inviting people to enter His Kingdom, be reconciled to God, and be sent as reconcilers of hope to our broken world. For example, InterVarsity has seen an all-time record number on decisions for Christ in the past decade, while continuing to intentionally address social injustice.
- The Gospel is good news for both the body and the soul, for heaven and earth, now and in the future. And in our world broken with systemic injustice, our only hope lies in the transforming power of God in Jesus Christ, reconciling the world to Himself and making all things new.
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