Evangelism is much more important than working for justice. Souls are eternal. There’s no hope for change without Christ. This world is going to burn.
Justice work trumps evangelism. Hungry people can’t hear the gospel. Christ fought against oppression. Evangelism is a form of cultural neocolonialism.
What if it’s both? What if evangelism without justice is a false gospel? What if justice work as its own end brings its own dangers?
Both were central to Jesus’ mission
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus read this passage from Isaiah in the synagogue in his hometown:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then he made the audacious claim that “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus’ work was undeniably about proclamation. He says he was anointed and sent to…
- proclaim good news to the poor
- proclaim freedom for the prisoners
- proclaim recovery of sight for the blind and
- proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
But even what Jesus was proclaiming had justice work threaded through it. He spoke about real, tangible, restrictions on human flourishing, like blindness and imprisonment. And then, as if to make the connection between justice and evangelism clear, he comes right out and says he was sent to set the oppressed free, not just proclaim freedom for them.
Throughout the Gospels, it’s not hard to find Jesus caring for people on the margins and speaking about the good news (in him!) of a new way to relate to God Almighty.
Both are about life
Evangelism is sharing the good news of how to find the life that is really life from the only One who can give it to us. Evangelism does indeed invite people into the kingdom of heaven. But it also invites people into a new (and better) way of living and thinking, with others in a new community now. Working for justice builds the life that we all actually want, for ourselves and for others, which God wants to give us. This is the life in which humans flourish. Working for justice is about addressing the strangleholds on flourishing, not just alleviating suffering.
Both are about setting things right
Something is amiss between people and between people and God. Evangelism is helping people be reconciled to God, his world, and his priorities, mending our primary meta-injury, called sin. Working for justice sets things right between people, according to God’s design and priorities. To put it another way, evangelism and justice work both are integral to the biblical vision of shalom, the comprehensive wholeness and goodness in all of life.
Both are about love
Evangelism helps others connect to the source of all love and is a way we love one another. Justice work is a living out of our love for God and one another as we build relationships and systems that honor him and his creation. I have seen evangelism done without love, and it is ugly and damaging. Consider those street preachers who show up on campus and preach fire and brimstone at passersby. I have also seen justice work done without love, and it is just as ugly and damaging. In our years overseas we’ve bumped into people who are burned out and end up despising the very people they serve. But when evangelism and justice are done well, great love is evident in both.
Both are other-focused
We share good news so that people come to know Jesus. And we work for justice so that others can enjoy freedom and peace. Selfishness sours justice work, making it an ego-booster or a grandstand, the playground for the messianic complex. And selfishness turns evangelism into a grotesque competition or burdensome duty that must be completed without regard for the actual, complex people who need to know and follow Jesus.
Both are mutually reinforcing
Often people see how justice work opens a platform for evangelism. When we work for the good of others they know it and feel it. They are more willing to listen to us, to why were helping them in the first place. (The risk, of course, is some sort of bait-and-switch efforts at justice that ring hollow because they really only seek to further evangelism rather than better others’ lives.)
But this works the other way, too. When we share the great news of Jesus, people’s eyes lift up from the immediate problems that surround. They acknowledge their complicity in evil systems and structures, as well as their own personal sins. The gospel gives hope for eternity, of course, but it also gives hope for now. If I (a sinner!) can be changed, maybe others can be changed, too. And maybe even a corrupt and evil system or societal dynamic could be changed.
As Christians, we need to follow Jesus faithfully, sharing his great news and working for justice for people in the hard places.
Just like he did.