A Missional Calling Requires Commitment to a Holistic Gospel

war on poverty

What has happened to the church’s mission to the poor in the West? While the Church’s mission to the poor has always been present, its emphasis has waned since the mid 20th century in many western countries. Why? Can the Church regain its effectiveness in sharing the Gospel while serving the poor in the West?

Welfare programs and social work efforts in Europe and the United States are deeply rooted in the Christian Church’s missions to the poor. The Roman Catholic Church in medieval times collected alms for the poor and developed a welfare network that crossed national boundaries throughout Europe. Modern day welfare and social work initiatives began with English Poor Laws and the workhouses where tax money was collected by the government, but distributed to the poor by the chaplains or almoners of local churches.

These laws were passed in the 19th century in response to the industrialization and growth of cities on a scale that was unprecedented and resulted in increasingly concentrated populations of poor in confined areas. In addition to being perceived as charitable, English Poor Laws were also believed to be necessary to protecting the health of the nation by alleviating many social problems such as violence, starvation, homelessness and epidemics.

In the United States, the Church’s commitment to serving the needs of the poor also had a significant influence on the establishment of government social welfare programs, but in a more indirect manner than in Europe. Unlike Europe, where churches had close ties with national magistrates, there was a strong ideology of separation of church and state in the U.S. Therefore, in the United States, churches developed urban mission programs that were privately funded through tithes and offerings and private donations to feed the poor, provide financial assistance, build hospitals, and establish settlement houses which were often started and managed by upper middle class and wealthy Christian women. Many settlement houses are still in existence in many major U.S. cities. Parallel to the church’s commitment to urban missions to the poor was the secular approach of the Charity Organization Society, which led to the development of social work as a profession with an emphasis on using science, politics, case work, and eventually government funding in an attempt to not only alleviate but prevent poverty.

Secularization and Evangelical Retraction from Missions to the Poor

As the United States’ culture grew increasingly secular and antagonistic towards the Church from the mid 20th century to the present, many Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestants began withdrawing from cultural engagement. With Johnson’s War on Poverty, the federal government expanded programs in education, health care and entitlement programs in an attempt to reduce the population living below the poverty line.

While Catholic Social Services remained consistent in its services to the poor during and following the War on Poverty, the Protestants were in a conflict over the true nature of the Gospel. Main Line Protestants remained engaged in missions to the poor through a commitment to the Social Gospel, which was theologically liberal and emphasized alleviating social problems through programs and acts of service while Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestants emphasized theological orthodoxy and proclamation of the Gospel to evangelize unbelievers while withdrawing from missions to the poor in an attempt to distinguish themselves from Main Line Protestants and their Social Gospel.

A Missional Recommitment to the Gospel in Word and Deed

Main Line Protestants and Evangelicals are both learning difficult lessons from the past several decades. What is a good deed without sharing the Gospel message of salvation from sin and death through Christ or how effective is a Christian ethic without proclaiming the Gospel message? How callous is a Gospel that proclaims the truth of sin and death and the gift of salvation through Christ without serving the real immediate needs of the lost? The fact is a holistic Gospel message requires proclamation of the gift of salvation through Christ while engaging in the lives of others through loving acts of service that alleviate pain and suffering (see the entire chapter of Matthew 10 - Jesus’ instructions for service given to His disciples).

Dr. Larry L. Anderson (Biblical alum (MDiv and DMin) and former resident faculty member of Biblical) led his church to move out of the suburbs and into the city of Philadelphia where his congregation could literally engage their lives in the lives of their church’s neighbors with an emphasis on urban mission. Further, his congregation elected to work with the social service agencies serving their church’s community as the agencies had the financial resources, but needed volunteers and the church had volunteers without significant finances after a costly move. Further, it also provided them with a chance to naturally proclaim the Gospel in everyday conversations that came out of developing relationships through service. You can read more about this in Dr. Anderson’s dissertation - Anderson, Jr., L.L. (2010). The Missional Gospel: Ministering to a Community with the Whole Gospel through its Existing Social Services (Doctoral dissertation, Biblical Theological Seminary).

About the Author

Dan Lavalla

Daniel LaValla

Dan LaValla is Director of Library Services and Development Associate at Biblical. He is Chair of the Endowment Committee for the American Theological Library Association and is very active in his church and community, coaching youth baseball and football and has served on several community boards. Click here for more information.


0 #3 Daniel LaValla 2014-01-17 15:52
Dear “trlkly”:

Thank you for replying and I am happy to see from your comment that you enjoyed the read. I ran out of “space” as we try to keep our blog posts between 500 and 750 words to encourage readership, by posting your comment, you have given me the freedom to add a couple points that I had to initially leave out. It’s an imperfect world and there is much that can be done to improve government welfare programs and policies. I think the government should work with faith based organizations to improve the impact of the money spent on welfare programs.

Just to give you a little more background on me. In my younger days, I worked as a medical social worker in Hahnemann University Hospital’s trauma and emergency department in Center City Philadelphia and interacted with a great deal of government caseworkers and social workers. They often have an overwhelming task of too many cases (too many people to assist) and not enough time and money to meet all of the needs. While I support the existence of government welfare programs, I would critique the imperfections of government policies as such:

• In their attempt to secularize welfare, government policy discouraged the majority of the people in the Church making it more difficult for them to continue providing “welfare services” when the people in the Church had the longest track record in this area.

• While it is good for the Federal Government to set policies, welfare programs would likely improve and be more responsive to the impoverished if the state and local governments had more freedom to establish the specific directives of federal welfare policies. The state and local agencies would then have more freedom to customize programs since they are closest to the services they provide to the people in their impoverished communities/neighborhoods.

• It takes more than money and the availability of social workers and case workers during business hours to minister to people in need. People of faith-based organizations can offer the relational aspect much more effectively.

Government Funding + Faith-Based Services = More Effective Welfare Programs
0 #2 Lydia Putnam 2014-01-17 13:57
Main Line Protestants remained engaged in missions to the poor through a commitment to the Social Gospel, which was theologically liberal and emphasized alleviating social problems through programs and acts of service while Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestants emphasized theological orthodoxy and proclamation of the Gospel to evangelize unbelievers while withdrawing from missions to the poor in an attempt to distinguish themselves from Main Line Protestants and their Social Gospel.

I think you've nailed it here: the church allowed itself to be tricked into a false either/or, instead of holding on to both/and, as we're called to do and seem to be rediscovering.
0 #1 trlkly 2014-01-16 16:24
I am quite pleasantly surprised not to see any condemnation for the government programs in this piece. I thought for sure from the title that there would at least be condemnation by implication. But you seem to have nothing bad to say about them, instead only saying bad things about the Funadmentalist/Evangelical approach. And even that you qualify, showing understand of why it happened.

This is Christianity. Bravo.

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