A Missional Calling Requires Commitment to a Holistic Gospel
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).
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