Baptists contemplate right mix of proclamation, works

The perceived tension between the call to mercy ministries and the commission to make disciples?James 1 and Matthew 28 respectively?has gained renewed interest among many Southern Baptists and other evangelicals.

Caring for widows and orphans has always been a Christian distinctive, but it received fresh emphasis in early 20th century America with a movement led by a group known as the Social Gospelers. The Social Gospel’s theological missteps led many conventional congregations to prioritize gospel preaching over social engagement, and in some cases, to its exclusion.

But as evangelical authors increasingly call believers to a “missional” lifestyle, some Baptist leaders are rethinking the nature and scope of what constitutes evangelism and the Great Commission and the role social ministry should play in it.

This renewed emphasis on social ministry extends beyond the Southern Baptist Convention and is finding grassroots enthusiasm among younger evangelicals, with some seeking community transformation over individual salvation. Churches, parachurch organizations, and other evangelical movements are calling believers to rediscover social action as a part of their Christian witness.

“It is time for conventional [churches] to recognize that ‘fear’ of the social gospel is not only biblically unwarranted; it is also biblically irresponsible in light of the fact that Scripture clearly teaches us to engage social justice issues,” write Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professors Mark Liederbach?associate professor of Christian ethics?and Alvin Reid?professor of evangelism and student ministry?in their new book, “The Convergent Church: Missional Worshippers in an Emerging Culture.”

“Because Christ came to redeem all of creation, believers must understand that both evangelism and the moral engagement of social justice issues are core elements of the mission of God. One is not of lower priority than the other, and then rightly balanced in a particular ministry context, the combination paints a beautiful portrait of the kingdom of God for the world to see.”

Claiming that the local church is the only organization large enough to tackle global social issues such as spiritual lostness, poverty, disease, and education, Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California, unveiled a congregational PEACE plan in 2005 that put church planting alongside social help.

“SBC churches enlisting in PEACE plans like that proposed through Saddleback put planting churches and evangelism prior to but inseparable from aiding the poor,” commented Rick Durst, professor of historical theology at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif. “God has created humanity in a solidarity with creation so when people sin, creation suffers (including society), when humanity repents, creation is healed, and when repentant humanity is fully redeemed, creation is renewed (Romans 8:18-22).”

“The interest in ministry toward the poor, starving, prisoners, etc., ultimately has its basis in an emulation of the ministry of Jesus Christ,” said Malcolm Yarnell, associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“That said, there are contemporary movements that encourage such ministries among evangelicals. These include older, leftward evangelical movements such as that of Sojourners, older rightward evangelical movements such as that of the SBC’s disaster relief ministry, and newer movements such as the emergent/emerging phenomenon.”

Durst believes the renewed interest in mercy ministries comes from a more balanced soteriology. “I think a good bit of the renewed conversation and practice of servant evangelism has to do with a renewed balance between getting to Heaven and letting Heaven live in us now,” he said. “This desire finds stimulus as well through the multiple sources of information about the hurting available 24/7, locally and globally through the Internet and cell phone.”

Reid believes the increased popularity in social help fits well with the mindset of younger

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