Interacting with MissionSHIFT Part 3: The Future of Evangelicals in Mission by Ralph Winter

Although the late Ralph Winter apparently does not adhere to the intended focus of his assignment, which was to predict the future of Evangelicals in Mission, he certainly lays down the gauntlet for his personal wishes concerning this critically important aspect of evangelicalism. By reaching selectively and provocatively into America’s brief history with a view toward highlighting the interaction of First and Second Inheritance Evangelicalism with the broader culture (particularly spiritual renewal, politics, and war), Winter lays a foundation for ongoing conversation and debate. Indeed, he stirs the pot, evoking passionate responses from his responders.  

In essence, he calls for a holistic mission that dispels the notion of having to choose between social relief efforts or gospel proclamation. Instead, he cites their mutual importance with gospel proclamation having primacy. On the face of it, I would expect that should not be offensive either to socially conscious Christian activists or their more conservative counterparts who emphasize personal decisions regarding faith and eternity.  But that is not the whole of it. Conservatives raise some grave concerns.

Winter goes to great lengths to discuss the efforts of people like President Jimmy Carter who arguably has done more to combat disease with the help of secular commercial interests than the rest of evangelicalism combined. Christopher Little strikes a counterpoint to Winter, suggesting not enough emphasis is placed on the primacy of personal evangelism as opposed to social action, and his point is well taken. Little does gratefully acknowledge, however, Winter’s placement of gospel proclamation over social action.

It raises the question. Do we emphasize God’s Kingdom here and now or God’s Kingdom in eternity? I think of Jesus teaching the disciples to pray as recorded in Matthew. In Matthew 6:10, he says, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This passage suggests both require attention. Yet there has been a continual theological and practical pendulum swing.

 At one extreme is a liberal social justice activism (often called progressivism; we see it prevailing in much of the emergent literature, as well as in liberal mainline teaching) which downplays and even denies core tenets of conservative Christian orthodoxy, such as the inspiration of Scripture, and the need for personal salvation to procure eternal life. It further emphasizes the Kingdom of God here and now, rather than in eternity.

 At the other extreme is a conservative gospel proclamation focus which rejects social activism for fear of starting down the slippery slope of liberalism. Indeed it also often rejects its counterpart because of its own intrinsic values of rugged individualism and personal responsibility, eschewing a sense of corporate responsibility and even culpability vis-à-vis systemic social evil. Little makes the case against Winter’s brand of social emphasis by saying,

 Yes, hell is eternally worse than any temporal disease (Matt 25:46; Heb 10:31; Rev 20:11-15), and the only entity that God has placed in the world to address this subject for the sake of the world is the church.

If Little had stopped there, I would have had no problem with his statement. But he continues, saying,

Oprah can build schools; Madonna can sponsor orphanages; and Bill Gates can promote global health, but only the church is entrusted with the apostolic role of gospel proclamation whereby people are brought to the foot of the cross to “glorify God for his mercy” (Rom 15:9).

The implication seems to be that the church should not be in the business of building schools, sponsoring orphanages or promoting global health. It should stick to spiritual matters only. I agree with Mr Little concerning the church’s apostolic role of gospel proclamation. I disagree with Mr Little’s apparent implication that the church should relegate comparatively lesser matters such as building schools, sponsoring orphanages, and promoting global health to media moguls and celebrities. That is a tragic statement. So do many other evangelicals, by the way. And they are in no way denying the primacy of Scripture, the gospel, or personal salvation. Given Little’s comment which passes off suffering as something which God has only secondary concern for since he is primarily concerned with our eternal destination, is it any wonder why evangelicalism is often not taken seriously by non-believers concerning their (evangelicals) love (or God’s) for the world?

On one hand, theological liberals rightly critique conservative evangelicals for being more concerned about the afterlife than with God’s reign here and now, thereby causing the most conservative among them to avoid the appearance of liberalism via social compassion or justice.

On the other hand, conservative evangelicals rightly critique liberals for dismissing the importance of eternity by stating that the Kingdom of God is here and now, and that all are included (inclusivism, denial of importance of the cross). It is a gaping theological and practical gulf. Both sides are in error to some degree, in my estimation.

As an evangelical conservative, I call my conservative friends to engage in social responsibility in a way that places the cross and resurrection of Jesus as the primary focus, but does not continue this mentality of “I’m just passing through this life.”

 Likewise, I ask my liberal friends, of whom I have a great many, to consider again the writings of the Apostle Paul and the words and actions of Jesus in the Gospels, particularly in the passion narratives with a view toward rethinking their view of the cross and resurrection, and the importance of a personal faith decision.

Having made that argument, allow me the liberty of suggesting possible future streams of mission for evangelicalism.

1. Children’s ministry. Many of the nations in the developing world boast populations in which half or more are children or teens. This is an opportunity for mission in which there are great needs.

2. Technology. Technological platforms are continuing to shrink the world, primarily in developed nations, but with opportunties for mission into lesser developed nations. The opportunities for missional presence abound via social media, the web, handheld devices and through technologies not yet created.

3. Local mission. Local pastors are slowly changing their attitudes toward mission, recognizing that the world is at their doorsteps, and that their churches have prime opportunities, particularly among sub-cultures of which they are a part.

4. The local church globally will produce missionaries from surprising places, particularly in the developing world. 

5. Practitioners will hopefully gain a greater voice in the conversation so they may collaborate with their scholarly counterparts and the local church.

This post is the final installment of a three part interaction with MissionSHIFT. It is part of a larger blog conversation centered around Ed Stetzer’s blog. The previous two posts can be found here and here.

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