What led you to write the book?
I became interested in the issue of how evangelism and social concern relate to the mission of the church because of two things. First, I was saved through the compassionate outreach of the church, through the ministry of Teen Challenge. Teen Challenge, for those that may not know, is a ministry that helps men and women (not just teens!) overcome addictions through developing a relationship with Christ. So, my whole conversion is rooted in a ministry that very effectively brings together both Word and deed. But second, when I became a missionary with the Assemblies of God in 2006, I was shocked to discover how divisive the issue of compassion-type ministries could be. I remember once attending a conference in Nairobi at which, after a somewhat heated discussion of this topic, the missionaries in attendance sort of parted like the Red Sea – social concern advocates huddled on one side, and evangelism advocates on the other. I remember feeling deeply grieved, not over the need for debate and clarification, which I think will always be part of the church’s role, but over the way in which both sides seemed to talk past one another. Each side felt the other was selling short the authentic Gospel, and there seemed to be very little effort to understand opposing perspectives. I felt at that time (and still do) that through that experience the Lord had stirred in me a passion to study this issue in search of a consensus position.
Why did you look to Carl Henry for guidance on the question of mission in Word and deed?
First, I strongly believe that a big part of academics revolves around the ability to thoughtfully consider perspectives that differ from one’s own. And in some ways, Carl Henry and I are miles apart theologically; he was a Reformed Baptist, I’m an Arminian Pentecostal. Second, Henry’s text, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism should be required reading for anyone interested in this topic, and that book was my introduction to Henry. There I discovered someone who was a lucid and engaging writer, and who was passionate about both evangelism and social concern. Third, and perhaps most importantly, I found that Henry didn’t neatly fit into any of the dominant categories. He championed the priority of evangelism, but also upheld the necessity of a socially active faith. Interestingly, I initially thought I would be able to prove that Henry’s nuanced prioritist perspective was misguided. But the more I read Henry, the more I came to see that he had really worked out the theological foundations on this issue more than anyone else, that he had much, much more to say than what he said in The Uneasy Conscience, and yet, hardly anyone was paying attention to his broader contributions to the prioritism-holism debate. If they did, they almost always misrepresented his perspective. And so, the more I read of Henry, the more I became convinced that he was in fact correct in his position. I also discovered that one of the things I have in common with Henry is a desire to see Evangelicalism become less fractured by focusing on theological themes capable of uniting a very fractured movement. I think Henry’s perspective on evangelism and social concern holds forth great promise in this regard.
How will your findings influence your approach to compassion ministries on the continent of Africa and elsewhere?
Henry consistently emphasized the redemptive thrust of the church as its singular unique role. That is, the church exists to be the agent of God’s redemptive activity in the world, a role that no other entity can possibly fulfill. Therefore, if the people of God forfeit this role, they have turned away from their primary calling. In everyday life, this means that the church is called to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom, and to embody the ethical ideals of the Kingdom of God, by which God will judge the world. But when we relegate the church to a non-necessary function in social justice missions, we move away from our divinely given mandate and minimize the importance of the church. Often we do this by thinking of social justice in terms of the professionalization of compassion, and the creation of NGO–type ministries. But according to Scripture, compassion ought to be an inherent part of discipleship and of what it means to be the people of God. In our work then, we try to encourage missionary colleagues to think through how their compassionate efforts intersect with the local church(es) and can point to the need of redemption. Are we going in to an area and dictating what responses are needed, or are we involving local peoples and local churches in finding the best solutions? If a missionary is unable to connect the dots between their work and the local church, then this can be a good sign that their approach needs to be reevaluated. Of course, this must be tweaked somewhat when working in places where the church does not yet exist, but the same principles apply. The basic idea is that the compassion must be tied to discipleship and what it means to be God’s covenant people.
Who should read this book?
This book is for anyone who has an interest in the relationship between compassion and evangelism. It is for missionaries, pastors, students, and educators. I realize that sounds like I’m saying “this book is for everybody.” But, the reality is, this issue intersects nearly every aspect of cross-cultural missions today, including church planting, evangelism, Bible schools, and UPGs. Carl Henry was not considered dean of evangelical theology just because he was a great guy (though, I’m certain he was that too). But Henry had a prophetic understanding of the challenges facing the church and of the best solutions to those challenges. Henry knew that fundamentalism had short-circuited the Gospel through cultural retreat and its turn away from social issues, in reaction to abuses by liberal theology. Henry then helps us learn from the past and chart a solid course for the future. You will simply not find a more balanced approach to this issue than Henry’s. My hope and sincere prayer is that Henry’s thoughts here will move the church towards a consensus on this issue, so that we can redirect our efforts toward reaching the lost and making disciples.