Friday, June 5, 2009

Church Planting or Development? Word and Deed in Biblical Balance

What is the gospel? Is it a verbal message of salvation? Is it a cup of clean water? Both? Is it wrong to dichotomize between the physical and the spiritual? What about the temporal and the eternal? In our obedience to the "great commission" should we focus on church planting or development?

For a while I have struggled with the balance of words and deeds as they relate to new covenant ministry. Then I read this quote and it put it all together for me:

Many people who say that evangelism and the Word are more important than mercy and deed base this on a belief that the "spiritual" (ministry of the word) is more important than the "physical" (ministry of deed). It is common to speak of "the priority of the spiritual," but is that a biblical idea? God created both the material and the immaterial halves of reality (Gen. 2:4-7). Both the material and immaterial came under the disorder and decay of sin (Gen. 3:14-19). Moreover, God plans to redeem both our spirits (Heb. 12:23) and our bodies (1 Cor. 15)-both the material and the immaterial. How, then, can we speak about the "physical" as being less important than the "spiritual"? Does God give one priority over the other?...

Having said this, we must nonetheless recognize that, from one perspective, the ministry of the word is the most radical ministry. What do we mean by that? "Radical" often is used to mean "extremist," but that is not the fundamental meaning of the word. The radix is "the root"; to be radical means to go to the root of a thing. We said in an earlier chapter that our alienation from God, our condition of being in a state of "condemnation" (Rom. 8:1-2), is the root from which all our miseries flow. Psychological brokenness, social injustice, and even physical disintegration are due to and flow out of our warfare with God. Thus, the more radical ministry to the condition of man is to proclaim the word of faith (Rom. 10:8-13). There is no more fundamental means to cut the root of sin and death than with the verbal message of the gospel.

Tim Keller, Ministries of Mercy, p. 114

Humankind's greatest problem is a "spiritual" one; separation from God. All other problems stem from our evil rebellion against him. So if our greatest problem is spiritual, then the solution is in kind. Thus, the gospel is a not a cup of clean water, but a cosmic reality of the person and work of Jesus who reconciles humankind with God through his death and resurrection. Carson says this:

Pundits have often noted that many in the Western world have become single-issue people. The church is not immune from such influences. The result is that many Christians assume the gospel (often, regrettably, some form of the 'simple gospel') but are passionate about something on the relative periphery: abortion, poverty, forms of worship, cultural decay, ecology, overpopulation, pornography, family breakdown, and much more. By labeling these complex subjects 'relatively peripheral' I open myself to attack from as many quarters as there are subjects on the list. For example, some of those whose every thought is shaded green will not be convinced that the ecological problems we face are peripheral to human survival. But I remain quite unrepentant. From a biblical-theological perspective, these challenges, as serious as they are, are reflections of the still deeper problem—our odious alienation from God. If we tackle these problems without tackling what is central, we are merely playing around with symptoms. This is no excuse for Christians not to get involved in these and many other issues. But it is to insist that where we get involved in such issues, many of which are explicitly laid upon us in scripture, we do so from the centre out, ie beginning with full-orbed gospel proclamation and witness and passion, and then, while acknowledging that no one can do everything, doing our 'significant something' to address the wretched entailments of sin in our world. The good news of Jesus Christ will never allow us to be smug and other-worldly in the face of suffering and evil. But what does it profit us to save the world from smog and damn our own souls? There are lots of ways of getting rid of pornography. For instance, one does not find much smut in Saudi Arabia. But one doesn't find much of the gospel there, either.

The point is that in all our efforts to address painful and complex societal problems, we must do so from the centre, out of a profound passion for the gospel. This is for us both a creedal necessity and a strategic choice. It is a creedal necessity because this gospel alone prepares men and women for eternity, for meeting our Maker—and all problems are relativized in the contemplation of the cross, the final judgment, and eternity. It is a strategic choice because we are persuaded that the gospel, comprehensively preached in the power of the Spirit, will do more to transform men and women, not least their attitudes, than anything else in the world.

D.A. Carson, For Such a Time as This: Perspectives on Evangelicalism, Past, Present and Future, p. 83

I think the fog over what constitutes the "gospel" can be cleared up by distinguishing between the "gospel" and the "effects" of the gospel. When we have been redeemed and are in a relationship with God, then this good news works itself out in all areas of our life holistically. The gospel changes more than hearts because it changes hearts first. But we do a deep disservice to people when we collapse evangelism and social good to the same level. Yes we should "do good to all people" (Gal. 6:10) and "be zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14) and "devote ourselves to good works so as to help cases of urgent need" (Titus 3:14). But we should not forget what makes that all possible to begin with (2 Cor. 5:11ff).

One illustration a friend shared with me recently is the relationship between faith and works. Of course faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26). But the precedence is not with works, it is with faith. Genuine faith makes good works possible: the purpose for which we are saved (Eph. 2:10). There is a lot of overlap between church planting and development, but they are not the same. Properly planted churches will have a heart for development, but if not, they are "dead."

What all people fundamentally need is the gospel, and what the developing world fundamentally lacks is not development, but indigenous churches. Meeting the development needs of the world is a job only the Spirit-empowered local church can manage in my opinion. So in our zeal for development we must contend that church planting is the biblical and strategic indispensable focus for the good of people, and ultimately, for discipling nations.


The Gospel Coalition Video Panel Discussion "Gospel Centered Mercy Ministry vs. The Social Gospel" (12 minutes)

"What do missionaries do?" by Michael Griffiths

The Resurgence And: Words and Deeds


LosHub Admin said...

Here are some of the quotes I especially appreciated in this piece:
*"...these challenges, as serious as they are, are reflections of the still deeper problem—our odious alienation from God. If we tackle these problems without tackling what is central, we are merely playing around with symptoms" (Carson).
*"The point is that in all our efforts to address painful and complex societal problems, we must do so from the centre, out of a profound passion for the gospel" (Carson).
*"Meeting the development needs of the world is a job only the Spirit-empowered local church can manage in my opinion" (Blog Author).

I think you are right - the fundamental problem of man is separation from God. All other problems stem out from this central issue. And if properly addressed, when that vertical issue is dealt with it, it will have horizontal implications (be they relational, ecological, social, or more accurately all of the above). We can also say (going along with the faith/works analogy), if those horizontal evidences are absent (such as a working toward social justice), we can seriously question whether the gospel that was shared leading to that transformation was faithful to the fullness of the biblical message. Are church planting and development the same thing? No, and many are doing one while neglecting the other. But if our church planting is truly biblical, it will lead to development as the church that is birthed will have a passion for the social issues in its own community (as did the 1st century church). If an emerging church in a pioneer context seems to not be characterized by such ministries of mercy, it may reflect just as much on those of us planting the church and what we are bringing to the table as it does on the new believers.
CP X= Development (Faith X= Works)
CP -> Development (Faith -> Works)
Church planting does not equal development, but biblical church planting necessarily leads to development.

Thank you for challenging us with these thoughts from your blog and encouraging healthy reflection on such fundamental issues.

Warrick Farah said...

I wholeheartedly agree. All this to show what the early church cared most about...

Acts is about the planting of churches.

The Epistles were written to communities of faith, i.e. in a countext of church planting.

James writes to counteract the idea that our lives don't have to relect good works.

So if our ministry conforms to the NT, our emphasis should be on church planting, not on development, while trying to do both.

ike said...

Thank you for this refreshing post. I think you are right on in explaining that we get to the core of the physical issues by dealing first with the spiritual issue addressed only by the Gospel.

I would like to ask, however, if you think there is a point at which these categories become unhelpful? I think there seems to be a point at which this juxtaposition of physical and spiritual "evangelism" is illegitimate because an effective, holistic approach to evangelism requires both. The Gospel is the spiritual and physical event of Christ that can be spoken with words or illustrated with actions.

Neither our words nor our actions are the Gospel, but in order to effectively share this gospel, the message of the spiritual and physical event of Christ, our actions must provide a picture of the Gospel and our words must interpret our actions.

Words without action can be disingenuous, action without words can be misinterpreted.