During my senior year of college I sensed God’s call to work with the poor. I attended the Urbana missions conference that year (1987), and while there applied (and was later accepted) to serve overseas with Food for the Hungry. Sometime during the spring of 1988, I met with the missions committee of the evangelical church in Salem, Oregon I was attending to ask for support.
This church was heavily involved in foreign missions, with many missionaries on the register and a significant portion of their income directed towards overseas evangelism. They listened to my presentation politely but their basic response was “Scott, serving the poor, or otherwise trying to reform society, is not nearly as important as saving souls for eternity.”
Since then, there has been a sea-change in attitudes among evangelicals on this point. Today, such a sharp dichotomy between evangelism and social/cultural reform is increasingly hard to find among mainstream evangelicals. What caused the change? This is the topic of Ralph Winter’s excellent paper The Rise, Reduction and Recovery of Kingdom Mission, 1800-2000. Winter, who died last month, was professor of History at William Carey International University and founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission in Pasadena. This is one of the last papers he wrote, and in my opinion, one of his most important.
He begins with a helpful distinction between “Church Mission” and “Kingdom Mission.” Church mission is “winning people into the Church wherever in the world, and thus extending the membership of the [global] church.” Kingdom Mission focuses on God’s will being done, “on earth outside the Church.” Here’s the point: “Church Mission is basic and essential but must not become merely a goal in itself. It must be seen also as a means of relentlessly pressing for God’s will to be done on earth, thus to declare His glory among all peoples.”
To this, I say, “Amen!”
In my 25 years of mission-related work, I have encountered much confusion on this point. On one side are evangelists and church-planting organizations (DAWN Ministries comes to mind), that essentially operate as if “Church Mission” is a goal in itself. As the saying goes, “What gets counted gets done,” and numbers of converts and churches planted is definitely what gets counted in such circles. On the other side, Christian relief and development organizations work towards social reform, but more often than not, in ways that are fundamentally disconnected from Church Mission. The Disciple Nations Alliance was born, in part, because Food for the Hungry was led to repent over its neglect of local churches in the communities it was serving. Winter’s helpful reminder that Kingdom Mission should be our ultimate focus, with Church Mission as the essential means, reunites both in a way that is exactly right.
-Scott D. Allen