The ‘Delicate Dance’ Between Social Action and Evangelism

Greg Strand – December 5, 2012 Leave a comment

For many years, Luis Palau has been engaged in the ministry of evangelism, similar to Billy Graham, though on a smaller scale. God has used him significantly and the Holy Spirit has used his preaching in the conversion of many.

In more recent years, Palau’s sons, Kevin and Andrew, have partnered with him in ministry of the Luis Palau Association, and they have expanded their evangelistic ministry to include a festival that culminates in a service in which the gospel is preached evangelistically.  As part of this ministry a new model has been developed in which the Association coordinated a “season of service” with local churches to meet the needs of people in their cities, and the serving of people culminates in an evangelistic festival. What they have done is combine social action, justice and compassion, and evangelism.

The Palaus were recently interviewed about this ministry: “The ‘Delicate Dance’: An Interview with Luis, Kevin, and Andrew Palau,” Leadership Journal (November [Online-Only] 2012).  As stated in the interview, how using social action as part of the larger context in which the gospel was shared was actually prompted by the mayor of their city. There were 1200 single, homeless mothers, and the major knew there were 1200 evangelical churches, so he asked if the Association would coordinate a relationship between a homeless mother and a local church. Though such a ministry has certain needs and appropriate leadership, the Lord, in His grace and mercy, is using it in the lives of people.

In the call to evangelism and social action, there is often a leaning more in one direction than another. With an appropriate call to re-address meeting physical and social needs of people, through compassion and justice, there is a tendency to focus on that at the expense of evangelism. When asked whether the ministry of caring for and meeting needs of people “translate[d] into greater receptivity to the gospel message,” the Palaus responded as follows:

Luis: The pendulum seems to swing between social action and evangelism, and right now I think the pendulum has swung to social action. I worry because right now people almost sneer at the concept of evangelism.

Andrew: Especially proclamation evangelism. They would say relational evangelism is fine, but proclamation evangelism is too much.

Luis: True. But I wonder how much real evangelism goes on in “relational evangelism.” Is having a beer together at a bar and chatting for three hours about culture truly evangelism? When are they going to hear the gospel?

Kevin: I wish I could say, “Oh, my goodness. We held a service festival which fostered a ton of relational evangelism, and the number of people accepting Christ doubled.” But we can’t say that. At times I wonder, Has it taken all of this work just to keep anyone at all interested in hearing the gospel?

Andrew: Looking at the broader perspective, changing people’s general sense of who a follower of Jesus Christ is opens the door for more relational and one-on-one evangelism. And just getting evangelism on the radar of some people inside the church is important. If we can’t even do that because we’re too focused on the festival model, they’re going to keep it at arm’s length. But we want to start breaking down the barriers that have kept people from even thinking about evangelism. At the end of the day, they look at the whole thing and say, “You know, this festival thing really wasn’t that bad. The gospel was proclaimed. I brought my friend, and he came to the Lord. Or maybe he didn’t come to the Lord, but we’re still friends and now we have this new conversation.”

Expounding Article 8 on “Christian Living” in Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith in the Evangelical Free Church of America, pp. 199-200, we have stated these joint truths, proclamation of the gospel and propagation of good works through compassion and justice ministries, in this way:

Regarding ministries of compassion and justice, the church has often vacillated between two extremes, either focusing on the physical needs of people while assuming or neglecting the spiritual or seeing people only as “souls to be saved” and disregarding their tangible suffering in this world. The example of the early church in Acts 6 provides a helpful model. In response to the inequitable distribution of food among widows, the apostles saw to it that some were assigned to address that situation. But they did so while maintaining the priority of their ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:2-4). The church today must do the same. Ministries of compassion have been a strong part of our Free Church history, both in America and around the world, through the establishment of orphanages, homes for the elderly and hospitals. We now have a ministry known as TouchGlobal dedicated to this purpose. Certainly, our highest priority must be the proclamation of the gospel, for the gospel alone can address our deepest need, and the church alone can bring this gospel to the world. But while maintaining this priority, we ought not to neglect the very pressing material needs of those around us. Love requires no less.

Please note that while we affirm these are joint truths, we also state unequivocally that “our highest priority must be the proclamation of the gospel.” But making that our highest priority in life and ministry does not mean we “neglect the very pressing material needs of those around us.” We attempted to capture this briefly in a single sentence (EC, p. 200, n. 27): “We believe we ought to seek to alleviate all human suffering, but especially that which is eternal.”

I humbly acknowledge that it is easier to get this right doctrinally in propositional statements than it is to get it right practically in ministry. And yet both orthodoxy and orthopraxy are necessary (the former for the faith that saves [Romans]; the latter for a faith that works [James]) and important.

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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