In 2000 I returned to seminary four years after graduating with the Master of Divinity degree to prepare for the mission field. I was there to earn another master’s degree in missions and evangelism. In one of my first classes on "Christian Mission and Global Culture," we watched a video. On saving the whales. No, seriously, it was about how to prevent the extinction of a particular endangered species of whale. I looked around the room, thinking to myself, "is this a joke?" It was no joke, but it does represent a strong trend in contemporary missiology.
If I could summarize this perspective, it basically says that whatever we do to bring "shalom" (or "peace") to the created order is missions. In other words, saving a species of whale from extinction is just as much a part of the mission of the church in this mode of thinking as the more traditional idea of converting sinners. Now, I was aware of the controversy surrounding the so-called "social gospel,” which emphasizes caring for the physical and material needs of people less fortunate than ourselves with not so much emphasis on things like repentance from sin and faith in the redemptive work of Christ as the means to eternal life. Of this Bishop Stephen O’Neill astutely observed that those who start with social needs never seem to get to the Gospel message, whereas those who start with the Gospel end up addressing these other needs of people as well.
But this wasn’t social gospel, it was the gospel of environmentalism. Taken to its greatest extreme, it’s the gospel of fix-everything-ism. Apparently the mission of the church in the eyes of some people is to fix every problem on earth. Eliminate poverty and economic inequality? We’re on it. Get rid of discrimination? We can do that. Solve environmental problems like endangered species, global warming, and all the rest? We can do that, too. Excuse me for saying this, but I really think the biggest problem in the world is the alienation of people from their creator. Everything else, in my humble opinion, is just symptoms of the disease. Even the issue of the alienation of people from each other in all of its many iterations is a symptom of alienation from God. We can try to address some specific problem like, say, racism by means of education and legislation. But we still haven’t changed anyone’s heart. You just can’t force people to love others. Eventually the ugliness that is still lurking in the heart will show itself unless the heart itself is changed. I’m thinking of some well-publicized instances where celebrity figures who say they aren’t racist suddenly and inexplicably start uttering racial epithets under duress. I don’t believe that’s because there’s something called “racism” in their hearts that is revealed in those inopportune moments. Rather, it’s that there is contempt and spite towards others that is manifested as racial slurs. No amount of education or legislation can fix that.
So I don’t really see the proclamation of the Gospel message as one more thing on the church’s “to do” list after finding a solution for poverty and replacing the ozone layer. It’s the one thing that we can offer that nobody else can: reconciliation to God. All of the rest, quite honestly, pales in comparison to this one. To put it another way, even if we solved or greatly alleviated all the rest of these issues without offering eternal life to the world, what have we really accomplished? Jesus’ words come to mind, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” What does it profit the church if we fix all of these other problems but forfeit the souls of men and women who are perishing without the knowledge of the one True God? At the same time, I think another basic theological problem is the idea that the Gospel message is merely about what happens to you after you die. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the possibility of living an increasingly transformed life in the here-and-now, about biblical holiness. That’s an issue of Christian discipleship (as it’s often misleadingly called), of teaching Christians to obey everything that Jesus commanded. But this presupposes that someone is first a disciple.
Someone may tell me that it doesn’t have to be either/or. It can be both/and. We can evangelize and solve global warming (or whatever). Weeell, maybe. (I won’t even bother to comment whether man-made global warming is as big a problem as many people seem to think but I will say I’m pretty skeptical of that claim). But maybe the latest “-ism” that we’re supposed to fix is just a passing fad that is actually a distraction from our real mission, which seems to me to be much more likely. I would point out that genuine conversion contributes towards addressing many, if not all, of these other problems. It’s noteworthy to me that the world is fixated on solving these other problems but doing so in a humanistic fashion. If we all just come together and work together, we’re told that we can make the world a better place. But supposedly this will happen only if we put aside our differences, like ideas about who God is (or whether God exists or not), and about whether or not there are real objective moral values that we are all obligated to live by. I’m not convinced that Christians jumping on the bandwagon to show how eager we are to do our part really helps matters.