I am told that at the recent Lausanne Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, a popular American preacher and author vigorously asserted that evangelism – understood as the verbal proclamation of the Gospel – was the Church's foremost "priority."
Jesus expects that the Church that is proclaiming the Gospel among the nations is also living out that Gospel before the nations, Ramachandra says.
Since this is a typical, knee-jerk reaction that talk about social justice or "integral mission" elicits in "conservative" evangelical circles, it is worth exploring who says this kind of thing and whether they actually practice what they are saying.
If a person's priorities are gauged by what that person spends most of his or her time doing, I am sure that anybody observing the day-to-day life of this preacher would not conclude that evangelism was his first priority.
He has spent considerable time and money in acquiring a long and expensive education. If he has children, I am confident that he has likewise invested significantly in their nurture and secured the best possible education for them. No doubt he eats at least three good meals a day and enjoys at least six hours' sleep at night. He has medical insurance and access to the best medical care in the richest nation in the world. Holding a U.S. passport, he can freely travel almost everywhere in the world, not needing to queue outside foreign embassies to get visas.
In other words, his privileged way of life takes so much for granted. It has been made possible by the work and sacrifice of unknown others in many parts of the world. And it is remote from the reality experienced by the majority of his fellow Christians who were present at Cape Town.
Whenever I ask such preachers, "Don't you want everybody in the world to have the benefits you enjoy?", the answer I receive is either "That's the social gospel" or "That's not our priority as non-Christians can do that." If the Gospel is not social, then what is it?
And if non-Christians can make sacrifices to ensure that people like us have a decent life, why are we reluctant to do the same for them? What we are facing here is hypocrisy and double standards, the very things that stirred the indignation of Jesus!
The language of "priorities" belongs to the world of organizations (which usually have a single focus) and institutional roles. I agree that a pastor should do the work of pastoring and not get tied down in administration or seek political office. A musician is called to perform good music (and it is the pastor's calling to help her understand what that means and to release her from church programs in order to do so). But the primary calling of both is not defined by either occupation or gifting. It is the call to discipleship.
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The Church as the disciple-community of Jesus is called in the Great Commission to obey and teach others "to obey everything that I have taught you." This is pretty comprehensive!
How on earth did this Great Commission get reduced to preaching? Trying to select from the teaching of Jesus what we will obey or trying to rank his teachings in a scale of "priorities" is not to be a disciple of his. And, then, by what right do we call others to discipleship?
Jesus expects that the Church that is proclaiming the Gospel among the nations is also living out that Gospel before the nations. Namely, she is committed to peace-making, hungering and thirsting after justice, loving her enemies, healing the sick, sharing wealth with the dispossessed, striving for unity in the midst of differences and so on.
The nearest that Jesus ever got to our language of "priorities" was in his rebuke to the Pharisees that they had ignored the "weightier" matters of the law, namely showing justice and mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23). Also, when asked by a lawyer what was the "greatest commandment," Jesus replied: "loving God" with one's whole being, and "loving one's neighbor" as ourselves (Matthew22:34-40). Curiously, no evangelical statement of faith that I have come across even refers to this; it is as if the teaching of the one we call "Lord" has been displaced by the creedal formula handed down to us by our denominational traditions.
I stated in my blog observations of the Edinburgh 2010 conference ("A Centenary Celebration", June 11, 2010) that clericalism has blighted the witness of the church. I repeat that conviction with regard to Lausanne. All the plenary speakers at the Congress were either pastors or "full-time" workers in parachurch organizations.
They are not representative of the vast majority of Christians around the world who serve God as artists, engineers, lawyers, farmers, mechanics, biologists and a host of other "secular" occupations. They are the real "missionaries" of the Church, engaging with non-Christians on a daily basis and whose work raises ethical issues that are at the cutting-edge of mission. As long as their voice is marginalized at such conferences, we shall continue to have such meaningless debates about "priorities."
Would that "Reformed" pastors like the one who spoke at Lausanne give us the lead in recovering the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers!
Vinoth Ramachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka. A version of this column first appeared on his blog.