John Stott on the Church and Social Concerns

John StottThere has been a good deal of discussion among fundamentalists regarding the legitimacy of the church involving itself in social activism. Now John Stott offers his perspective in this article. He cites two positive examples of socially concerned “Christians” from recent church history: Anglican Archbishop William Temple and Roman Catholic Mother Teresa. Perhaps most telling is this statement:

“As for the local church, the versatility of its outreach can be greatly increased if full use is made of all its members with their different gifts and callings. It is a very healthy thing for the local church’s oversight or leadership to encourage people with similar concerns to coalesce into “special interest” groups or “study and action” groups. Some will have an evangelistic objective – house-to-house visitation, a music group, a world mission group, etc. Other groups will have a social concern – sick and welfare visiting, a housing association, community or race relations, the care of the natural environment, pro-life, anti-abortion campaigning, the needs of an ethnic minority, etc. Such specialist groups supplement one another. If an occasional opportunity is given to them to report back to the church membership as a whole, the representative nature of their work will be affirmed and they can receive valuable support from their parent body in terms of advice, encouragement, prayer and financial backing.”

I don’t pretend to have all the answers on this issue. But as this discussion proceeds in fundamental circles, we must not be so naive as to believe that the idea of the social gospel is dead. Nor should we forget that worthwhile efforts can easily distract from our essential task–the communication of the gospel to the souls of lost men, women and children for the glory of God. I suggest that Stott’s article subtly proves both of those points.

(Links: The issue of the Church and Social Action has recently been considered here, here and here at “My Two Cents, and here, here and here on other blogs. John Stott has recently been cited here at “My Two Cents.”)

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5 Responses

  1. Chris,

    Could you clarify what you mean? How do you think Stott’s piece proves the social gospel is alive and we are easily distracted?

    It seems to me that he is extremely moderate in this piece. He isn’t calling for the whole of a local church as an institution to focus on mercy ministry. He’s just saying that the leaders ought to encourage small groups of congregants to do good in areas that concern them — unless I am misunderstanding.

    What could be wrong with such encouragement?

  2. Hi, Keith.

    Sorry for the delay in responding. I’m swamped, and I won’t be able to get into a long discussion.

    I’m thinking primarily of his suggestion that some ministries of the church (and the members which carry them out) “will have an evangelistic objective,” whereas others “will have a social concern” (vs. an evangelistic one, in context). That idea is what led me to the two conclusions which you are questioning: the social gospel is alive and we are easily distracted from evangelism.

    Frankly, I can’t imagine that either point is even debatable, with or without Stott’s article. But that’s what led me to the conclusions. His citing Temple and Mother Teresa contributed to my impression, as well.

  3. To me, ministries like house-to-house visitations or world missions are in the same category as visiting the sick, helping fix someone’s broken fence, etc. All of those activities should have an evangelistic focus.

  4. Or maybe all of our evangelistic activities should have a mercy focus

  5. Chris,

    Perhaps you are correct about Stott, but it seems to me you aren’t reading with an eye to his authorial intent.

    I think, but again I could be wrong, he’s just pointing out that some activities of church members will be focused directly on preaching/teaching the gospel and other activities of church members will be focused directly on diaconal/meeting physical needs efforts.

    The direct foci do not logically exclude other concerns.

    Of course, you are most certainly correct that errors like the social gospel will persist and that we are easily distracted. I just didn’t see it in this Stott piece.

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