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Hundreds of churches and Christian organisations across Europe work to help marginalised people in their cities. Juan Simarro (Madrid) and Sarah Bennetch (Rome) speak from their experience.
Many Christian organisations have been assisting refugees arriving to European countries these months. And hundreds of cities benefit from the decades-long work of evangelical churches and Christians NGOs serving people in need.
But, is it right to connect social action and evangelism? Should Christians refrain from talking about Jesus when they serve those in material need?
There have been both secular and Christian voices showing disapproval for Christian initiatives that aim to respond to humanitarian needs while actively sharing the gospel.
We have brought this questions to Juan Simarro, director of Misión Urbana (Urban Mission) in Madrid (Spain); and Sarah Bennetch, who works with local and national anti-trafficking movements and is City Team Leader of ReachGlobal, in Rome (Italy).
BENNETCH: “AN ERRONEOUS DICHOTOMY”
“Over the years, I have encountered among Western Christians the unfortunate disconnection between social action and evangelism”, explains Bennetch.
“Previously, there was a tendency to discount social action or justice work, whereas nowadays there’s been a definite shift towards neglecting Gospel proclamation in favor of good deeds alone”, she says after 25 years working in Europe.
“To me this dichotomy is erroneous ether way and creates tension within the Body of Christ, and we have opportunities to bring ‘word and deed’ ministry back into balance.”
SIMARRO: “JESUS ADDED WORDS TO HIS ACTIONS”
Simarro leads one of the pioneering social justice organisations in Spain and has also seen different approaches among Christians in more than 30 years of work.
“Of course there is the right to have a different opinion and say that social action is enough and that there is no need for words. But we do not understand why one would not share some gospel words with someone… words that not only could give relief, but a real meaning to life”.
“Of course, we believe that social action has an intrinsic value, but Jesus added to his healing actions words that announced salvation.”
In Misión Urbana, explains Simarro, an “integral Christian spirituality” is promoted amongst the volunteers. This naturally leads to share a “restoring message” with those who come in contact with the organisation members serving in Madrid and other Spanish cities.
“Nobody is theologically neutral when they work for social justice. This is a primary biblical priority. The gospel message needs to be connected to social denounce, as the prophets and Jesus did.”
ARE THERE LIMITS FOR EVANGELISM?
Is any form of evangelism right, when working with vulnerable people? “For sure, evangelical organisations should never give their help only if the recipients are ready to listen to their beliefs”, Simarro says.
“And it is true that some evangelical organisations emphasise evangelism as the only solution to social needs, and this is not understood in a secular society like ours.”
The best context to speak about faith are personal relationships, according to Simarro. “In my office at Misión Urbana, I have always been open to speak about our values and the biblical values in general… In a gentle and didactic way, not trying to impose my beliefs.”
“Beside that, our methods and lines of integration need to be professional, of course. In our experience, the conjunction of both gives undeniable results in the process of rehabilitation of a person.”
“Although evangelism and social action as distinct activities, they are inseparable!” adds Bennetch. “Scripture lays out for us a Kingdom standard of engaging in both preaching the Gospel and doing justice, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our primary call is to proclaim Good News to the captives; to tell them about salvation through Jesus Christ.”
She quotes the Cape Town Commitment (propelled by the Lausanne Movement, which unites millions of evangelicals in the world): “Integral mission is the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel”.
Bennetch shares the vision of ReachGlobal, for instance. Their organisation “includes ministries of compassion and justice in addition to those of evangelism and church planting.” The goal is to “align all ministries into a vision for multiplying transformational churches among all peoples”.
Personally, Bennetch sees her anti-trafficking work in Rome as “an expression of our heart for the Body of Christ.”
CHRISTIAN VALUES, KEY FOR SOCIAL ACTION
More visible or not, “the evangelistic values will always be there”, thinks Simarro. And these “kingdom values help and impact the users we are serving.”
“Evangelicals need to create a social fabric of people who identify themselves as evangelicals. It is part of our witnessing. Christian values are the most solid foundation on which an NGO can build its vision to help their neighbours.”
The key is to follow the example of Jesus, Simarro thinks “his love for the people and how he took interest in people’s lives”. A type of evangelism that “does not put pressure on people.”, but offers “friendship, life, bread and the Word.”
LOCAL CHURCHES AND THEIR VIEW OF SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT
And what about the churches? What do most Christians think about social justice initiatives?
Simarro is positive about what he has seen so far. “I think the churches and Christians in Madrid have understood and value our mission and our way to share the gospel through friendship with the people we serve.”
Bennetch has the impression that “most churches in our local network, being conservative, favor the proclamation of the Gospel. That is laudable! However, there is perhaps reticence or uneasiness about social action”, shares Bennetch. Some even have said “justice work is distracting from ‘real’ mission work.”
But there have been churches on the other side, concludes Bennetch: “A consortium of clergy offered funding to our anti-trafficking charity as long as the money wasn’t used for evangelism. We declined.”
What are your thoughts? Should Christian churches and projects speak about the gospel to the people they serve?