The story the church lives in begins with creation.* There, in the beginning, everything was good, especially humans who have been created in the image of God. Though humans are still made in the image of God, things have changed since then. The rejection of the Creator by those bearing his image has resulted in suffering which affects all aspects of creation.
The good news is that God is redeeming all of creation in Jesus Christ, reestablishing his kingdom reign over creation as he restores life to its created intent. As people who belong to this redeemed reality, we follow Jesus on mission with God so that others may share in this good news. This involves both proclamation and demonstration of this good news. That should not come as a surprise since throughout his ministry Jesus was involved in both the proclamation and demonstration of this good news.
The question many believers seem to wrangle over is which of the two, proclamation and demonstration, should take priority? Some Christians, particularly in mainline Protestant churches and Catholic churches, have given preeminence to good works and social justice as a demonstration of the gospel. Among more Evangelical churches, including Churches of Christ, the emphasis has been on proclamation, hence the term “evangelical.” Of course, I am overgeneralizing each group but you understand the point.
The problem is that this dichotomy is unnecessary and operates on a faulty understanding of the gospel. The mission of God is not simply concerned with attending to the physical needs of people or saving people from their sins. Rather, since the mission of God is the restoration of life to it’s created intent (as I believe), both proclamation and demonstration are equally necessary as people suffer spiritually, physically, socially, etc… as both victims of the fall and perpetrators of the fall. In every way, people are slaves to the fall and so the mission of God includes every activity that serves to liberate humans from this slavery (Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 10). This is why the question of proclamation and demonstration is not about primacy, what should take priority, but ultimacy (Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God, 319).
Practically speaking, the church following Jesus on mission with God may at times find itself engaging in more demonstration than proclamation as it’s unloving and unlike Jesus to ignore the pressing physical needs of people. However, good deeds should never become a bait-and-switch gimmick offered just so that the church can evangelize. Neither should good deeds absolve the church from it responsibility to preach and teach the gospel.
Someone once asked me which would I rather have if I were a starving person, an offering of food for my stomach or the message of Jesus Christ so that I could share in salvation? The question creates a false dichotomy and presumes that offering food to a hungry person is not part of the good news, but I digress.
Any ways, I thought about the question for a minute and replied that I would rather have the kingdom of God because under God’s reign, my physical needs are cared for (cf. Matt 6:33) and I hear the good news that offers me salvation. So I want nothing more than the good news of the kingdom of God — the good news that Jesus spoke about. And there’s nothing more beautiful than the kingdom of God!
* This is a slightly modified version of an article of the same title that I wrote and was published in Connecting, 28 (February 20, 2013), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.