Holistic Thinking and the Priority of Evangelism

An edited and abridged version of this paper was published in the November 2007 issue of Christianity Today. Therefore it should not be published anywhere else for the moment.

Written around May 2007

Ajith Fernando

The Christian church is notorious for its pendulum shifts. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the liberals began to emphasise the humanness of Christ, and they focused on presenting the life of Christ and its example as the main challenges of the gospel. The Evangelicals reacted by emphasising the atoning work of Christ (especially as explained by Paul) in their evangelism, almost to the exclusion of the life of Christ. The result was that the liberals concentrated on good deeds especially expressed in social concern and the Evangelicals on saving souls as the main features of Christian mission.


From around the middle of the last century, the Evangelicals realised that they were not presenting the whole biblical gospel and they began to include social concern as part of their agenda. Theologian Carl F. H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Day Fundamentalismi was a clarion call to Evangelicals to return to this emphasis which actually had played an important role in earlier Evangelical historyii. The Lausanne Covenant of 1974 was a landmark document advocating what began to be known as “the whole gospel” where social concern was presented as an element of the mission of the church. I was one of the many Evangelicals who were greatly encouraged by this development.

One of the results of this trend was that the Evangelicals gave greater weight than before to the Gospels when formulating their doctrine and understanding of the gospel. They rediscovered the vital teaching of the Kingdom of God, and realised that it has some implications for our life in society. The theonomists (or Reconstructionists) began to call for a theocracy where the nation’s life was fashioned by the laws in the Old and New Testaments. Others identified the right wing political agenda as the Christian agenda and advocated that agenda with the same authority and urgency that they advocated gospel truth. Still others within the Evangelical fold saw that the social teachings in the Bible demanded a greater solidarity with the poor and began to emphasise what some considered as being a left-wing socialist agenda.

There is some truth in all of these positions. Living in a fallen world within social structures that are severely corrupted by sin, we will always have devout Christians deciding that they will side with different political agendas according to what they see as the most urgent problems that need remedying. So it is not surprising that we have evangelical Christians who take the Bible as their supreme authority for faith and practice aligning themselves with the theonomist position, the right wing capitalist position and the socialist position.

With the discovery of the importance of the kingdom of God Evangelicals also began to talk about the need for Christians to apply kingdom values in the societies in which they live. This is the group that I identify with most. Christians are encouraged to engage the culture and seek to demonstrate the Christian ethic in day-to-day life. We know that “The kingdom of the world [will] become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). Biblical Christians are not agreed on how exactly this will happen. But we know that our work done for God here on earth will contribute to the final kingdom which God will set up at the end of time. So we go into society to be salt and light, to be a leaven which influences the whole of society.

It was an exciting day to live in. The old evangelism versus social action war was over and I for one devoted myself to raising up a “post-war” generation for whom social involvement and evangelism were natural outgrowths of commitment to Christ. I think we are still behind in our focus on social justice, but without a doubt great progress has been made.


But lately a sense of unease is developing in me as I see some disconcerting trends. I am hearing Evangelicals talking a lot of justice and kingdom values but not doing much to go proactively after those of other faiths in order to proclaim the gospel to them and win them for Christ. If someone comes and asks them about Christianity they will explain the gospel. As a result of this, some people will be converted to Christ through their witness. But that is a woefully inadequate strategy because the majority of the billions of people in the world who do not know Christ will not come and ask us about the gospel. We need to proactively go after the lost.

I fear that we may almost be coming to a situation where the old “presence versus proclamation” battle has come back to the church. Earlier Evangelicals emphasised proclamation and the liberals said that what is important is presence—living out Christianity among the people among whom we live. Now some Evangelicals are also doing the same thing, though they give lip service to evangelism and claim to believe in proclamation evangelism. I fear that with some Evangelicals there has been a pendulum swing away from proactive evangelism to a “Christian-presence-is-mission” approach.

This is why I am calling for a fresh commitment to proactive evangelism. Because of the urgent need of billions of people who don’t know the Saviour, we can’t wait for people to come to us; we must urgently go to them. We must look for ways to make contact with them and use all our creativity and determination in order to communicate the content of the gospel to them.


I praise God that Evangelicals have discovered the aids challenge and are really giving themselves to it. I am only sorry that it took us so long to realise that this is God’s call to us. In biblical times there was a call to pay special attention to sojourners, widows, orphans and the oppressed. AIDS patients are the equivalent of such people today. I pray that many Evangelicals will devote themselves to life-long service with such marginalised groups. I would add the severely psychologically sick, the homeless and the neglected aged to the list of marginalised people the church needs to be reaching out to. And, as Moses and Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you” (Mark 14:7; Deut. 15:11), indicating that we will have a responsibility to the poor as long as this world exists.

However, we must remember that today our society has accepted aids ministry and social development as attractive ways of service. Evangelism will never have that attraction (some justice issues also will not have that attraction). Those wanting to follow Christ in seeking and saving the lost, will always be despised and accused of arrogance by the rest of society. In this post–colonial era we Christians, who share a common religious heritage with the colonial rulers who thought they were superior to our people, get very sensitive when we are accused of being arrogant. We do not like to be associated with the colonial rulers who looked down on us and our cultures. And many people are saying that evangelism is an extension of colonialism.

Laws are being enacted in our nations to make conversion through what is called “coercion” an illegal activity. And we know that even biblical persuasion could be interpreted by some as being coercion. Those doing evangelism among non-Christians are being persecuted quite severely in many places in the world. So there are a lot of factors that could cause us to lose the evangelistic momentum and replace evangelism with agendas the world agrees as being urgently important—like the AIDS agenda.


We need to stem the tide that is taking Evangelicals away from proactive evangelising of those of other faiths. We must not stop emphasising the need to live out the kingdom ethic in society. But we must also keep before our eyes the need for individuals to enter this kingdom. This happens only when they are born again through faith in Christ Jesus (John 3:1-16). Without that people are eternally lost—headed for hell. What if a person, who knew that the way back to the father’s home was open, refused to tell the prodigal son this fact but kept feeding him while he was caring for pigs in the far country? That would be downright wickedness!

We are in danger of doing the same thing. How could we be guilty of such negligence? I think the answer would be seen through a set of questions.

  • In the recorded statements of Jesus, he talked more about heaven than hell. Do we talk about hell today? If we don’t talk about it the generation after us won’t believe it. One generation neglects the belief, the next generation rejects it. This may result in us being detracted from the hard work of evangelising the unreached.

  • Jesus said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life” (Mark 8:36). The context shows that the forfeiting spoken of is eternal destruction and that that is averted by denying self, taking up the cross and following Christ. Does this perspective colour the way we look at people?

  • Why did the Holy Spirit ensure that there are seven statements of Christ’s Great Commission in the New Testament— on each in Matthew (28:18-20), Mark (16:15-18) and Luke (24:46-49), two each in John (17:18; 20:21-23) and Acts (1:8; 10:42)? Is it not be because Jesus believed that before he left it was important for him to drill into the minds of his disciples the priority of the work of saving souls for eternity? This is why I still feel it is appropriate to refer to the call to evangelise as “the Great Commission.” Now the Great Commission would be meaningless if those who obeyed it did not also obey the Great Commandment to Love God and our neighbour. They are both important. And we must continue to challenge people with the dual responsibility to live the gospel in society and to take the gospel to the unreached.

Can we then say that evangelism must have priority over social concern? I have always been reluctant to use this priority language. I have felt that such talk of priority comes out of the western desire to have things nicely lined up in a logical progression (e.g. FactFaithFeeling; God family and ministry). I prefer to simply say that our calling is to be obedient to God totally. If God is in control of our life he will lead us so that we will give the proper place to the whole will of God for us.

But Satan is also active; and he does not like to see the population of heaven increase. He will do all he can to prevent Christians from being obedient to the call to make disciples by going to the nations, baptising people and teaching them the commands of the Lord (Matt. 28:19). I fear that many Evangelicals have fallen into Satan’s trap of focussing so much on the need to be a presence in society upholding kingdom values that they have neglected the call to proactively go after the lost and proclaim the gospel.

I want to argue that we are called to be holistic, and that part of this is the stark and urgent reality of the statement of Christ that all the gain on earth would be of no value if a person loses his own life to eternal destruction. The stark fact of lostness places before us the urgency of evangelism. Such thinking is not common in some Evangelical circles today. A theological faculty of a University in Europe held a seminar a few years ago to discuss a book of mine. One of the presenters was an Evangelical scholar. He faulted me for using the supposedly confusing term “lostness” when referring to those who do not believe in Christ.

As for me, I will do all I can to encourage people to live the Christian life in society. But I will also follow Christ’s example in placing before Christians the stark fact of eternal damnation and the glory of eternal salvation. And I will challenge them to follow the agenda of Jesus who “came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10) reminding them of the advice of Jude who said, “…save others by snatching them out of the fire” (Jude 23).


I am reluctant to bring back the priority argument into the church’s discussion on the mission of the church. But I think there is a need for some clarity on this issue. In the body of Christ some faithful Christians cannot preach the gospel (of salvation through the work of Christ) because they are called to social work and government regulations prohibit combining social work with evangelism. Even though Youth for Christ is an evangelistic organisation we did not do any overt verbal proclamation of the gospel while we were involved in a massive tsunami relief operation. We were permitted to come in and help several schools on condition that we will not do preaching. Integrity demanded that we do not do what we love to do—to seek to persuade people to receive Christ’s salvation. I believe, however, that people were impressed by the gospel simply by seeing the way Christians helped them. But we would not call that evangelism.

As we are an evangelistic organisation, we decided to return to our primary call after about four months of almost total immersion in tsunami relief. Even after that we worked to complete several projects. But we went back to our primary call, in the process refusing millions of rupees offered to us for new tsunami-related relief projects.

This does not mean that we do not do any social work now. As a youth organisation we do a lot of things, especially in the field of education, to help youth from economically poor backgrounds to get a better chance to advance in life. But we try not to tie that in too closely with the evangelism so that people do not get the idea that this is a bait to convert them and also so that people do not become Christians simply to better their educational and economic prospects. I think Youth for Christ spends more money on education related projects than on evangelism related projects. This is because most of the evangelism is done free by volunteers.

In Nepal, Christian missionaries have been labouring faithfully for over fifty years doing social work in the name of Christ but not doing overt evangelism, as they were prohibited from doing that. They did not see much evangelistic fruit, but in the past twenty years or so there has been an amazing evangelistic harvest of hundreds of thousands of people coming to Christ through the work of local Nepali Christians. I believe the faithful witness of the missionaries had a major role to play in orienting people so that they would listen to the gospel proclaimed by Nepalese people.

So there are may be segments of the body of Christ who are called to do things that require that they do not overtly use verbal proclamation of the gospel of eternal salvation, though they would verbally advocate other aspects of the kingdom agenda—such as justice, fair-play and righteous values. Every individual Christian needs to be committed to the whole gospel. Therefore every individual Christian must seek to be a personal witness through life and word. Christian social service organisations must ensure that their workers are not only committed to their social work but also to Christ as Lord of their life. So, even though they may not bear verbal witnesses in their job, they need to be committed to verbal witness as part of their personal lifestyle.

Let me also add that much of the church’s witness through social engagement and in advocating for human rights will be done by lay people who go into the structures of society and seek to live out Christianity in those spheres, just as William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and the Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885) did. Now, this has sometimes been done effectively by vocational Christian workers, like Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), too. Lay people can be writers and journalists whose writings can highlight injustice and point the way forward to a solution. Lay people can work effectively in government, in social service organisations, in the legal sphere and in politics.

Here the role of the local church and Christian organisations could be that of teaching them the biblical approach to life that motivates them and guides them in their service. We must apply the Scriptures to the social issues of the day in our preaching and teaching. Pastors could pray for laypeople serving in society, they could pray with them, advice them and encourage them. They could praise them for their service and comfort them when they come under fire both from the world and from Christians who do not understand what they are trying to do. John Wesley’s (1703-1791) last letter was to William Wilberforce encouraging him in his anti-slavery campaign. Wilberforce was greatly encouraged by the members of his small group of spiritual friends, the Clapham Sect, and my former slave trader turned Anglican Priest and hymn-writer, John Newton (1725-1807). And the whole anti-slavery movement gained great momentum through the reports that missionary explorer David Livingstone (1813-1873) sent to England about what he saw in Africa.

So because of practical realities every segment of the church may not be involved in all forms of proactive evangelism and all forms of social engagement. Para-church organisations will specialise in their special call, while being committed to the whole mission of the church. Local churches will do a little of most aspects of the mission of the church. But when the total programme of the church is viewed from heaven God should see that the body of Christ is engaged in the whole mission of the church. As the slogan common in the Lausanne movement puts it, the whole church must take the whole gospel to the whole world. The whole church will be the body of Christ where different members complete the different aspects of the kingdom agenda.

However, in times of extreme need, like with the war we are having in Sri Lanka, it would be ideal if all churches and Christian organisations can get together to make joint declarations of what we see as the solution to the problem. Indeed, not all Christians will agree with the stand taken, but national umbrella Christian groups may be able to forge a consensus opinion which represents the vast majority of Christians. For example, I know several Christians who are in the military in Sri Lanka. Though they are fighting in the war, they all seem to agree that the final solution is a political and not a military solution. And this is at a time when many Sri Lankan citizens feel that a political solution is not possible. At such a time the Christians could be a united voice helping influence the nation towards moderation and towards accepting the need for a permanent political solution to the problem.


Having said all this I believe that the developing tendency among some Evangelicals to downplay verbal proclamation—including persuading people to receive Christ’s salvation—demands a fresh call for Evangelicals to emphasise the urgency of proactive evangelism. And if talk of priority will help the church to a fresh commitment, then we may need to start using that method again. Maybe, one could argue that priority is implied in Christ’s statement: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matt. 16:26).

C. S. Lewis says, “Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live forever, and this must be true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live forever.”iii

i Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1947.

ii See Donald Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).

iii C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), p. 159.