My Journey With Social Concern

Ajith Fernando

In my youth, I belonged to the evangelical minority in a mainline church in Sri Lanka and was dismayed by the lack of emphasis on evangelism in the church. With my commitment to Christ in my mid-teens also came a burden to reach the lost with the gospel. I viewed with suspicion the strong emphasis on social action and justice that characterized the understanding of mission among many in my church almost to the exclusion of emphasis on the need to take the gospel to lost people. In fact the idea that people without Christ were lost was viewed with disdain by many leaders in our church.1 I had inherited the attitudes of mutual suspicion that existed during the era of the battle for mission that characterized liberal-evangelical relations in the last century.

Yet from my teens I was burdened with a love for the poor and with a sense of a call to serve them. This never left me; and during the past three and a half decades my ministry has been primarily with the urban poor. As a youth I developed a growing unease and anger over the class distinctions and inequality that existed in our society. I knew Christians must address these issues. When I was in my mid-twenties I was exposed to the writings of evangelicals, like John Stott and Ron Sider, which showed me biblical Christians can hold a commitment to evangelism alongside a commitment to social justice.

God called me to work in an evangelistic organization, Youth for Christ. This meant that the primary agenda of our movement was evangelism. But as we began working with the poor we realized that our lifestyle and ministry must take into account the glaring inequalities and injustices that exist in society. According to the laws of our land, those doing evangelism cannot be involved in major social projects because of the perceived possibility of alluring people to Christianity using material incentives. But when one works with the poor one cannot ignore the huge social needs they face. As we are committed to the nurture of those who come to Christ in our ministry we soon found that doing something about their needs was an important part of that nurture. So education and vocational guidance, guidance on how people could avail themselves of opportunities available to them through government and other groups, and many other such social emphases, became part of our program.

The Bible is very clear that we must protect and support those who are oppressed, weak and vulnerable. I have learned that I must give this work priority in my life so that even if I am busy, I should find the time for it, even by cancelling other appointments. So during the war, when innocent YFC workers or volunteers were arrested on suspicion of being terrorists, I took it as my call to do all I can to seek their release. I sometimes had to spend as much as six hours in the police station. I would go with my books and use the time to study as I waited. We were able to secure the release of several people. There are others also who are vulnerable who needed our support—such as women who had been abused or raped, widows who have tenants who are exploiting them and people who have done wrong and are charged under the law. As they are so weak, their grievances could be dismissed through the persuasion of powerful people. So they need people to stand by them in their time of need. I have had to go to the courts on occasion because of this. I found that this could be a costly business as some people may get upset with us for standing with these vulnerable people.

Nurturing new believers is an important part of the program of an evangelistic ministry. As the biblical lifestyle includes commitment to social responsibility, this became a part of our nurturing curriculum. Some who had been nurtured in our work opted for careers in social action related causes. It has been our joy to see many youth emerging from our ministry becoming active in macro-social projects which evangelistic organizations cannot be engaged in. It has also been my joy to act as an encourager to a few biblical Christians in Sri Lanka and elsewhere who have sensed a primary call to the fields of social and political action. As for me, my primary work remains in the fields of evangelism and nurturing those resulting from and involved in it.

Yet, in the evangelical community there still remains a suspicion that comes from the old “evangelism-versus-social-concern” wars. Those of us who are involved in evangelism are still accused of being insensitive to human need and biblical Christians involved in social concern are accused of being unbiblical. For many years I have been wishing for the emergence of a crop of younger Christians belonging to the “post-war” generation that focus on obeying what the Bible says and the call God gives them without letting the prejudices of a past era cloud their thinking. I hope that Youth for Christ will help nurture many such younger Christians.

Will this emphasis on social concern result in the neglect of evangelism by the church? After all there are so many social needs in the world that even if the whole church gives itself devotedly to this work there would still be so much more to do. Where’s the time or energy for evangelism? If we realize that people are lost without Christ, that would not happen. We would do all we can, amidst our busy schedules of meeting human need, to ensure that all people everywhere have an opportunity to meet their greatest human need, their greatest human right: their need and right to know the salvation their Creator has won for them.

1 I still remain very active as a lay leader and local preacher in the church of my youth, the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka. The commitment to social action and justice in our denomination remains strong, but I rejoice in the revival of commitment to evangelism and in the growth of the church through the starting of faith communities among people previously unreached by the gospel message.