As an evangelical I cringe when evangelism is described as "humanizing," as if the focus of salvation has somehow changed from what God has done for us in Christ, to what we are to accomplish for ourselves. However it is never wise to quickly dismiss another point of view without grappling with the questions and understanding the concerns that have produced that perspective. Although "humanization" is not likely to become the next evangelical buzz-word, there are insights here that we would do well to incorporate into our understanding of the mission of the church if we are to make a cross-cultural impact.
Classically evangelism has been the act of calling people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ so they may enjoy forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life, and only subsequently is the reformation of society a concern. In contrast, others view evangelism as the "humanization" of society rather than simply bringing people to God through Christ. Instead of focusing solely on a person’s spiritual condition before God, humanizing emphasizes the restoration of God’s original intention for humanity in all relationships: vertical (with God), horizontal (with each other), and with our environment. In this view evangelism as pointing to faith in Christ is considered one essential dimension but cannot become a spiritual experience separate from life experiences in this world. Rather than the dualistic view of a "vertical" salvation leading to "horizontal" changes in the world, there is a holistic concern for individuals in relation to community and the world.
One strength of this position is the recognition that in our evangelical concern for the spiritual life of the individual we have often neglected the community at large by "extracting" the new believer from the world, rather than exploring the implications of being salt and light with the goal of societal transformation. Humanizing addresses societal issues of justice and mercy concerning which we, as the people of God, have responsibility. In addition, separating evangelism from other elements of mission activity can lead people to compartmentalize their lives, relegating evangelism to a specific, infrequently done task, or to the "experts" who are called to do the job full time. However when the gospel permeates all aspects of the life of an individual and community of faith, the result is a transforming witness within the society at large.
When Everything is Evangelism, Nothing is!
The problem with broadening evangelism to the concept of humanizing is that it may simply result in classifying almost everything as evangelism. Viewing the evangelistic dimension as an inseparable element saturating all of the church’s participation in mission sounds natural and appropriate, but in practical terms it may only serve to obfuscate the spiritual aspect of the ministry.
If social concerns monopolize the agenda, the spiritual element of relationship with God may not become integrated into the ministry and then, although temporal improvements may occur, the gospel will not have opportunity to change lives. Even if only for practical reasons, it is better to have a separate mission activity called "evangelism", so that the other tasks can be constantly reminded of that essential element.
For mission to be God’s mission, it must include not just action, but an evangelistic message that challenges people to change. Without this message, we misrepresent the motive of our ministry and thus do an injustice to Christ’s work within us and within the community of believers as well as undermine the basis for our participation in mission. Lasting change will not be the result unless there is change in the hearts of people and a significant part of our role of change agents in the world is the message preached which infuses our gospel action with eternal rather than temporal meaning.
Moving from either-or to both-and
Holistic evangelism is not achieved by choosing either the preaching of the gospel or humanizing. Rather the solution needs to be both-and in recognizing that there is a proclamation or "prophetic" element of our faith that should interpret our humanizing actions in the world. Evangelism as a call for change is not to be separated from the actions of the believing community in living out the gospel. Acts 1:8 states "You will be my witnesses" which is much broader than doing or giving witness in that the Christian community becomes a living demonstration of the gospel. The gospel must be revealed through a congregation of transformed and transforming lives because of the death and resurrection of Christ. The spoken or written word is merely an explanation of that gospel which is lived out by the community of faith. Words alone can never be the gospel or even become a substitute for the gospel, any more than a prophetic message could substitute for the Word become flesh in Christ (Jn 1:14).
Recently within the country where our family served as FEBInternational missionaries a convert from Islam began to be persecuted due to his open faith. Since his conversion he had become heavily involved in social programs to improve the living condition of many people in the area he worked. The elders of the tribes held a meeting and the accusation was put forward that he was spreading Christian teaching. One after another the elders spoke up listing the good works that the man had done. They concluded that a belief that produces such benefits cannot be harmful and the man was granted the freedom continue his ministry. "[Y]our light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven" (Mt 5:16 TEV). The gospel seen and the gospel heard are the two inseparable pillars of evangelism.