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Saving Souls, Serving SocietyUnderstanding the Faith Factor in Church-Based Social Ministry$

Heidi Rolland Unruh and Ronald J. Sider

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780195161557

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2005

DOI: 10.1093/0195161556.001.0001

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Defining Mission Orientations

Defining Mission Orientations

The Relationship between Social Action and Evangelism

(p.129) 7 Defining Mission Orientations
Saving Souls, Serving Society

Heidi Rolland Unruh

Ronald J. Sider (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

A mission orientation frames a moral order for a congregation's activity and identity. This chapter focuses on the ways that churches organize the spiritual and social dimensions of their public mission. In place of the traditional dichotomy between social activism and evangelism, a more nuanced set of orientations classifies churches as dominant social action, dual-focus, holistic, dominant evangelism, and inward-focused. This spectrum of types indicates that the religious impulses to serve and to save are not always polarized drives; rather, churches interrelate these two imperatives in their community outreach in a range of adaptable, and sometimes rather sophisticated, ways.

Keywords:   mission orientation, churches, public mission, evangelism, social action, community outreach

Defining Mission Orientations

A church's mission provides a framework for its identity, establishing the institutional boundaries of “who we are” and “how we do things.” It also frames a moral order for action by the congregation corporately and its members as individuals (Becker 1999, 181). Mission in a church context has a normative and transcendent character. In most churches, mission not only describes who a congregation is and what it does, but also signifies the greater good that is intended to arise from its identity and actions. Mission models “are an `is' that implies an `ought'” (Becker 1999, 16). Thus mission is not just a guide for congregational life but also a core product of that life. In most churches, mission has a public dimension that designates reaching beyond the congregation as part of the purpose for the church's existence (Ammerman 1997a). A church's activities may not be consistent with its stated mission, and people in the congregation may not agree on the content of this mission, but congregants will generally agree on the rightness of having a mission that calls on them to do things that generate public good.

Moreover, unlike other voluntary associations such as book clubs or sports groups, a church's mission has a transcendent dimension. A characteristic feature of congregations is that even when they function like social clubs, they still think they are about something larger (Cnaan et al. 2002). This awareness of a transcendent purpose derives from several presuppositions: that people are en-dowed with an immortal soul that places their earthly activities into (p.130) eternal perspective (and especially the activities they do together as a worshiping community), that each local church in some sense is linked to churches around the world and across time, and that the mission of the church is directed by God (mediated by the authorities of denomination and tradition) and thus has a quality of “givenness.” Each church necessarily reinterprets its mission for its own context and culture, but is constrained from inventing a mission de novo (Becker 1999).

A mission orientation, according to Penny Becker's (1999) analysis of congregational models, represents “ideas about core tasks of the congregation and legitimate means of achieving them.” These shared understandings are institutionally patterned, or “manifest in policies and programs, in taken-for-granted ways of doing things” (16–17). A mission model sorts through the complex options for church life by recognizing “bundles of things—programs, beliefs, ways of doing things—that go together” (181). Most churches include some form of compassionate and/or evangelistic outreach in their mission “bundle.” Mission orientation goes beyond mere program activity, however, as Becker explains:

In some congregations these and other activities are highly valued or are part of what the congregation becomes known for—they are part of the public identity and community reputation—while in others they are not. In some, they are a large part of what makes members loyal to this particular congregation, while in others they are budget items that go unnoticed and unremarked. (187)

A congregation's mission orientation is reflected in both what it does and how it interprets and values this activity.

Our analysis of mission orientations is indebted to the work of other researchers who have developed church models centered on the church's public role (rather than on organizational structure, leadership type, or other features of church life). Conceptual categories in these models include whether a church is inwardly or outwardly focused, whether it is theologically conservative or liberal, whether it gives priority to evangelism or social change, and whether it is other-worldly or this-worldly.1 Here, we focus on the way that churches organize the relationship between spiritual and social dimensions of outreach. It should be kept in mind that this is just one facet—and in many cases not the primary one—of church mission in its broadest sense, which includes worship, fellowship, and other internally-focused activities.

(p.131) Social Action versus Evangelism? Questioning the “Two-Party” System

A study conducted by the Religion and Civic Order Project at the University of California Santa Barbara, called “Politics of the Spirit,” looked at the response of the faith community to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The report observed that the Christian social programs taking root tended to be based in evangelical and nondenominational churches, and that “many, if not most, of these programs are simultaneously directed toward the spiritual as well as the political/social transformation of individuals and of Los Angeles neighborhoods.Religious conversion is viewed as empowering, in the broadest sense of the word.” In this new holistic strategy for community revitalization, “Spiritual renewal, community organizing, personal hygiene, and entrepreneurial skills are of a piece” (Orr et al. 1994, 2, 6).

John Bartkowski and Helen Regis (2003) investigated poverty relief at thirty churches in Mississippi. They observed the intertwined nature of social and spiritual aid in these settings. “Local religious leaders commonly agree that faith-based aid provision is a holistic endeavor that—unlike public assistance programs—aims to address the material needs of the disadvantaged while simultaneously providing the means for moral development and spiritual sustenance” (64). One large African American church that they profiled offers a full complement of social service programs, including a food pantry that serves over five hundred families each month. Through its services the church aims to “offer Christ” and “teach that Jesus Christ is the answer to all of our problems,” according to the pastor. “We hope that somehow, if we show enough love, [aid recipients] will come back to our services and be a part of our church” (105).

Laudarji and Livezey (2000) observed the ministry of the Revival Center Church of God in Christ, which embraces residents of a Chicago housing project. Narratives of spiritual and social transformation pervade the congregation:

Celia, a leader of the Helping Hands Ministry, was on welfare until the pastor persuaded her to get her GED; she later became a nurse and now tithes. Alex, who came after being released from prison, has remained employed, drug free, and legal.One of the elders used to be “the project drunk” before he was saved, joined the church, then got a good job and kept it. (101)

Such stories illustrate what Franklin (1996, 96) calls “deliverance-oriented evangelism” in the Church of God in Christ tradition, in which social ministries represent a spiritual battle front against the oppression of addictions, family brokenness, and generational poverty.

(p.132) Ten of the twenty-three congregations studied by Nancy Ammerman (1997a) had an evangelistic orientation, according to their patterns of survey responses. Most of these ten also identified “service to the needy” as a very important or essential ministry of their church. One such church was South Meridian Church of God, Anderson, a prosperous Anglo congregation whose mission statement calls it to “witness to the world through the love of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Spirit.” The pastor remarked on their central purpose, “We are in the business of preparing persons for another life.” Yet, the case study observes, “this emphasis on the next world does not mean that South Meridian members are indifferent to this world.To that end, the church has long supported a plethora of support groups and charitable ministries” (122–130).

In a survey of clergy in Indianapolis, some respondents indicated that the Bible calls believers most clearly to provide for the poor, while others emphasized the mandate to lead people to faith. Most, however, indicated that the Bible's instructions included caring for the full range of human needs—spiritual, material, and emotional. As Arthur Farnsley (2003, 87) interprets their response, these clergy saw compassion and witness interwoven together as “part of a larger package.” For many evangelical churches, he observes, social services represent an opportunity to share Christ with nonbelievers, while evangelism is intended to yield social improvements for individuals as well as the broader society.

Ram Cnaan's (et al. 2002) study of congregational outreach in seven cities similarly documents a connection between service and witness in some congregations. One minister remarked, “We have a holistic view of ministry because we believe it is important to meet spiritual and physical needs as a way of evangelism” (241). While such direct references to evangelism as a motive for social service were rare, most respondents at least hoped their congregation's social services had a religious dimension, though few thought they did this effectively.

In his study of the Four Corners neighborhood in Boston, Omar McRoberts (2003) categorizes the ways that churches in this high-poverty “black religious district” interact with their public environment. Some churches view the street as the “evil other” to be avoided, others target the street as a recruiting ground for converts, others see it as an arena for meeting social needs, while others blend the recruitment and need-response motifs. The pastor of a Pentecostal church in this latter category explained his outreach strategy:

We deal with the total person: that means the soul, the spirit and the mind and the body. First of all, before we get a person to really understand about salvation, we must first reach the needs, whether it be homes, food, clothes, job, whatever an individual person might (p.133) need.Then a relationship comes second. And then I introduce him to salvation. (94)

McRoberts notes an “uncanny agreement about the biblical mandate to serve the `whole person' in all his/her social and spiritual complexity” (109).

These snapshots from other studies call attention to the question of how, and how much, churches relate evangelistic witness—or, more broadly, spiritual nurture2—to their social ministry agenda. Little research has focused on the connection between spiritual and social outreach, in part because little connection has been imagined to exist. The analysis of mission orientations has been dominated by the conception of American Protestantism as a “two-party system,” a metaphor first applied by Jean Schmidt and Martin Marty (Marty 1970; see Schmidt 1991). In this system, “public” Protestants confront this-worldly social concerns, while “private” Protestants emphasize saving souls through evangelism.

The schema advanced by Varieties of Religious Presence (Roozen, McKinney, and Carroll 1984) reinforces this conceptual division. Evangelistic churches are other-worldly, placing stress on “salvation for a world to come,” and making “a relatively sharp distinctionbetween religious and secular affairs” (34). They are publicly engaged, though “not for the purpose of social reform or change, but to share the message of salvation with those outside the fellowship” (36). Civic and activist churches, in contrast, are this-worldly, or take “with considerable seriousness this present world as an important arena for religiously motivated service and action” (34). Being evangelistic, in this frame, seems incompatible with meaningful attention to social concerns.

Another study, however, suggests that churches are springing up in the cracks between the Varieties mission types. The Church and Community Project studied nearly a hundred Midwestern congregations engaged in social ministries (Dudley and Van Eck 1992). They discovered no simple correlation between theology, social ideology, and social activism. Churches with an evangelical view of salvation, particularly black and Hispanic congregations, were just as likely to have an activist orientation as liberal churches. Mock's (1992) analysis of these churches challenges “the assumption that only religiously liberal congregations maintain socially activist identities and that evangelical churches see their role in the world as strictly evangelistic. Far too many exceptions exist to support such a claim” (30). The Church and Community Project has not been alone in suggesting that the conventional dichotomy between social action and evangelism is breaking down (e.g., Roof 1996; Ammerman 1997a). Such analyses do not imply that the public-private, social activist-evangelistic distinctions are wholly invalid, but rather that they should no longer be viewed as exclusive.

While old patterns are being questioned, contemporary issues are casting the religious landscape in a new light. One corollary of the debate over chari (p.134) table choice has been the “discovery” of faith-based ministries by policy makers and the media. In the anecdotes which typically accompany media reports on this debate, it has become apparent that the nation's most distressed communities are seeded with churches that consider spiritual transformation an inalienable part of their social mission. If evangelistic churches truly were disinterested in social affairs, the prospect of proselytizing by church-related social programs would not be an issue.3 Since black churches are five times more likely to express an interest in public funding (Chaves 1999), faith-based initiatives have particularly highlighted the vital integration of spiritual witness with service and empowerment in some streams of the African American tradition (Loury and Loury 1997; Franklin 1997; DiIulio 1998; Billingsley 1999; Harris 2001; McRoberts 2003).

Consider, for example, the case of Life in Christ Cathedral of Faith, a socially and theologically conservative African American church. From its mission statement (“To reach our community and the world with the true message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, proclaiming and demonstrating the love of God”), street-witnessing team, evangelism training classes, and sermons urging faith-sharing, one might conclude that this church is focused on evangelism. But observe its slate of programs—including weekly meals for homeless persons, emergency and transitional housing, budget counseling, youth mentoring, substance abuse rehabilitation, collaboration with state-funded community development projects, and a Political Action Committee—and a picture emerges of a very this-worldly, public church indeed. To which of the two “parties” does Life in Christ belong? Rather than labeling this church (and others like it) an exception, a fresh exploration of mission orientations is needed to cast new light on the relationship between evangelistic commitments and social concerns.

A Typology of Mission Orientations

To identify the mission orientations of the churches in our study, we examined both their conceptual understanding and actual practice of outreach, revealing “bundles” of beliefs and activities shared by groups of congregations. Dominant social action churches focus on meeting practical needs and/or working for social justice; their programs involve minimal religious elements, though they may see their good works as an implicit witness. Dual-focus churches include both evangelism and social action as important, but independent, aspects of their outreach mission. Churches with a holistic mission consider witness and service to be inseparably linked. A holistic-complementary sub-type conceptualizes these as congruent facets of the same seamless mission, while the holistic-instrumental sub-type envisions social outreach as a portal to the primary objective of winning converts. Dominant evangelism churches focus primarily on (p.135) sharing their faith, though a this-worldly variant sees individual conversions as a pathway to social change. Inward-focused churches practice no significant outreach.

Congregations often lack internal consensus about their mission. This may result in a struggle over control of the church's ministry identity, or in the coexistence of more than one mission emphasis within the congregation. Leaders may espouse one orientation, members another. Principle and practice may be in tension; the congregation may identify theologically or culturally with one position while actually doing something different. Moreover, mission is not a static commodity. Congregations are continually evolving in response to changes in their constituency and context, and so a snapshot in time may capture a church in the process of migrating from one orientation to another (Ammerman 1997a). This model may thus offer observers the conceptual vocabulary to describe subgroups and evolutionary forces within congregations as well as the distinctions between them.

1. Dominant Social Action: Addressing Social Concerns Is the Primary Mission

We live the gospel.I don't force myself or what I believe on people. (Soup kitchen volunteer, Church of the Advocate)

Some churches emphasize social ministry to the exclusion of evangelism. Social action—whether relief aid, personal empowerment, community development, or advocacy—is the main mode of community outreach. In the language of Varieties of Religious Presence (1984), social action churches may have either an activist or civic character, depending on whether they challenge the status quo at a systemic level or empower individuals to live more wholesomely in it. Both Church of the Advocate and Central Baptist are activist: they preach about economic and racial justice, have taken controversial stands on political issues, and see themselves as advocates for the powerless. A large, prestigious Anglo church where we conducted interviews has a more civic cast; their approach is to sponsor social services to transform and empower individuals who can then build a better society.

In social action churches, the essence of Christian mission is to embody the presence of Christ through ministries of compassion and justice. Social programs may have implicit religious overtones, but they use secular methodologies. Spiritual meanings associated with social ministry in this orientation focus on the mandate for caring for the poor or the devotional aspects of activism. The faith of church members motivates and is strengthened by social outreach, but ministry is not designed to nurture faith in others. The purpose of outreach, one associate pastor said emphatically, was not to “grow the church” by converting others. Overt evangelism is rejected as foreign to the (p.136) religious culture, is considered offensive or inappropriate, or is understood as incarnational witness rather than as proclamation.

An evangelistic mission may find weak support from the congregation's history or denominational affiliation. This is the case with Church of the Advocate, an Episcopal congregation. At a focus group to discuss the church's future, a church member suggested that despite a strong record of social activism, the church's outreach was “falling short” on a spiritual level. “We know that we're good on feeding and clothing and on caring and teaching and all that. We know we've accomplished that, but we don't know how to stand, first off, religiously. Or to be religious, whatever that is.” This church member's struggle to put words to his sense of what was missing exemplifies the fact that, for many churches in the mainline tradition, evangelism has long been absent from the cultural vocabulary.4 Evangelism is literally absent from the vocabulary of one suburban Presbyterian church, as a member remarked, “We don't say evangelism in our church.You can't say the `e-word'. We say outreach.”

Social action churches may also avoid evangelism because of its negative connotations. Some interviewees recited unpleasant past personal experiences that led them to shy away from proselytizing. Words we commonly heard in conjunction with evangelism in a negative sense were preachy and pushy. Some interviewees considered it ethically inappropriate to interfere with others' religious beliefs, particularly adherents of other faiths. “I don't force myself or what I believe on people,” insisted a member of Church of the Advocate who volunteers with the soup kitchen. Many viewed instigating spiritual conversations as intrusive and tacky, as a leader at a Presbyterian church commented: “It's a private thing—it's kind of like asking whether they've changed their underwear today to ask where they are spiritually.”

Thus church ministries may lack an evangelistic dimension because bringing people to Christian faith is not a goal of outreach. On the other hand, an aversion to overt evangelism does not necessarily indicate indifference toward the spiritual needs of people outside the church. Rather, it may denote a concern for expressing spiritual care in an appropriate manner, which for this group does not include overt witnessing. The Presbyterian woman quoted above whose church avoided the “e-word” added that she thought it important to touch people's spiritual needs—but this was best done tastefully and understatedly. “It could be in a very subtle way. People can know what you believe by who you are and what you do, not necessarily by preaching to them, or putting the Bible in their face.” A ministry leader at Church of the Advocate similarly observed, “You can't tell a child that God works. They got to feel. They have to see. They have to touch.”

Caring for the poor thus embodies Christian faith, making verbal proclamation superfluous. Several interviewees quoted a saying attributed to St. Francis of Assissi: “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” Chapter (p.137) 4 introduced the idea of implicit spiritual nurture, in which service wordlessly conveys a religious message by demonstrating God's love. In the social gospel tradition, justice for the poor is not only a metaphor for God's salvation on a spiritual plane, it is itself part of that salvation. Churches with an implicit approach may thus define evangelism as doing good works in Christ's name. Isaac Miller, rector of Church of the Advocate, took this position. He hesitated before giving us his definition of evangelism, saying that it deviated from the “standard textbook definition.” “There's a part of me that understands evangelism as simply the process of doing what we understand God calls us to do.Hopefully we do it in such a way that we invite others to become a part of that work.”

To “do it in such a way” may mean making one's own faith transparent and appealing to beneficiaries, while avoiding any appearance of coercion or judgmentalism. Beneficiaries may be encouraged to deepen whatever spiritual identity they bring to the program, even if that path diverges from the faith of the sponsoring congregation. This approach recognizes faith as a resource for beneficiaries without upholding a specific faith as an end in itself. Church of the Advocate's soup kitchen, for example, offers an optional Bible study and prayer before the meal, but avoids “proselytizing,” according to a church volunteer. This would violate the ethic of the Golden Rule (see Ammerman 1997b) by doing to others what he would himself resent: “I don't like anyone to come on too strong with me when it comes to religion. Let me decide for myself.”

2. Dual-Focus: Evangelism and Social Ministry Are Independent Areas of Ministry

Revitalizing the community is a way to accent the reality of the Christian witness.It's Jesus, but it's also Jesus and potatoes and greens, and Jesus and a good, decent house. (Rev. Bill Moore, Tenth Memorial Baptist Church)

The mission orientation of some congregations is characterized by a dual mission focus. Such churches consider both evangelism and social ministry to be legitimate and important. But, for the most part, the two mission thrusts are not interconnected in practice and spring from different theological motivations. The mission of the congregation as a whole embraces both spiritual and social objectives, while individual programs and volunteers focus primarily on one or the other. Sharing the gospel and serving the community are the focus of separate programs, with little overlap in leadership, administration, or volunteer support.

In terms of the overall importance attached to evangelism, dual-focus churches resemble churches in the holistic category; in terms of the religious characteristics of their social programs, however, they tend to resemble dom (p.138) inant social action churches. Social ministries in dual-focus churches typically do not make spiritual renewal of beneficiaries an overt goal; evangelism ministries do not address substantive material needs. Religious elements in social ministries are likely to be low-key, and to take an implicit or invitational form. The lack of integration may stem from professional norms against seeking to influence the spiritual beliefs of beneficiaries, or from practical or cultural barriers to communicating with the population served by church ministries. The church pursues other forms of evangelism not connected directly to service provision, such as network evangelism among social peers. The two types of outreach programs may thus have different target audiences: a suburban church, for example, may organize social ministries in inner-city neighborhoods, while its evangelistic efforts are directed toward its local community.

In dual-focus churches, the theological grounding and desired outcomes for spiritual and social outreach are perceived to be distinct. The desire to see persons and communities experience socioeconomic restoration stands independent of the evangelistic objective of converting individuals. The two mission emphases may be mutually reinforcing—as Rev. Moore puts it, “Revitalizing the community is a way to accent the reality of the Christian witness”—but they are not interdependent. The act of social ministry has meaning in and of itself as a way of deepening one's faith or as faithful obedience to God, regardless of spiritual outcomes for others. Likewise, bringing people to faith is an end in itself, not tied to the results of social programs.

The two churches in our study that fall into the dual-focus category demonstrate different forms of this ministry model. Reverend Moore summarizes the mission of Tenth Memorial Baptist church: “The church ought to be a change agent.” Tenth Memorial pursues social reform through involvement in low-income and senior housing, Empowerment Zone business development, and support for the local public school. Community development programs such as these offer limited opportunities to develop one-on-one relationships with beneficiaries, which in turn limits the possibilities for integrated evangelism. Although the church provides several social service programs that have a more individualistic orientation, such as food distribution and a GED preparatory program, volunteers do not view these as venues for sharing their faith. Rather, Rev. Moore affirms that social action has a more implicit evangelistic impact, as “it helps to bring alive what we articulate from the pulpit.” Direct evangelism occurs primarily through separate programs: revivals, altar calls during church services, and a “S.W.A.T.” (“Saints With A Testimony”) team that organizes street outreach and tract distribution. Thus, Tenth Memorial's social and evangelistic ministry tracks promote change in its neighborhood in distinct but complementary ways.

For Media Presbyterian, the dual-focus dynamic arises in part from the geographic and cultural distance between the church and most beneficiaries of the church's social ministry. While the church responds generously to meet (p.139) emergency needs in its suburban community, most of its organized social programs serve the urban centers of Chester and Philadelphia. Media also takes an annual mission trip to a rural community to build a home through Habitat for Humanity. These ministries incorporate few explicitly religious elements. The main evangelistic impact of these ministries, in Media's perception, is their appeal to unchurched observers. In chapter 4 this was introduced as altruism evangelism. Through these social projects the church serves as “a city on a hill” whose light draws others to God (Matthew 5:14–16).

This strategy goes hand-in-hand with a reluctance to evangelize in confrontational ways, as the chair of Media's Faith in Action committee explains: “The Bible tells us that we should witness. I frankly don't like the approach that a lot of people take to witnessing.People are very turned off by people that approach them in the mall and do phone calls.” A better strategy, he continues, is to spread the word about the church's social action among unchurched acquaintances and family members in hopes that this will create opportunities to share the faith commitments underlying Christian compassion. Thus the dual-focus model provides a way for members to reconcile the biblical imperative to share their faith with the prevalent cultural resistance to evangelism. On one track, church members travel to service projects that address inner-city or rural poverty. On a parallel track, this service provides a nonthreatening evangelistic opening among members' peer networks.

Social ministry and evangelism may represent either complementary specializations or competing tensions in the congregation. While Rev. Moore places evangelism and social action on equal footing, about half of survey respondents in the church were divided in prioritizing one over the other. At Tenth Memorial, this division is friendly, with members respecting one another's ministry “callings.” In other cases, relations between the two camps may be more polarized. Missional tension may also spring from interpersonal conflicts or disputes over access to church resources, in which members eye rival mission ventures as a threat to their ministry “turf.”

3. Holistic: Evangelism and Social Ministry Are Dynamically Interconnected

We can't be a church in this neighborhood and not be involved in various kinds of social ministries that are meeting these needs. Nor can we countenance the possibility of that kind of ministry apart from giving the gospel.[They are] inextricably related to one another. (Rev. Phil Ryken, Tenth Presbyterian Church)

A third mission orientation places evangelism and social action in dynamic interaction. Evangelism and social ministry are linked in terms of program design and administration, theological grounding, and desired outcomes. Con (p.140) cern for others' spiritual condition reinforces holistic churches' sense of obligation to address social needs, and the hope of inspiring spiritual renewal in others is a central meaning attached to their social activism. “For us it goes hand in hand,” said a youth ministry leader at Bethel Temple. “Part of our witness is doing social action. You don't separate the two.”

The methodology of holistic ministry programs assumes a connection between spiritual transformation and socioeconomic empowerment. A relationship with God, by itself, may not be sufficient or even necessary to turn a person or a community around, but it is seen as increasing the odds. Conversely, meeting people's material needs does not guarantee their openness to the gospel, but it helps. In describing the rationale behind their church's programs, interviewees sometimes talked about creating evangelistic opportunities by showing people compassion; other times they talked about improving people's social well-being by leading them to experience spiritual renewal. An outreach program may be oriented more toward social change or toward spiritual nurture, but in a holistic context both are underlying goals.

The social ministries of holistic churches provide spiritual nurture to beneficiaries in a variety of ways (introduced in chapters 4 and 5). Integrated evangelistic strategies have built-in religious activities, either optional or mandatory, such as incorporating prayer into a counseling session, leading a Bible study as part of an after-school program, or holding a worship service before a meal. Other programs employ a more informal, pre-evangelistic approach, cultivating relationships with beneficiaries and looking for opportunities to pursue a spiritual dialogue. In a two-step invitational strategy, the social ministry brings beneficiaries into the physical or relational space of the congregation, where they can be encouraged to attend other church services at which a gospel message is presented.

Such pre-evangelistic strategies rely on the implicit witness of good works and caring relationships to create an atmosphere of spiritual receptivity. Unlike the premise of dominant social action churches, however, the holistic model presumes that good deeds alone are insufficient to spread the faith. Evangelism has both an implicit and explicit component. This is clear in the assertion of the missions pastor at Tenth Presbyterian Church that the gospel “is to be communicated in both word and deed. In deed alone is not enough because it is something that has content—verbal content.But the means by which we communicate it is not only verbally but in loving action.” Works of service are generally intended to communicate an explicitly Christian message, whether overtly at the time of service delivery or at a later point, whether through organized evangelistic activities or informal relationships.

The holistic model has two subtypes. In both, the spiritual and social dimensions of mission are interrelated. The subtypes represent two broad ways of conceiving of this relationship.


The church has done evangelism and the church has done social ministry—but not always together. We must get excited about the whole gospel to minister to whole persons. (Rev. Jim Kraft, First Presbyterian Church)

The first subtype is labeled holistic-complementary. According to this outlook, telling people about the gospel and demonstrating one's faith through social action are seen to have equal intrinsic value, and each has more value in association with the other. This package is understood as “the whole gospel.”

In this model, evangelism and social ministry are interwoven but not interchangeable. Each plays an essential role in the overarching mandate to love the world in Jesus' name. When asked whether First Presbyterian incorporated evangelism into social services, the associate pastor for outreach replied:

That's like saying, would I feel the need to split down a quarter.Each side is distinct; we do call it the “head” and the “tail.”.[But] they are two sides of the same coin. It is twenty-five cents if I hold it up this way. It is twenty-five cents if I hold it up that way. It is the gospel whether I hold it any way. It's the gospel with both evangelism and social ministry.

This integration is inspired by Christ's example of “sharing the principles of God and meeting human need,” according to a ministry leader at Germantown Church of the Brethren. Another ministry leader at Germantown explained the congruence between word and deed in public mission. Citing the church's mission statement “to make known to as many people as possible the redeeming love of God,” she commented: “Love is an action word.People want to see action, not [hear] so much mouth.” Without social ministry, evangelism is just “so much mouth.” Without verbalizing its basis for compassion, the church's social activism loses its redemptive power.

Interviewees expressed these views with varying degrees of sophistication. Some were able to articulate a conceptual or theological distinction between the evangelistic “head” and social “tail” of the gospel coin. For others, the meanings were not so much linked as blurred. In these interviews, when we posed the question of how the two dimensions of outreach were related, it was obvious from the way respondents tried to make sense of the question that they did not think of these as discrete concepts, but simply accepted them both as a given. Asked for her definition of evangelism, for example, a church member on staff with Nueva Creación's summer camp and after-school program responded, “I have no idea!” Follow-up questions revealed that she made no abstract distinction between sharing God's love through words versus actions; to her they were “both the same.” In practice, she clearly did both. Helping (p.142) youth improve their academic performance was important to her, but so was giving them opportunities to learn about God and to come to faith.

A member of Germantown Church of the Brethren summarized the message that church outreach is intended to convey: “We love you because God loves you.” This simple mandate can be expressed through a variety of forms of evangelism and social ministry. Along with meeting the felt needs of individuals, holistic-complementary churches may engage in community development and political advocacy as more in-depth ways of substantiating God's love. The pastor of a small inner-city congregation expanded on this theme: “God is concerned that we love our neighbors as ourselves.If my neighbors are hungry, I come up with creative ways to feed them. And then we've got to ask the question, Why are they hungry? And if there are structures in our society that cause them to remain hungry, then we have to unite in one voice to seek to change the structures.” The underlying goal of these efforts, he said, is to draw people toward “conversion to Christ and his kingdom.”


The church needs to be actively engaged in social ministries, but social ministries that are rooted and funneled out of the truth of the gospel.Social ministry to non-Christians is the vehicle through which the gospel can flow. (Rev. Joel Van Dyke, Bethel Temple Community Bible Church)

The second subtype, holistic-instrumental, orders evangelism and social action in hierarchical relationship. This mission orientation places primary emphasis on evangelism, and views social ministry as a vehicle for sharing faith. While witness and compassionate action are both important functions of the church, evangelism is a decided priority. Effectively touching a person's spirit, however, entails caring for the whole person. A ministry leader at Tenth Presbyterian shared this premise: “People respond to the gospel both from what they hear but also in how they see it lived out and in people meeting needs of theirs.” Churches must help meet people's material and emotional needs in order to open the door to spiritual nurture. Religious conversion, in turn, provides the anchor for effective social interventions.

In this subtype, the value of social ministry is directly linked to (though not reducible to) its function as a carrier of religious meaning. Social ministries are likely to feature spiritual objectives and overt religious elements. A ministry leader at Bethel explained, “The gospel has to be in everything we do.” When the church includes evangelistic tracts in its food boxes, “there's a response. People remember—people know that they're loved and cared about.” For evangelistic aid to be Christlike, this leader later qualified, it must be driven by love for people rather than “a selfish motivation to get people saved.” This perspec (p.143) tive favors programs of relief and personal development, which offer natural avenues for evangelistic interactions with beneficiaries.

The holistic-instrumental approach often incorporates the belief that people's immediate needs—whether financial, physical, relational, or emotional—may eclipse their sense of a need for God. A ministry leader at Christian Stronghold voiced this postulate: “By going out to the community and meeting their felt needs, that gives us the opportunity to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. If you are hungry, you won't hear me. If I feed you, you will listen.” By helping people overcome their physical hunger, the church hopes to trigger a new awareness of their spiritual hunger. Evangelistic social ministry aims to turn a material crisis into a “religious problem-solving perspective” which can lead to conversion (Lofland and Stark 1965, 867).

Koinonia Christian Community Church, a young congregation in a poor neighborhood, made social services the cornerstone of its member recruitment strategy on the hope that people who might never visit church on a Sunday might come to church for a hot meal or a parenting seminar. Asserts pastor Jerome Simmons, “Everything we have developed in our church programs, whether methods or resources, is a tool for the purpose of winning souls.” These “tools” make Christianity more attractive to potential converts than purely evangelistic methods like street preaching alone. Yet Koinoinia's passion for “winning souls” meets an equal conviction that these souls are embodied in whole persons with complex, intermeshing problems. As a ministry leader at Koinonia put it, “People aren't just suffering from one thing. So when you want to fix the person, you want to fix the person wholly.” Compassion is assigned intrinsic value beyond its function as a pathway to conversions. Evangelism is the church's priority, but it is only part of how the church works toward “fixing people wholly.”

4. Dominant Evangelism: Sharing the Gospel Is the Primary Mission

Evangelism starts at the core. Once you change a person's life you can also change their social position. (New Covenant Church small group leader)

Dominant evangelism churches share the emphasis on evangelism found in holistic-instrumental churches, but without the accompanying level of involvement in social outreach. Mission is equated with sharing the gospel. Promoting conversions is considered the only way that the church can truly make a difference in this world.

Some churches clearly fit the other-worldly evangelistic mission template identified by Roozen, McKinney, and Carroll (1984). Focused on saving souls (p.144) for eternal life, they consider organized social action irrelevant at best, and a dangerous diversion from more pressing spiritual concerns at worst. Social compassion is not entirely absent; the church may encourage individual church members to practice benevolence, and may provide occasional charitable aid such as holiday gift baskets. Evangelistic programs may include one-time material incentives, such as hosting a free barbeque in conjunction with an outdoor revival. Such churches may also become involved in political issues viewed as an extension of the church's theology, such as pro-family or anti-abortion legislation. In general, however, social concerns are delegated to the purview of secular entities.

Yet not all churches that prioritize evangelism lack this-worldly attention to social concerns. Just as some with a dominant social action orientation frame their activism as implicit evangelism, some dominant evangelism churches define spiritual nurture as the highest form of social compassion. A church with this orientation takes seriously its role as a social change agent, but interprets this role in terms of its capacity to effect spiritual or moral change at a personal level. A ministry leader at New Covenant declared, “We are preaching the gospel to our friends, to our community because we want to improve the social condition. There is not one without the other.We want them to be safe. We want them to have an improved life. And [becoming saved] is the only way they are going to get it.” Stark labeled this strategy the “miracle motif,” or “the idea that if everyone were converted to Christ, social ills would disappear” (Stark 1971; quoted in C. Smith 1998, 191).

As with holistic churches, such dominant evangelism churches blur the line between sacred and secular. Their worldview “does not place a dichotomy between the spiritual and the social. It is blended into one,” according to a New Covenant church leader. This leader then adds, “The spirit, of course, is primary and this is why we are led by the spirit.” The church subsumes social well-being under the spiritual realm. A central assumption of this mission orientation is that a person's spiritual status has relational, physical, and socioeconomic consequences. Helping people in need thus requires getting at the root of their problems by a religious conversion and process of discipleship that produces fundamental life changes. Narratives of successful ministry commonly feature a person who becomes a Christian and consequently makes changes (quitting an addiction, reconciling with a spouse, completing a GED, gaining a new sense of self-esteem) that improve his or her socioeconomic standing. These individuals are then believed to have a ripple effect on their community, as they draw others to faith.

Since a regenerated soul is a prerequisite for a transformed life, social interventions offered by this-worldly dominant evangelism churches are typically directed toward those who are already Christians, or who are willing to hear the gospel message. Evangelism is seen to widen the scope of the church's influence on society by bringing more people into the church's circle of care. (p.145) Participants in the dominant evangelism type disagree on the value of offering aid to those who clearly reject the Christian message: some are resigned to it as an expression of Jesus' mercy toward sinners, others lament it as poor stewardship of church resources. But they agree it has small chance of doing much good in the end.

The approach of this church type, like the holistic-instrumental type above, is intensely individualistic (C. Smith 1998; Hollinger 1983). The task of the church is to redeem individuals, rather than reform social structures. As Bishop Milton Grannum of New Covenant explained, “God saves people and people make communities. We believe that programs that address communities will usually not succeed. But if you deal with individuals and change individuals, you change families all to the better and then you change communities.” This view is often supported by a premillenial theology that expects the world to grow incurably worse as the apocalyptic return of Christ draws near. Given the inevitable moral decay of our culture and deficiencies of our political system, the role of the church is to enlist new believers, who are then empowered to improve their lot in a flawed and sometimes hostile society.

5. Inwardly Focused: No Significant Social Action or Evangelism

Some churches have little or no active outreach.5 Despite an evangelistic or compassionate ministry activity here and there (such as an annual Bring-a-Friend-to-Church Day or a Thanksgiving canned food drive), such churches are not oriented toward the world outside the walls of the church. Their main focus is the internal, “priestly” ministries of worship, fellowship, and discipleship (Davidson and Koch 1998). This type most closely resembles the sanctuary type in the Varieties of Religious Presence model.

The exclusively inward focus of some churches arises from their identities as “protected enclaves in a hostile world” (Warner 1994, 72–73). Their concern is to shield members from the temptations and travails of society, not to change society. McRoberts discovered, however, that a lack of outreach programs does not necessarily indicate an other-worldly disinterest in social concerns. In the inner-city churches he studied, such an assumption “would be grossly out of sync with what the churches themselves believed they were doing” (2003, 102). Rather, some “priestly” congregations focus their mission on “the privileged role of the church: to be an incubator of saved souls and sane psyches, ready to face the world.People `built up' in the church community were uniquely suited to push for social transformation outside the church” (103–104). Inward-focus churches point to the socially uplifting effect of discipleship and mutual aid. Rather than sponsoring corporate ministries, the church equips members to witness, serve, and work toward social change as individuals.

The inwardly focused category also includes churches that claim a mission orientation in principle without substantiating it in practice. Ammerman's (p.146) (1997a) study, for example, noted that at two of the evangelistic congregations in their sample, “the endorsement of evangelistic emphases is not matched by actual activities in the church” (339). Similarly, there are churches that assign theological or cultural preference to social action without actually engaging in it. Although they may respond similarly to outwardly oriented churches on survey questions about mission priorities, there is a discrepancy between belief and action.

Mission Orientation and Program Activity

Ten of the fifteen churches we selected for study fall in the holistic category, evenly divided between complementary and instrumental sub-types. Two churches are dual-focus. Two are dominant social action. At the other end of the spectrum, one is dominant evangelism. (None, of course, were in the final inwardly focused category.) The assignment of mission orientations was based on a combination of survey data, interviews with clergy and ministry leaders, and field observations of actual ministry practice.6 Table 7.1 presents the average program activity for churches in each type. Given that our sample is not representative, the number of churches in each type should not be taken as significant. However, the distribution of activity across the mission orientations suggests several patterns that warrant further investigation.

The average number of evangelism ministries predictably increases across the types, from dominant social action to dominant evangelism. The average

Table 7.1 Average Number of Ministry Programs per Church by Mission Orientation

Social ministry type

(average number of programs)

Mission Orientation

Relief services

Personal development

Community development

Systemic change

All social action programs

Evangelism programs

Dominant social action (N=2)







Dual-focus (N=2)







Holistic (N=10)







Holistic-complementary (N=5)







Holistic-instrumental (N=5)







Dominant evangelism (N=1)







All churches (N=15)







(p.147) number of social programs, however, peaks in the holistic-complementary category. Holistic churches averaged more social programs than the two dominant social action churches, except in the systemic change category. Dual-focus churches sponsored the most community development (reflecting Tenth Memorial's strong record in this area), holistic churches the most relief and personal development. Interestingly, the two holistic subtypes diverge in relation to structural ministries (community development and systemic change). All but one of the five holistic-complementary churches had a systemic change ministry, compared to only one of the five holistic-instrumental churches. Holistic-complementary churches also participated more substantially in community development. Within this small group of holistic churches, it is apparent that the integration of an evangelistic emphasis amplifies rather than dilutes social activity, but the way in which this emphasis is integrated can affect the kinds of social involvement.


We have suggested a typology of mission orientations that creates space for congregations that are both evangelistic and socially engaged. This spectrum of types indicates that the religious impulses to serve and to save are not always polarized drives. Rather, churches interrelate these two imperatives in a range of adaptable, and sometimes rather sophisticated, ways. The two-party metaphor is helpful for describing congregations that embrace the dominant poles of social action and evangelism, but the rich variety of the field demands more nuanced imagery. The dual-focus and holistic categories are more than combinations or variants of other orientations; they represent a distinct understanding of the Christian mandate and the church's public role.

The task of selecting the case studies was complicated by the difficulty of casting churches into neat categories. Church of the Advocate, for example, with its history of radical activism, leadership in community organizing, and multiple service programs, fits the archetype of a social action church. But then we found that Advocate prefaces its soup kitchen meal with a time of Bible study and prayer, that members were wrestling with how to encourage service beneficiaries to attend worship services, and that the church was forming an evangelism committee to plan recruitment activities. We selected Bethel Community Bible Church because its conservative theology, street witnessing campaigns, enterprising outreach to youth, and support for missions marked it as an evangelistic congregation. Then we discovered that the church had recently revised its mission statement to include “revitalizing our community” as one of its priorities, created the staff position of director of economic and community development, and launched several new social service programs, all of which integrated spiritual elements. We selected Media Presbyterian Church (p.148) because of the holistic perspective advocated by the pastor, but then did not find evidence for the integration of evangelism within service programs. Rather, we observed that Media balanced these mission priorities in its outreach as a whole, and so we had to create a new category to represent this strategy.

Ammerman (1997a) contends that the majority of churchgoers are not bothered by such seeming departures from archetypal expectations. Ordinary people, she writes, “feel much freer than do professional ideologues to put together ideas and practices from a very large cultural tool kit. These ideas may not appear to form a coherent intellectual system, but they contribute to workable strategies of action.” She argues persuasively that categorical polarities like social action versus evangelism fail to capture the “middle ground of everyday practice”:

Support for an evangelical view of Christian life is not systematically opposed by those who see social activism as more important, or vice versa. Most of the people we met have simply not learned the ideological lesson that if they believe in promoting social justice, they should place less emphasis on witnessing; or—at the other pole—that if they believe in witnessing, they should be wary of calls for social justice. (358)

Congregational studies misrepresent churches when they force them into a dichotomous mission mold that more reflects the preconceptions of traditional analyses than the shape of a congregation's own worldview. Our journey of discovery affirmed an approach of thinking about evangelism and social action not as competing parties but as strategic resources for mission that churches can opt to combine in multiple, innovative, and evolving ways.


(1.) The seminal work Varieties of Religious Presence (Roozen, McKinney, and Carroll 1984) identified four mission types: sanctuary congregations provide a refuge to members from the temptations and tempests of the world; civic congregations help members make moral decisions and participate responsibly in the social order; activist congregations challenge the status quo and work toward social justice; and evangelistic (p.282) congregations emphasize converting the unchurched (see also Carroll and Roozen 1990). Mock (1992) proposed a nine-celled typology based on the interaction between sanctuary-civic-activist orientations to society and evangelical-moderate-liberal religious identities. The five congregational self-images identified by Carl Dudley and Sally Johnson (1993) include pillar churches that assume civic leadership, pilgrim churches that shepherd a particular people group, survivor churches that weather storms of crisis, prophet churches that challenge the world, and servant churches that help people in need with a “quiet faithfulness.” Nancy Ammerman (1997b) proposed sorting churches into evangelical, activist, and “Golden Rule” categories.

(2.) As defined in chapter 2, spiritual nurture includes any form of activity or discourse related to deepening a person's faith. Evangelism refers more specifically to efforts to connect people who do not consider themselves Christians, or who have become estranged from the church, with salvific faith and a church community.

(3.) It should be acknowledged that politically and theologically conservative congregations, which presumably are more prone to evangelize, are less likely to express an interest in applying for public funds than are liberal and moderate congregations (Chaves 1999). Often, such faith-permeated groups are included in media reports as examples of faith-based programs that do not plan to take advantage of charitable choice. However, that does not change the observation that evangelistic congregations with a significant (and mainly privately funded) investment in social ministry are not accounted for by traditional mission orientation categories.

(4.) For example, the index to a recent book on mainline faith-based activism (Wuthnow and Evans 2002) lacks any reference to evangelism or proselytizing.

(5.) Because all of our case studies had an active outreach orientation, we cannot say much about this group. However, we have encountered many inward-focused congregations through church consulting and networking.

(6.) Living entities, as we pointed out previously, rarely fit perfectly into ideal types. Some of the churches have a borderline or blended mission orientation, displaying characteristics from more than one type. Whether First Presbyterian Church should be considered a holistic or dual-focus church depends on which church members you talk to (we selected holistic because of the pastoral team's strong identification with this orientation). Tenth Presbyterian Church had staff and members whose views were closer to dominant evangelism. The director of mercy ministry, David Apple, has pushed the church toward a holistic approach. While some leaders at New Covenant describe having a holistic-instrumental approach, the actual ministries reflect a pattern of dominant (but this-worldly) evangelism. (Since the study ended, New Covenant has become holistic-instrumental in practice.) Bethel Temple has experienced a recent shift from dominant evangelism to a holistic-instrumental mission.