If you are familiar with Emergent Church thinking, then you have come across the notion of some within the movement that human need must determine doctrine. The primary Christian witness to the world, as expressed by many of my Emergent brothers, is action, not a message. "Don't preach, but let Jesus love the world through you by your actions." That is the Emergent Credo. Witnessing primarily through preaching is thought to be an arrogant display of "us verses them", the saved telling the unsaved that they need to conform, to join the right group. This way of thinking did not originate with the Emergents; this mindset has been around and active for more than a century. This type of thinking sounds logical, seems most compassionate: Human needs determines right doctrine. Another way to express this: acts of charity or mercy are more important than the proclamation of the Gospel message. To be more precise: these actions are enough in themselves to spread the message of Jesus and cause the number of disciples to multiply.
One of the marks of being a true Wesleyan is to act upon Wesley's declaration that "there is no holiness without social holiness." The point that Wesley was driving home is that to actively seek to alleviate human suffering is an essential trait of a fully sanctified human being. The absence of such concern for the alleviation of human suffering is a sure sign that one is not holy as God is holy. But what is the origin of charitable acts that please God? Are they simply the result of the example of others doing the same? Are they the result of simply a desire to bring about change through helping others? And is this the primary means of spreading the gospel?
No. Reading Wesley's sermons on the Sermon on the Mount is instructive reading on this issue. In these sermons Wesley gives one of the Church's best descriptions of how sinners are saved and transformed into saints, from salvation to sanctification. Wesley describes how the grip of sin upon the human heart is broken, how the heart is cleansed, how the old man is to be put to death. And then, after full sanctification has taken place, we are free to undertake actions on the behalf of others with no sinful motives, to the glory of God. Only in this state can we see men and women as God sees them, as made in His image, but trapped in sin and suffering. Only then can we see injustice and suffering as God does. Only then, can we truly understand His wrath against injustice as He expressed it to the prophets of old. Only then can we have a motivation to truly alleviate human suffering that does not die when our emotional state changes. Holiness of heart and mind precedes holy action. Without holiness, our efforts on behalf of society's vulnerable are mixed with sinful motivations. Teaching through example is not enough. And the obtaining of holiness of heart and mind begins with a message proclaimed. Only when this message is proclaimed can one know what is their standing before God. Even if God does love each and everyone created in His image, it is His desire for us to know that our righteousness (including our acts of charity) are as filthy rags if we refuse to repent of our sins.
This is not to say that action alone is never the correct course for Christians. Prejudice and outright persecution by hostile governments and societies can limit the Church's proclamation of the Gospel. Sometimes the only thing a church can do is humanitarian relief. This relief then breaks down barriers of mistrust between people and the Church. And then the Church finds that it has a new freedom to proclaim the message.
The Church will never make disciples just by making the world feel grateful for its social action on its behalf alone. Listen to the words of Ajith Fernando from a recent Christianity Today article http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/november/16.40.html as he proclaims the Church's need to put proclamation before social action:
"Yes, I praise God that evangelicals have discovered the AIDS challenge. I am only sorry it took so long. In biblical times, God calls his people to pay special attention to sojourners, widows, orphans, and the oppressed. AIDS patients are the equivalent to such people today.
"However, we must remember that today our society has accepted AIDS ministry and social development as attractive avenues of service. Evangelism will never have that attraction. Those wanting to follow Christ in seeking and saving the lost will always be despised for their supposed arrogance.
"We Christians in Asia, Africa, and Latin America get very sensitive when we are accused of being arrogant. We do not like to be associated with the colonial rulers who look down on us and our cultures...That is why I am calling for a fresh commitment to proactive evangelism. 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 to communicate the gospel...I fear that many evangelicals have fallen into Satan's trap of upholding kingdom values to the diminution of God's call to proactively go after the lost and proclaim the gospel...The tendency among evangelicals to downplay verbal proclamation-including persuading people to receive Christ's salvation-demands a fresh call for evangelicals to emphasize the urgency of proactive evangelism."
Even William and Catherine Booth knew better than to think that their labors on behalf of the poor were enough to spread the Gospel. In their day, when the poor were fed at Salvation Army posts, they had to listen to the proclamation of the Gospel; they were urged to repent of their sins. A message came with the meal. Jesus commanded us to do all that he did and TAUGHT. A careful reading of scripture reveals that His mission was mainly a preaching mission. Chris Bounds, in his blog, makes the Biblical case for this assertion:
What Jesus preached was not popular, and we ourselves must preach that same message without giving in to the fear that we will appear arrogant before a sinful world. When we make proclamation central, and then engage in ministries of compassion, then we shall see the fruit of our labor on behalf of the lost.