‘Preaching the Gospel’ Through Social Work
KUO TUNG, a young Buddhist man from Hong Kong, received a college education. Hsiu Ying, a mother in Taiwan, found much-needed treatment for her son’s critical illness. What do these two seemingly unrelated events have in common?
A college education would normally have been out of the question for Kuo Tung. But through the church to which he belongs, doors were opened for him. Similarly, the complicated medical procedure needed by Hsiu Ying’s son was available only at the church-owned hospital in her area. Again, through connections with the church, the problem was solved.
The stories of Kuo Tung and Hsiu Ying are by no means unusual. Thousands of people in developing countries have been drawn to schools, hospitals, orphanages, and other social institutions operated by churches. In this way they have gained considerable material benefit for themselves. And in the process, by joining the church many of them have helped to swell the church membership rolls.
A Practice With a Long History
Church schools and hospitals, of course, are not new. In fact, from the early days when missionaries were sent forth to what some have called hostile heathen lands, schools and hospitals have been looked upon as the most effective means of opening up new territories and gaining the trust and friendship of the local populace.
For example, in describing the situation in India in the early 19th century, the book Nineteen Centuries of Missions (1899) says: “The missionaries are not only earnestly engaged in evangelistic work, but they also labor with marked success in educational, medical and zenana work.” The result? “Each mission has its day schools, industrial and boarding schools, a high school or college, and in nearly every case, a theological seminary.”
Commenting on the role of medical work in the “missionary enterprise,” the book continues: “The physician is always welcome, and the relief given from physical suffering not only inspires confidence in the physician, but is often followed by faith in the religion which he teaches. Whole villages are often led as an outcome of medical treatment, to renounce idolatry and receive Christian instruction.”
What was true in India also became true in other countries in the Far East, South America, and Africa. The idea of preaching the gospel through social means had caught on. European and American missionary societies, both Catholic and Protestant, sent forth workers into these areas and established their missions along with their schools, hospitals, and other institutions. Much of this proved so successful in attracting the local people that such social work soon became an integral part of the overseas missionary work sponsored by the churches.
Over the years these church-run establishments have grown to occupy a very important place in the local communities. Their schools and universities often are the most prestigious and sought-after institutions of higher learning. Generally, their hospitals are the best equipped and most up-to-date. And, in many areas, where governments are hard pressed by overwhelming social problems, they are welcomed, if not also honored.
There is no question that the services provided through such a program have resulted in much good for the communities thus served. Church-run schools and universities have provided literally thousands of students with an education that they might have been denied otherwise. Such hospitals and health services have brought relief to countless numbers of people in remote and backward areas. The humanitarian work of Albert Schweitzer and “Mother” Teresa, for example, are well known internationally and both of them have won the Nobel peace prize.
On the other hand, one must ask: Has the social gospel really achieved its aim? Has it made real Christians of those who have benefited from the charitable works? Has it given the people true faith and hope? Even more importantly, we must ask: Is this what Jesus had in mind when he commissioned his followers to ‘preach the gospel in all the world’?—Matthew 24:14, King James Version.