Review: Evangelism-Doing Justice and Preaching Grace by Harvie M. Conn
The late Harvie M. Conn served as professor of missions at Westminster Theological Seminary in the late twentieth century after serving as a missionary to Korea for twelve years. Both sides of his personality are on display in his book Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace. In its pages, he reveals the heart of a missionary and the nuanced understanding of a professor. The book serves to offer a balanced paradigm of evangelism for the church which takes seriously the call to love mercy and do justice. The book primarily speaks to conservative evangelicals and calls them to take matters of social justice seriously as a necessary component of evangelism.
Conn does not launch into the specifics of his argument immediately, but instead takes a step back and begins by asking if the Church is presently in a position to accomplish her mission. Is the Gospel speaking real answers to real people who are asking real questions? In articulating the truth of the Gospel, Conn argues, those proclaiming it must take the needs of the hearers seriously: “Revelation has a history because God respects our creaturely existence. Revelation honors without capitulating to it, adjusts to it without compromising its truth-filled character. It bends down without being distorted” (14). The church itself is a part of the good news of Christ. It serves to proclaim the kingdom and to demonstrate it (19). Conn believes that any attempt to proclaim the Gospel to an unbelieving world must take into account the needs of that world.
Conn then identifies five groups of people based on their needs and provides examples of how the Gospel speaks to them. The first are the boxed-in who have a desire for community, but believe the church “constrains them and thwarts their potential for growth” (29). The second are the locked-out who feel the church has closed their doors on them (29). These first groups need to hear that the Gospel includes them and is their path for salvation and sharing (30). The third group are the burned-out who feel the church treats them as instruments to be used rather than people to be loved (30). This group needs to hear that included in salvation is the process of humanization, the restoration of humanity (31). The fourth are the happy hedonists who find their happiness in life’s pleasures. To them, the Gospel reveals the joy found in the treasures of the kingdom (32-33). The fifth and final group are the publicans who see the hypocrisy of the church (33). To them, the Gospel must be both shown and told as God’s justice and mercy (33). All members of the church are called to demonstrate the Gospel to these groups of people in society. Unless all share a concern for the needs of the world, the Church will be unable to give Jesus to them ( 37-38).
Conn then focuses his discussion on evangelism to the publicans. He argues that publicans want to see “faithfulness to our confession” (42). Such faithfulness is indicated by righteous deeds. Conn says we do damage to this way of evangelism when we replace compassion with sympathy and when we reduce truth to mere talk (44-48). Doing justice takes seriously that people are not just sinners, but have been sinned against (45). True evangelism speaks the Gospel to this reality as well as to the sin of the hearer. Righteous deeds are also required to show to the publican that we live out the truth we confess. The truth will show itself in how we live out the entirety of our lives.
Conn then identifies two barriers to true evangelism. The first is seeing human beings as “bodies without souls” and the second is seeing people as “souls without bodies” (57). True evangelism only happens when we see human beings as two dimensional, both body and soul (61). Once we can do this, we will be able to “do justice and preach grace” as the title says. Conn believes the two sides, body and soul, Word and deed, are synthesized in prayer: “The answer to our tendency to be one-sided and short-sighted, the answer to the energy crisis of the spirit, is prayer. Prayer’s asking is not wishing. It is demanding that people come to Christ because Christ has come to us. It is demanding that the world be changed because Christ has come to change it” (74).
Conn closes his book with a discussion on models of evangelism. He cites five problems with current church models: passivity of the laity, church hierarchy, intellectual meritocracy, pride, and manipulation (93-94). He also states that models explain the way things are, evaluates other models, reinforces the group, integrates perceptions of reality into an overall design, and are adaptable (98-100). To change a model, he believes we must change our worldview and be aware how changes in the model effects the culture. We must work within the current pattern to turn us towards a new model (101). Here, he points the church on a path forward, one we must be willing to traverse ourselves.
The book confronts those on the conservative side of Christianity who place great emphasis on evangelism and saving the soul, but little on caring for the body and performing acts of justice. Conn makes a strong argument for the role justice plays in evangelism, but does little to demonstrate to those on the liberal end of the spectrum the importance of evangelism. His primary task is to change our paradigm of evangelism more than it is to convince us to accept a paradigm in the first place.
Conn’s aim in the book is to encourage churches to action, which he carries out effectively. It is difficult to not imagine a church uninvolved in matters of justice to grow uncomfortable at his criticisms, but for a church who has decided to pursue his path, he offers little specifics beyond several broad principles at the end of the book for changing church models. For a minister looking to engage in issues of justice, Conn might say, “Then why are you reading? Go out and act.” The book is most effective for church leaders concerned with evangelism who had not previously thought about issues of justice.
What Conn offers to the conversation that is unique is the matter of prayer. Often, teaching which focuses on evangelism and justice emphasizes action, but Conn warns us that mere doing will lead to imbalanced ministry. To do both tasks properly, we must pray. We cannot attempt to bring the kingdom of God more fully to the world without communing with the King Himself. Conn’s pastoral sensitivity allows him to pause and lead us more deeply into evangelism and justice by taking the time to pray.
Conn’s book is most useful in how I minster to my ministry partners. He provides a strong biblical case for the role of justice in evangelism that I can draw on while talking to them. For those who are concerned with the saving of souls, Conn has explained why they should also be concerned that those who have great material needs receive a plate of food and access to housing. I also found his chapter on prayer deeply convicting. The leadership team of Emmanuel has recently spoken about spending more time in prayer and I know I can pray more frequently for those I have the privilege of ministering to. As for Conn’s primary argument, the role of justice in evangelism, Emmanuel has leaned towards doing justice over evangelism. We have recently discussed the possibility of increasing our opportunities for Bible study, but that is not the angle from which Conn approaches the issue. Rather than pursuing ways to incorporate justice into our evangelism, we are looking to incorporate more evangelism into our works of justice.