Benevolence and evangelism are not the same thing. They are very closely related; but they are not the same thing. To equate benevolence and evangelism, in word or deed, is to distort the Gospel of Christ and to do harm to the uniqueness of God’s salvation.
Look, I know church people who poo-poo (is that how you spell it?) medical mission trips and humanitarian relief efforts. “That’s not evangelism!” they shout. They say the church shouldn’t be paying for it. And I know church people who take these trips and make these efforts who counter with, “Of course, it is evangelism!” They point to the prophets and to Jesus, the greatest prophet, to validate the money they’re spending on food and surgeries for the poor.
Benevolence is not evangelism, but the two definitely go hand-in-hand. You can have benevolence without evangelism; it happens all the time. But you rarely, if ever, get evangelism without benevolence. When we equate the two, though, we wind up losing what is the single most unique thing disciples of Jesus have to offer to a lost and dying world.
Anybody can do benevolence. There are many motivations for feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. You don’t have to be a Christian to do good deeds. Non-disciples do it every day. But Christians have the Gospel of Jesus Christ by which the world can be reconciled to God in a righteous relationship for eternal life. Nobody else can make that kind of offer. No one else can give that kind of invitation. Without confusing the two, Christians need to become good at both.
In his little book Generous Justice, Timothy Keller writes about the importance of benevolence and its undeniable relationship to evangelism:
“Imagine an eloquent Christian preacher who every Sunday delivers compelling sermons. But one of his female parishioners comes to learn that the minister verbally abuses and browbeats his wife daily. After she discovers this, she unsurprisingly finds his sermons completely unpersuasive. Why? His deeds contradict his words, and so his words have no power. Imagine instead a new minister whose public oratory is quite mediocre. However, as time goes on, the parishioners come to see that he is a man of sterling character, wisdom, humility, and love. Soon, because of the quality of his life, his members will find they are hanging on every word of his preaching.
When a city perceives a church as existing strictly and only for itself and its own members, the preaching of that church will not resonate with outsiders. But if neighbors see church members loving their city through astonishing, sacrificial deeds of compassion, they will be much more open to the church’s message. Deeds of mercy and justice should be done out of love, not simply as a means to the end of evangelism. And yet there is no better way for Christians to lay a foundation for evangelism than by doing justice.”
In other words, they won’t care what you know until they know that you care.
For the past two thousand years it’s been proven over and over again: Benevolence and evangelism go hand-in-hand. The Roman emperor Julian hated the Christian faith, but he had to admit that they were gaining new converts because of their tremendous generosity:
“Nothing has contributed to the progress of the superstition of the Christians as their charity to strangers… the impious Galileans provide not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.”
For disciples of Jesus, evangelism certainly starts with benevolence. But benevolence alone does not constitute evangelism. To be Christian, it must be both. Follow the cup of cold water with a drink of living water. Extend the meal with a taste of the bread of life. Tell them about the King who motivates your good deeds and invite them to join us in his eternal Kingdom. Not just benevolence. Not just evangelism. To be Christian, it must be both.