Good news to the poor: The Gospel Through Social Involvement (A Review)

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Tim Chester who wrote “Good News To the Poor: Sharing the Gospel Through Social Involvement,” is a leader in The Crowded House (an international family of church planting networks),director of Northern training Institute and who is also a well know author . His wide expertise and his experiences gives a worthy resume’ in issues written in “Good News To the Poor.”

Chester’s book seeks to merge a coherent relationship between social involvement and proclaiming the gospel. Debates have been going about in which Chester has provided in the introduction part of the book which pinpoints four general outlooks to the relationship of social involvement and gospel proclamation raging from ultra conservative and liberal view for the first two views. The next two are somewhat balanced but have their form of biasness. This book, as Chester indicates tries to weave a marrying of the two informed by the biblical text as a basis for drawing his conclusions, noting critiques on the theology of the current trends that are for social involvement. In short it seeks to give a balanced outlook to social involvement and gospel proclamation from an evangelical perspective; “I want to construct an approach to social action in the truest meaning of the word of ‘evangelical.’

Chapters one and two make a case for Christian social involvement. First, by studying the doctrine of God; in his character, rule and grace, Chester connects God’s attributes to see how he is for the poor and this requires us to understand and respond accordingly with regards to our relationship with God. Second, by emphasizing that the Christian faith is not just a private faith. Chester gives an encapsulated history of how Christianity has regressed to the private sphere and neglected their social implication. The underlying glue is to understand that all of life is to be under the lordship of Christ.

Chapter 3 highlights the importance of proclamation for the needy poor. In emphasizing the importance of eschatology, “The issue” according to Chester “is that our eternal fate is more important than what happens to us in this life.” He argues this position pointing to the greater need on reconciliation with God and moving beyond providing just on the basis of felt needs. He further argues from the case of the gospel of Luke, where, though the focus on the poor is dominant, highlighting passages which point to God’s word being central in that implying that proclamation is put in the pedestal platform.

In Chapter four, Chester seeks to reconcile the relationship between social involvement and proclamation. There have been fiery debates concerning their integration where argument arises on whether focus on each might degrade the ultimate focus of missions or the message of the good news. Chester asserts that in understanding both these to be in relationship with one another, is to understand them as “1. Evangelism and social action are distinctive activities; 2. Proclamation is central; and 3. Evangelism and social action are inseparable.” With that our evangelistic proclamation makes sense by the way we live as Christians in “loving actions and loving community.”

In the next chapter Chester deconstructs the notion where some have tried to connect God’s salvation in inclusive terms where God is seen liberating others regardless of their context where it is done. This is a misrepresentation. Some, which Chester notes, have even gone to the extreme end to label any form of liberation and justice activity belong to the reign of God. Chester gives helpful explanation of how one understands the Kingdom Of God- it’s here and future realities. But one has to understand this exclusively where Jesus is the central figure of the Kingdom Of God.

Chapters 6 and 7 point our attention on a dual scope of the gospel being for the rich and poor. First, Chester focuses his attention on how and why the gospel is good news to the poor. He treats to answer this question in three points where the gospel is a message of liberation against oppressive forces, a message of grace where our pre-conditions does not count but it is God who opens the way for people and a message of community that evolves from God who now live in relationship with each other. Next, Chester tries to explain why the gospel is good news to the rich as well. Many in the world are following the wiles of the promise of consumerism. Many who are rich seek fulfilment in consumerism’s promise of fulfilment but will always find this wanting. The gospel forms a liberating message to them as well as to focus their attention to use their material possessions and wealth not for their own consumption but for the glory of God.

Chapter 8 and 9 focus on how the church is to respond to the poor. In response to this the church, as Chester notes, in her responsibility to those who are poor is not merely to inject funds for them but to be a welcoming community that makes provision for the excluded to feel they belong to where the poor have been left gutted by their condition and status. Next, focuses on how our attitude should be to the powerless. A more comprehensive understanding of good social involvement must include development that thus involves the participation of those we are helping. The gospel here forms a theology for changed lives to be able to be godly contributors and participants.
Chapter 10 details the rise of Christendom and its subsequent downfall. Though there may have been good that came out of Christendom, a critique of it would see that it does not conform to the way of the cross. Chester argues that the Jesus way should be the path in which the church should follow in how it responds to social involvement, not to gain respectability for its sake alone but in the way that the church is a witness in how it serves the world. The last chapter of the book asks what kind of change a Christian fuelled social involvement brings to the fray in making an impact. Though being critical of the idea that poverty cannot be eradicated, Chester emphasizes that Christians should get involved in view of the witness in scripture and in the attributes of God. But the need of being reconciled to God should take centre stage. This is emphasized too in what the church should be, a witness in doing and being, where seen in the church is an encapsulated picture of the future hope.

The strength of the book lies in many places as there are not many books in the market that treats the subject that Chester addresses, thought with exceptions to those written by Ron Sider among others. What makes Chester’s book helpful is that how he treats his subject concisely as well as comprehensively in a mere almost 200 page book. It is apparent that Chester knows his subject well which enables him to present it in a readable and short book which appeals to the wide public. This is also helped by each chapter concluding with a summary of the chapter not to mention a good list of books for further reading for those who would want to go deeper in the subject manner.

Chester also does a good job in detailing historical data and how the historical narrative had developed certain thinking and response of Christians throughout those ages. This can be particularly seen in how he details how in history the idea of Christianity being a form of private faith became something of a norm. The examples in which he presents to anchor the points in which he wants to make is also commendable, where the most telling ones being gained from personal experience. In chapter 10 Chester tells of how, in trying to relay the importance of the church being a welcoming community, he asked the church to go and bet on horses and to relay their experiences after doing so. Their experience later translated through how outsiders must have felt when they attend church.

The way the ideas are developed, the bible takes centre stage in how Chester seeks to form a biblically sound theology of social action and proclamation. This can be seen all throughout the book. In chapter three, he weaves his arguments on large portions in the gospel of Luke concerning the importance of gospel proclamation among the poor. This gives the reader a better biblical picture of how the bible does address social involvement in big chunks and not just snippet of verses in the bible.

On the side of weakness though, it seems the book has enough strength to eradicate this. But on a minor issue, though Chester has done greatly in pointing a needed balance in seeing how social involvement and proclamation are integrated with detailed biblical basis being given, there does not seem to be a chapter that emphasizes how the church might respond to maintaining a sustaining understanding on the issues at hand. History has shown that at large points of time, a distorted view of teaching has been the main factor in why the church has constantly failed to understand the implication of social involvement. Where Christianity was viewed as just a private faith by way of how enlightenment has affected it, to how people have a dented understanding of scripture, without sustained teaching of the word of God, each generation will eventually get stuck in a rut and it might take time to get out of that rut again. Teaching is an important element for the church to maintain a balanced view of social involvement and gospel proclamation. In my view, stronger underlining glue that would seek to complete a more comprehensive argument to the book would be to emphasize the role of teaching as a way of maintaining a sustained balance of equipping missions with the dual focus of action and proclamation.

In conclusion, Chester for his efforts has to be commended in the vision he has underlined for the book in that it seeks to balance social involvement and proclamation in a biblical perspective. Churches would do well in reading the book in that it challenges both extremes of thought; only gospel proclamation churches or those who are more liberal leanings.

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