Across the Great Divide

As a kid, I vaguely remember watching a movie called Across the Great Divide. I don’t remember a ton of details – essentially two orphan kids have to get across the Rocky Mountains and to the West Coast to get their inheritance. In the process, they meet up with… and end up partnering with… a con man which ends up being key to reaching their goal.


The title of the movie has an obvious meaning. Those orphans had to cross the Continental, or Great, Divide – a hydrological boundary that runs from the Bering Strait in Alaska to the Strait of Magellan, at the tip of South America. This line divides two great watersheds. To the east of the divide, all water drains, ultimately, into the Atlantic Ocean. To the west, it courses to the Pacific.

There is, however, another more symbolic meaning to those words. The Great Divide was not just that place where geologically, water flow separated. It was also the converse – it was the place where, for a moment, those ultimately heading in very different directions actually met. Thus, metaphorically, what could be seen by some only as only a source of division could, conceivably, also become a summit meeting place, a place for conversation and dialogue, a place for challenge, growth and change…

Within Christianity, there are a number of these “great divides,” and missions is no different. One very key “divide” is the focus, or ultimate goal, of different ministries: evangelism and church building versus social justice.

Matt Chandler, relatively recently wrote about this question.  He identified two “gospels:” one centering around an individual’s salvation through the mechanism of faith in the sufficiency of Jesus’ atoning death on the cross. This “gospel” leads to “preaching” the story of Jesus so that others, too, can repent and be saved. The other “gospel,” found at the other extreme, is a gospel striving to achieve God’s Kingdom on earth through the mechanism of social justice, but often sacrificing message proclamation in the doing of good works. Most readers here would agree, at least in theory, that the Gospel clearly contains both. As Ron Sider (both a professor of theology and author) says, “People are both spiritual and material beings… Addressing only half the problem only gives you half of the solution.”

baptismal service - at the conclusion of yearly rains and the harvest
baptismal celebration – at the conclusion of yearly rains and crop harvest

Four years ago, in the fall of 2011, two high profile Christians, Al Mohler and Jim Wallis, publicly debated this issue, each charged with answering the question: “Is social justice is an essential part of the mission of the church[/multicultural missions work]?” Wallis argued yes. Churches must choose to get involved with social justice issues because justice is integral to the Gospel message. Mohler said no.  A church’s social justice involvement is not organizational, but is instead implied as members of that church are changed by the message of the Gospel and become increasingly active disciples of Jesus doing good works. Both men represented views at the far ends of a spectrum… but all still on the same continuum.

assisting local churches in grain distributions in famine stricken villages
assisting local churches with grain distributions in famine stricken villages

John Stott, one of my heroes when it comes to theology, also addressed this issue, way back in 1975 (which is, incidentally, right around the same time that movie Across the Great Divide hit theaters). Writing in Christian Mission in the Modern World, Stott identifies three basic ways that social action and evangelism interact, or – as I like to think of it – mingle:

  1. Good works with a social justice focus is superior to and more effective than proclamation of the Gospel communicating words in growing the Kingdom of God.
  2. Social action authenticates the message, but is otherwise subservient to evangelical proclamation leading to salvation decisions as the biblical means for spreading the Gospel.

Stott insisted that both of the above positions in the social justice/Gospel preaching divide are rooted error. Forty years ago, he advocated a different method, a third way, for this inevitable interaction between declaring the message and doing good works. According to Stott, justice and message are not two opposing ends of a continuum where we must figure out some way to meet somewhere in the middle. Rather, they “belong to each other and yet are independent of each other. Each stands on its own feet in its own right alongside the other. Neither is a means to the other, or even a manifestation of the other. For each is an end in itself.” In other words, each is positively essential.

Are we to go unto all the world and preach the Gospel to all nations? Absolutely!

Are we to do good unto all men, regardless of personal cost or any hope of a return on the investment? Unconditionally!

That is exactly what Jesus, the one we say we want to imitate, modeled. He came into the world, mingling with people and their culture. He preached the Gospel. He used words… He is “The Word.” His very first public sermon? “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” (Luke 4.18 ESV) He healed the sick, fed the hungry, included the outcasts, freed the bound. At the cross, He did the ultimate good unto all men at the ultimate personal cost with no guarantee that men would accept His gift.

Why, then, is it so hard to put this theoretical partnership into a practice where evangelizing and entering into the practical service of meeting needs are considered equaling engaging? Because some proponents of social justice have abandoned the Gospel, and therefore – rightly – we are cautious. Meanwhile, some Gospel preachers ignore very real needs and insist on faith glimpses first, or even worse, teach that those needs are evidence of a missing or misplaced faith. Sin… selfishness… greed… pride… arrogance… competitiveness… unwillingness to change… unteachability…


How do we make doing good and preaching the Good News the two pillars on which our ministries and missions are supported and the name of God is lifted high and glorified?

What are your experiences of standing at this place of great divide, personally or organizationally?

How do you/does your organization reach across and build partnerships that testify of not just the importance but necessity of both the Gospel message and good works.

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Richelle Wright

Disciple of Jesus, lover of God's Word, wife to one great guy, and mama of eight, Richelle has spent the past 13 years in Niger, West Africa. She and her family are currently in the throes of transition as they begin life and ministry (teaching, audio-visual production) in the Canadian province of Québec. ||

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