From Retreat to Engagement

The Global Church's Call to Transform Society with Gospel Truth

Phil Hilditch 14 Dec 2023

Editor's Note

We are pleased to announce that this article is one of two winning submissions of the 2023 Younger Leaders Writing Contest. Congratulations to the author!

How do we stay grounded in the gospel as a global church, even as we seek the transformation of our societies? This may seem to you, as it does to me, to be a strange question to ask, but one that is frequently heard in our evangelical circles. It presupposes so much. It betrays its theological outlook from the get-go. It reveals what some may perceive as absurd or a throwback to more ignorant times, yet what others may deem to be entirely valid or even necessary to defend against a plethora of ever-more untethered worldviews. Either way, what this question does is present us with an opportunity to properly unpack what the realisation of the good news of God’s coming Kingdom could—or maybe even should—look like today.

Beware of Utopia

In the Lausanne Covenant, you will find the following:

‘We believe that the interim period between Christ’s ascension and return is to be filled with the mission of the people of God, who have no liberty to stop before the end. We also remember his warning that false Christs and false prophets will arise as precursors of the final Antichrist. We therefore reject as a proud, self-confident dream the notion that people can ever build a utopia on earth.’

Because it is messy and painful, perhaps even disgusting or life-threatening, have we surrendered the world that God so loved, and retreated?

As we reflect upon when this was written and taken up by the global church, in the aftermath of German and Japanese expansionist efforts during World War II, in the shadow of a collapsing USSR and on the eve of the Islamic Iranian Revolution, this statement was truly prophetic. All around there were visions of totalitarian dictatorships or theocracies that promised that everything would be set right—all to cost the lives of countless millions. It has since been said that ‘If religion was the opium of the masses, then communism was the methamphetamine of the masses’[1] and I’d say this serves other utopian ideas too, like colonialism. Utopian visions present humanity with a seductive yet ancient temptation—that we could become like God, doing what is right in our own eyes, determining good and evil, and building our own ‘holy city’ here on earth. 

What’s more, as you track the landscape up to today, surveying terror attacks in countless capitals, a global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, a changing climate, and more besides and in between, utopian ideas seem to have justified violence, greed, and things being turned on their head. Today things can often appear to be equally perilous, if not more so with today’s zeitgeists seeming particularly insidious. The sexual revolution of the sixties paved the way for the dissolution of traditional family values to the point that preferred personal pronouns are the issue of the day along with the scourge of patriarchy. Some say that yesterday’s communists and Nazis have passed the baton to today’s social justice warriors or alt-right populists who arguably manufacture grievances to justify the validity of their positions.  Where some demonise refugees and migrants to the point of pushing boats back out to sea or storing human beings in camps or cages, others demonise family farmers unable to meet emission targets, employing strategies eerily reminiscent of dekulakization. It would seem that the latest variants of Nietzsches’s postmodern ubermensch are alive and well and that indeed ‘God is dead and we have killed him.’


Being wary of all of this, it might not be unsurprising that many expressions of the church have retreated into the safety and comfort of the private sphere, only to occasionally raise their heads above the parapet to let loose another volley of shouts of ‘repent!’ into a noisy world that really isn’t listening anyway. At least we are being faithful and hopefully God can use our shouts somehow. Herein lies our struggle.

‘ . . . [We] Christians have been socialised into quietly accepting our relegation to the private realm of spiritual things, leaving the world of economics, politics, and technology to the West’s materialists and secular humanism. We no longer seem to believe that we are to be signs of the coming Kingdom of God and God has made us partners in God’s plan to redeem and restore creation… We seem to have forgotten that the gospel is true and secular humanism is not.’[2] This is where this question (How do we stay grounded in the gospel as a global church, even as we seek the transformation of our societies?) betrays itself. Embedded within it is the assumption that it is somehow possible to be rooted in the gospel without seeing our societies transformed, or at least, it is this transformation of society that risks us becoming detached from our roots. Herein lies an inherent platonic dualism, an ancient philosophy that understands the spiritual as good and the physical as bad. Our gospel then becomes one that allows us to take comfort in the idea that one day we will all be evacuated from this miserable untransformed place. At best we are heartbroken, at worst we may even take a small bit of pleasure in the idea that on that day we’ll be vindicated, and everyone who ignored our occasional shouts from over the parapet will be kicking themselves. We adopt what some might call a Norman Greenbaum theology as we look forward to the day when we’ll all get to go to heaven.

Spirit In The Sky – Norman Greenbaum (Official Lyric Video) – YouTube

Seek the Kingdom

If you read on in the Lausanne Covenant, it says this:

‘ . . . Our Christian confidence is that God will perfect his kingdom, and we look forward with eager anticipation to that day, and to the new heaven and earth in which righteousness will dwell and God will reign forever.’Today, as we seek to be rooted in the gospel we have no alternative but to engage in the transformation of our societies. The love of Christ compels us to be active agents of change (salt and light), recognising that matter matters. Jesus himself was not a mere cognitive idea or spiritual truth. He was of course those things but not those things alone. Jesus was and is alive. He is physical and represents for us the first part of God’s new creation and we are invited to partner with him in the ever-increasing dominion of Christ–here and now. Today, we live awkwardly in what theologian types call ‘the already but the not yet’. Yes, Christ has not yet returned so we must wait, but Christ has already come and taken His place, enthroned upon the cross and then raised to life. As we wait for the Christ who will come in glory, we must follow the Christ who came in humility.

The way things are is messy, there is no escaping that, but herein too there is good news. The way things are is not what God intends.

As the Lausanne covenant says ‘we have no liberty to stop before the end.’ As the people of God, we must throw all of our efforts into the mission of God. This integral mission or holistic transformation is the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel. As has been highlighted by Chris Wright, the mission of the church is the mission of Christ:

  1. To proclaim the good news of the kingdom.
  2. To teach, baptise, and nurture new believers.
  3. To respond to human need by loving service.
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society.
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain the life of the earth.

Removing any of these dimensions is like removing a part of an electrical circuit. It doesn’t matter if you remove the battery, the wires or the light bulb itself. If any one of them is missing, the light goes out. As for who does what, how much is enough, and so forth, while important, this is beyond the scope of this short article. What’s important for us to establish is that in this complex and often painful world, we must resist the temptation to bury our heads in the sand (or perhaps more suitably—to keep our heads in the clouds) and partner with what God already has going on. We must not be afraid to get our hands dirty. The ‘cities’ humans build can be dark places. We must maintain our confidence that God will perfect his kingdom and he calls us to engage in that process, loving God, loving neighbour, and stewarding the earth. He will build his city. That is not in question. The question for us is will we step up and accept his invitation to join with his efforts, realising in our everyday, courageous acts of restoration and recreation–fixing what is broken and completing what is unfinished? We have a Savior who transforms the whole person, in the whole family, in the whole community, in the whole world. Beware of utopia but seek the kingdom (Matt 6:33).

Success, faithfulness, or fruitfulness

In May of this year, Tim Keller, one of our dear brothers, and a spiritual father to many, passed away. Any self-respecting evangelical probably has a book or two of his knocking around somewhere. One of the many pieces of wisdom that we still have today relates to another key question related to being rooted in the gospel and transforming our societies, ie how do we know we are doing it right? Well . . . as was touched on above, some think it is sufficient to simply shout ‘repent’ occasionally, outsourcing tangible transformation to humanists. Regardless of the outcome, we are called to be faithful—so they think—it doesn’t really matter what we achieve. Equally and on the other hand, some think that busying yourself with the manifestation of more things, for more people, in more places is sufficient, outsourcing inner transformation to God. Quantity is what demonstrates success—so they think. While there might be admirable intent on both sides, the impact remains somewhat off the mark. If you don’t have love then you are just a lot of noise. 

It is by being rooted in the gospel that we can see our societies transformed and it is by seeing our societies transformed that we can be rooted in the gospel.

Reflecting on this apparent dichotomy, Keller states that he ‘ . . . came to the conclusion that a more biblical theme for ministerial evaluation than either success or faithfulness is fruitfulness. Jesus, of course, told his disciples that they were to “bear much fruit” (John 15:8). Paul spoke even more specifically. He spoke of conversions as “fruit” when he desired to preach in Rome:

“that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles” (Rom 1:13 KJV). Paul also spoke of the “fruit” of godly character that a minister can see growing in Christians under his care. This included the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22). Good deeds, such as mercy to the poor, are called “fruit” as well (Rom 15:28).’[3] 

When we seek to determine if we are doing this right, it should be pretty certain that you’re probably not. BUT, thankfully there is grace for you and for me, grace that we should be sure to afford one another as we fumble our way through this kind of stuff. What I propose we do instead is to look for fruit. Where is the fruit that we can celebrate? Where should there be fruit that we must work on? Where is God springing up fruit and how can we partner in that? By standing on the borders of safety and choosing to wrestle with God, we may abide in him, and he in us, bear his fruit and see his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.


  1. Jordan B. Peterson “ Lecture:Biblical Series II: Genesis 1:Chaos and order,” YouTube, May 28, 2017, video, 2:32:32,
  2. Byrant Myers, Engaging Globalization, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2017 p.5
  3. Tim Keller, Center Church, Zondervan Reflective, Grand Rapids, 2012, p.13.