I found this quote profoundly helpful in light of recent debates in Reformed evangelicalism.
Given that the greatest need of people is to be reconciled with God and given that this need can only be met through the message of the gospel, it might seem logical to say that evangelism has priority. The problem is that it is not clear what "priority" means in this context. It suggests a choice between the two, and so evangelism should be chosen; it sets the two activities up as competing priorities in which social action can be neglected. We prioritize by making a list and doing the activies at the top of the list. If there is no time left for item lower down the list, then this does not matter because we have deemed such things less important. The implication of saying evangelism has priority in this sense is that it does not matter if we have no time for social action.
However, such choices rarely bare any relationship to reality. In our involvement in the lives of others, we cannot choose to ignore their social needs. We cannot treat people in isolation from their context. Evangelism alone might make sense in the lecture room. It may even just about make sense in a middle-class suburb. It makes no sense at all when working among the poor. Mission takes place in and through relationships and relationships are multi-faceted. Proclamation should be central, but a center implies a context and our proclamation should take place in the context of a life of love.
So social action and evangelism should neither be identified with one another, nor separated. Evangelism and social action should be viewed as distinct, but inseparable activities in our mission to the poor in which proclamation is central. In any relationship with poor people or with a poor community, we must as evangelicals be looking for opportunities to share the message of the gospel. This is not because our social action is invalid without evangelism. It is because love requires that we share the message of hope that meets people's greatest need.- Engaging With The City, Porterbook curriculum, Year 1, Module 12