Clean Water or the Gospel?

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The answer is both.

Today, there are 844 million people around the world without access to clean water; 2.5 billion do not use a toilet to manage their waste. And 3.4 billion people are unreached with the gospel.

The intersection of all three of these is predominately rural villages dominated by animism and other folk religions. What should be our priority as Christians? Provide communities with access to clean water and improved health, or proclaim the transforming truth of the gospel?

As the leader of a Christian water organization, I’ve struggled with this dilemma for years. I firmly believe that we must serve the whole person (body and soul), and I also believe that Christ must be central to all our efforts. If we solely preach the gospel, we ignore their basic physical needs. If we only give them water, teach about hygiene, and build toilets at schools, we feel like we’ve neglected the Christian nature of our work.

How can we meaningfully address people’s physical needs while fulfilling the Great Commission? Here are some guiding principles we have found helpful:

First, clarify our categories.

I don’t believe drilling a well, installing a pump, and teaching people to wash their hands fulfills the Great Commission. It is important work worthy of our support. It can drastically improve people’s lives. However, by itself, it isn’t what Christ commissions the church to do.

I also don’t believe preaching the gospel while ignoring the crisis and hurt people are experiencing is consistent with biblical ethics. Jesus makes it clear that we have a responsibility to help the person who has been attacked by robbers and left for dead (Luke 10:25-37). To simply walk past is not consistent with the teaching of Jesus …

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