It’s difficult to begin writing this post. Every word I’ve considered using to open this post is simply inadequate. Woefully inadequate. “Overwhelming” won’t work. “Horrific” misses the mark. “Astounding” or “paralyzing” won’t do.

What do you say when you visit an area where 85% of people there–men, women, and children–are HIV positive and dying of AIDS? 85 PERCENT! Imagine: a situation where 8 out of every ten people you see have a deadly virus coursing through their bodies, slowly killing them, and then moving on like a microscopic invading army to kill anyone who has the most intimate contact with them (sex). It’s… (there are no words).

Meanwhile, only 25 percent of those infected receive treatment (ARV). Only a quarter may slow death and live “normal” lives for a season. The number of orphans from this pandemic is…. Well, there is no word for it. Apocalyptic maybe?

Oh, and by the way, unemployment is (unofficially) 80 percent.

And what you’re imagining probably isn’t the correct picture. This isn’t even the poorest part of the country I’ve seen.

When I posted Grant Retief’s comment that the gospel was the first tier solution for mercy ministry for the AIDS pandemic in Africa, I hadn’t quite realized that it’s the only solution for mercy ministry.

You can not recover from an 85% HIV/AIDS infection rate and 80% unemployment. There’s no humanistic, social service, entrepreneurial philosophy or effort that can repair that. It’s not a thing broken like a bike needing an inner-tube, or a car needing new fuel injectors. The thing simply isn’t there to be fixed! An entire generation is dying quietly–nearly gone! Children are the knee-high reminders that there were once fertile, replicating men and women walking around. They’re miniature recollections of once full-grown life that’s evaporating. And they, too, the children, are HIV positive and dying of AIDS. This is starting over… almost completely.

Today, we visited a ministry called Lily of the Valley. It’s a very comprehensive effort to try and address this pandemic: gospel preaching and Bible teaching, housing for AIDS orphans, medical clinic, cottage industry/business. They’re doing a valiant work. Please pray for them.

As we toured the place and heard more about the ministry, I was left with a couple thoughts:

1. These people are trying to re-engineer an entire society. The problem and the work are massive. For example, just how do you re-introduce fatherhood to a culture when virtually none are known or exist?

2. The implications of the gospel are enormous for this re-engineering effort. Not only must these dear people in God’s image come to believe in Christ and be saved, the outworkings of gospel life must be freshly imaged and lived as the only reconstructive force powerful enough to address this plague. If the succeeding generation isn’t swept up in a revival, a supernatural enlargement of God’s converting and sanctifying work through His Spirit, then the catastrophic effects of sin will destroy them. And this sin attacks at the very point where promiscuity meets reproductive hope.

3. This makes squabbles about the social gospel almost irrelevant. I say “almost” because anything that obscures or supplants the gospel that saves cannot be completely irrelevant and must be avoided. The social gospel dooms people to hell. But in the final analysis, so too does a so-called “biblical” gospel that gets penal substitution, justification, repentance and faith correct but never moves us to preach it, teach it, spread it, apply it, and risk it and ourselves in caring for the needs of people perishing in sin and disease and hunger and war and poverty and illiteracy.

My dearest friends and mentors are among the most cautious about evangelical social ministry degenerating into the social gospel. Michael Lawrence and I had good discussion about this following our visit. These friends see historical precedent for evangelical churches confusing mercy ministry with either the gospel itself or the church’s reason for existing. They’re concerned about the gospel and the church remaining focused on its primary mission–preaching the gospel. No other institution outside the church is given the mission to preach the gospel. If the church won’t, no one else will. Pastors shouldn’t abandon this charge. I share every one of those concerns. I learned these concerns and priorities from these brothers, to whom I owe more than can be calculated. This is not a critique of them. I mention them only because I know some of you will be familiar with their positions and you might think there is some disunity between us. There isn’t; only the very deepest affection and unity in Christ.

But after I’ve said I have these same concerns, then what?

I can’t be so concerned about what might be lost that I’m too paralyzed to venture anything on it. I’m looking at this scene in Africa–and it could be in most any place in the world–and I just can’t justify the idea that my only task as a Christian and a preacher is to preach the gospel. I can’t justify the idea that if I only preach the gospel–which I must preach and treasure and guard–then I’ve been faithful even if I’ve not served the needs around me. When you’re standing this close to the naked, brazen effects of sin and depravity, you realize that Christ’s work of redemption is our only hope and that we need to act in that same hope.

Today’s visit to one town reveals to me the betrayal it is to claim to be gospel people and not be merciful people.