I recently finished a research paper for a graduate school class entitled, “The Social Gospel: A Liberal Agenda or a Necessary Component?” If you are not familiar with the term “social gospel,” give me a few lines and I will explain it to you. The term has been around for a long time, but it really made waves (at least in Churches of Christ) around the period of the 1950s-1970s. It was during this period many leaders and preachers began tabbing any person who dabbled in “social issues” as being guilty of adhering to a “social gospel.” So, most would define the “social gospel” in a negative light, with the term meaning, in essence, a person who elevates the saving of the community far above the saving of the individual. In other words, the gospel (or good news about the saving power of Jesus) is about restoring the community and not restoring lives. I believe, however, based on my research, the conclusion drawn by most of these leaders was very narrow-minded. It was not that individuals concerned with “social issues” were unconcerned with salvation issues, but they were concerned with balance. These individuals did not believe a follower of Jesus could divorce themselves from the surrounding community. Unfortunately, however, the mantra of this era prevailed over an objective approach to applying Scripture…
“The church should be concerned with saving souls, and dabbling in the affairs of society is taking away from the church’s focus.”
I am thankful most churches today have dropped this mantra (or have they?), but the question still remains for us…”What is the role of the church to its surrounding community?” I think the answer is balance, but balance is so difficult to achieve. A balanced theology that elevates involvement in the community close or equal to evangelism is not explicitly taught in most churches (maybe because most people do not believe it). This leaves people to discern for themselves what this balance looks like, and what often ends up happening is people settle for one side or the other. There are those that do not believe in getting involved in the needs of the community, and there are those that get too involved in the community, allowing the involvement in the needs of the community to terminate on itself. Let me try my best to describe what I feel like is a healthy balance when it comes to a follower of Jesus and how he or she should respond to the needs in the community, especially in relation to the balance between the community and personal evangelism. I am going to do this by approaching the question from each side of the coin (it’s not really a coin…coin is a metaphor used to add “flare”…you get the idea). I really hate to make this a generational issue, but historically this is what the issue has been…a younger generation (the Millennials) and an older generation (Baby Boomers and Generation X). It is not always a generational issue, but even if it is not a generational issue where you are, the philosophies behind your answer to the above question are going to be similar. So, let’s start with the Millennials…
To the Millennials:
First of all, please understand I am writing in general terms, so do not get offended if this does not describe your philosophy on community involvement. I am a Millennial, and I understand the generation pretty well…so chances are something will speak to you.
Administering to the needs of the poor, having a concern for the afflicted and oppressed, taking direct action in the plight of the orphan and widowed…these are all good things and based on passages straight from the Bible (Matt. 19:21, Matt 25:31-46, Romans 15:26, Galatians 2:10, James 1:27, among many others). PLEASE have a concern for the marginalized. Make this part of your mission as a follower of Jesus. Do not let any unsuspecting Christian attempt to dissuade you from this important part of the Christian ethos. I do not believe this is an optional part of the Christian life…I believe it is an essential part. But as you are going about this, remember what makes you distinct from other non-Christian groups doing the same thing…YOU ARE DOING THESE THINGS IN THE NAME OF JESUS. If you ever begin partaking in any activity involving the marginalized, but forget you are doing this in the name of Jesus…if you begin to do these things because you think you are “a good person,” you become guilty of the very thing every prophet in the Old Testament condemned the Israelites for…allowing the act to terminate on itself. Because you are a follower of Jesus, NOTHING should ever terminate on itself. It should always point you, and OTHERS, to God. This is what it means to be an instrument or a vessel. You are only useful if you are pointing others to something larger than yourself. If you think you are “tight with God” because you painted a house, or picked up trash, or beautified part of downtown, you are wrong. A lot of people do that stuff…what separates followers of Jesus from non-Christians is we have a greater purpose for what we are doing. And this includes the increasing popular RAKs (Random Acts of Kindness). Even these should give glory to God (even if nobody else knows, God can still get the glory by leaving a Bible verse or telling the person God loves them, etc.). The point here is not necessarily that you verbally preach the gospel to every person, but it is important you understand God gets the glory (and eventually if you are a follower, they need to know WHY you are doing this…be prepared to tell them).
This brings me to personal evangelism (or friendship evangelism or whatever form of evangelism you prefer to TELL somebody else about the gospel). You need to understand TELLING other people about Jesus is also a vital part of your Christian journey. You can throw evangelism and outreach into the same bucket if you choose, but understand if you skirt around opportunities to share the only news that can save somebody from their sins, you are just as wrong as the individual refusing to do anything in the community. I have been involved in several conversations where someone is negative towards another group because they do not have a desire for the fatherless and the orphan. These same people, however, do not have any desire to share the gospel with the people in their “sphere of influence” that do not know Jesus. See a disconnect? I do. If you say you do not have opportunities to tell others about Jesus, start praying for opportunities. But watch out, that could be a scary prayer because God is going to start placing people in your life that need to hear about Jesus…then you might actually have to preach the gospel to them.
To the Baby Boomers/Generation X:
I feel compelled to state this again…I am writing in general terms here, so if this does not refer to your philosophy, “spit out the fat and keep the bones.” Surely there is something you can agree with.
Preaching the gospel is of vital importance. I hope every follower of Jesus understands the importance of telling other people about Jesus. I hope every Christian makes it their goal to study with individuals with the expectation God will ignite a fire in their heart and they will be baptized. It is essential to the Christian journey. How can someone have the greatest news on the face of the earth and not tell other people? You must tell them. But what are you actually proclaiming to others if your sole purpose as a Christian is to have a Bible study with someone and never serve those in need? What about almost all of the prophets who condemned the Israelites for not having a desire for the fatherless, the widow, and the orphan? And let’s drop this idea praying for somebody and doing nothing else means you have compassion on them and care about them. Jesus never modeled that. To Jesus, compassion also equated to action. If you have compassion and care about something or something, you are going to act on it.
What about the time Jesus invested in the marginalized? Why does evangelism and outreach have to be mutually exclusive? What if God desired it to be mutually inclusive? What if God never envisioned a believer having no concern for the poor and needy around him? I am asking a lot of questions because I struggle to find a legitimate answer to these questions.
I believe evangelism and outreach go hand in hand. I believe Jesus modeled it for us. Evangelism was part of caring for the poor and caring for the poor was part of evangelism. On top of that, I believe we could all agree the church has developed such a negative stigma (right or wrong, it does not matter…the stigma is present) in this culture that our greatest form of evangelism to the lost in the community might be to show them we actually care about them. Sometimes people do need their physical needs met before they will begin to see their spiritual needs. I think Jesus modeled that too. Jesus often healed people of their physical disease FIRST, so they would give glory to God and recognize their spiritual disease. The problem is we have been involved in a fellowship (Churches of Christ) that has elevated certain verses for so long it is difficult to believe they might not be any more important than other commands in the Bible. Maybe a more balanced approach to understanding Scripture is the better conclusion to aim for at this point. I am not sure.
I believe strongly in intergenerational Christian formation, so my goal here is not to further divide the generations and the body. To intentionally divide the body of Christ is sin…I have enough sin in my life without this one. Instead, I want the content in this post to foster a spirit of unity amongst all believers for the sake of the gospel. The goal I believe is balance. Evangelism is an essential part of the Christian life and outreach is an essential part. They both must be present, and in most cases they are mutually inclusive. Let’s not do good works just to do good works, but let’s do good works and make sure God gets the glory. And let’s not neglect involvement in the community because we might not think it is evangelism or a necessary component of the Christian life, but let’s cling to the life and ministry of Jesus as our model and seek to find a necessary overlap between evangelism and involvement in the plight of the oppressed and afflicted.
One more thing: as we strive for this balance let’s remember the grace of God extends as far as the east is from the west, and let’s allow His grace to provide the foundation for our striving of balance. We are going to have failures in our efforts, but if we stand on the foundation of grace, we can fail and still be ok. I love you all!