When we consider how the church should respond to its surrounding community, the starting point of the discussion has to be how Jesus responded to his surrounding community. We’ve considered some of what Jesus did. Consider for a moment what he didn’t do.
For example, he could have easily–with a word–healed every disease in Palestine–or the world! He could have cast out every demon the minute he began his ministry. He could have fed 5 million rather than 5 thousand. And had he done all this, people would surely have been impressed and appreciative! After all, people had to travel for miles–make journeys of many days–just to get close to Jesus to be healed. Healing people one at a time, person to person, face to face was just plain inefficient.
And one could even cobble together a pretty good argument that Jesus would have been acting out of a real, meaningful love had he done this. But he didn’t. He walked dusty streets, mile after mile, village after village, in First Century sandals, just so that, as he did his healing, he could look the people in the eyes and talk to them about the good news.
You see, the good news is not the good news of physical healing. The good news is the fact that someone, Jesus of Nazareth, cares–cares about your life, your health, your family–and your soul–enough to come to earth to do something about it.
The church has at times made the mistake that Jesus avoided. Sometimes it just seems so much more efficient–and easy–to heal at a distance. We can write checks to a Christian medical mission or hospital or free clinic. Better yet, we can pay taxes to the government so the government will provide the best in modern medicine. Much better yet, we can persuade the government to tax others, too, to do this, so that the church doesn’t even have to carry the full load!
And the result of this experiment–ongoing now for 100 years–is that many people do get healed. Well, their bodies get healed. But no one’s soul gets healed. And this has led to a very, very sick society.
The word translated “saved” in the Gospels is often translated “healed” when the body is at issue. Jesus came to “to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10) or “to seek and to [spiritually] heal what was lost.” In fact, “lost” can be translated “dead” or “destroyed.” “To heal what was dead” is a perfectly good translation and may even suit the text better.
Jesus could heal physical diseases from 100 miles away. For that matter, he could have healed the diseases from heaven. But he couldn’t heal souls from there. Soul healing requires close, interpersonal contact. This is why Jesus appointed apostles, not marketing agents. This is why he sent 72 men into the villages to preach the good news, rather than mailing tracts (and, yes, First Century Palestine had an excellent postal service.)
The 21st Century church can supplement its work with 21st Century methods, but there’s no escaping the necessity for the old-fashioned, Jesus-proven methods–touching the untouchables, befriending the friendless, and eating with the “sinners.”
Of course, there’s also a need to debate the modern Pharisees, following Jesus’ example. Notice that Jesus didn’t waste time debating the pagans. Nor did he spend much time disputing with the Sadducees, the liberals of the day. No, he knew the greatest enemies of the truth were those who seemed conservative and who established their positions based on “expertise” in God’s commands, forcing the common people to go to them for answers.
But debate isn’t what spread the gospel. It just helped people distinguish the gospel from a lie. Caring about the small things is where Jesus began, and so must the church today.