I’m teaching this because I’ve had (been given, actually, I think) some thoughts that I’m having trouble expressing. They are (you won’t be surprised to learn) about community service or benevolence. I just don’t think I’ve been able to adequately communicate what I feel called to say on the subject.
I’ve finally concluded that my communication problem is due to the fact that we are all used to thinking of evangelism and benevolence in certain ways. When we are confronted by a contrary way of looking at things, we see things in the way we are used to and don’t even realize that we’re being confronted with an entirely different approach.
The best I can tell, there are four views of benevolence at church. They are as follows:
I get this all the time. “My, you sure seem to have a heart for the poor!” people say. But I don’t. I have a heart for study and teaching. I’m not coming from some deep heartfelt desire to go to the “projects” and do benevolence. This comes from study and prayer and has nothing at all to do with what I want or even like.
In The Purpose Driven Life, Warren lists 9 ways a Christian can grow close to God-
- Naturalists-by being outdoors
- Sensates (sounds like a genus of dinosaur, doesn’t it?)-love God with their senses (big on vanilla incense)
- Traditionalists-ritual, doing what they’ve been doing for 500 or so years, connection with the past
- Ascetics-solitude and simplicity
- Activists-doing something to make the world a better place
- Caregivers-by meeting the needs of others
- Contemplatives-love God through adoration
- Intellectuals-“love God by studying with their minds.”
Of course, this isn’t really a list of ways of growing close to God. It’s a list of ways of feeling close to God, and that’s a different matter altogether. Indeed, the unintended — but plainly taught — lesson is that we get to pick whether to be activists and try to “make the world a better place.” If we’d rather meditate or sing or smell incense, that’s okay, too, just so long as we achieve a warm and fuzzy feeling about God.
Similarly, some teaching on spiritual formation speaks of Christians having four ways of approaching God-through study, prayer, contemplation, and service. Again, depending entirely on your personality type, you may spend your life in study or you may serve. It’s your choice. After all, Christianity is all about you.
Checking the box
Another approach to benevolence is the legalistic view that pleasing God is being a member of the right church. And the right church is a church that has just the right “marks”: organization, name, and worship. A correctly formed church does benevolence and does evangelism. But it does these out of obligation, rather than a heart-felt love, and so benevolence tends to be of a token variety.
I do legal work for dozens of churches around the state, and many of the largest, wealthiest churches have only the tiniest benevolence programs. One church with a $20,000,000 building program only gives money to the poor out of its end-of-the year leftovers. Most churches have a program just large enough to avoid pangs of conscience due to the annoying beggars at the door.
The notion seems to be that any level of benevolence is enough, as all we’re trying to do is check the box and be a church that has the right characteristics. Big check, little check, it just doesn’t matter. Hence, when I mention my belief that we need to expand our benevolence activities, I’m told, “But we already have Harvest Hands! Why would we want to do more?” It’s rather like saying, “We already sent one missionary. Why send two?” Could it be: because we care?
The next approach is much more understandable. The person I’m speaking with says, “I know that we’re told to do benevolence. We’re told to do lots of things. But nothing is more important than saving souls! Why should we take resources from evangelism to feed the poor? Aren’t their souls more important than their stomachs?” And, indeed, their souls are more important.
Logically, it seems, we have finite resources. We have just so many volunteers, dollars, and hours in the day. Our evangelistic efforts aren’t all that effective as is, so plainly the remedy is to redouble our evangelistic efforts. When we finally get our evangelism in good working order, then we might find some remaining resources for a literacy program.
It makes sense. It’s just not biblical. Indeed, in Matt. 25, we are quite plainly told that our salvation depends on how we treat the hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned. James says that pure and undefiled religion is caring for widows and orphans. In 1 John 4, when John wishes to explain the meaning of love, he says that giving to those in need is truly living out the meaning of the cross. He never mentions evangelism.
In fact, while the Great Commission is quite plainly at the end of Matthew, it’s a bit surprising how much more emphasis the scriptures place on caring for the poor than on evangelism. We don’t see epistles to the Christians urging them to invite their friends. We see missionaries being sent, but we also see Christians selling all that they have to help each other out. We see deacons appointed to distribute food to the widows. We see Paul traveling the Mediterranean and, in addition to preaching the gospel, raising funds for the poor in Jerusalem.
Paul’s letters generally begin with a theological discourse and end with ethical teaching — how to live as Jesus wishes — and they never mention evangelism in the ethical sections. They do talk quite a lot about service.
In Peter’s great passage on how to live among the lost, he writes,
(1 Pet 2:11-12) Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
Amazingly, Peter seems to think that the pagans will glorify God because of our “good deeds”! Not our sound doctrine, not our celebrative worship, not our deep meditation, and certainly not our buildings. Not even our personal evangelism. Our good deeds — deeds so good that even those who hate us will see their goodness!
Obviously, these deeds must be visible and must be done in the name of God, or else no one will know whom to glorify. Indeed, this is reminiscent of something Jesus said-
(Matt. 5:13-16) “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
Christians individually, and the church as a body, must change the community in which we live. Salt permeates all that it touches and makes it taste better. Light expels darkness. Indeed, we are to do deeds of such goodness that they “cannot be hidden.”
Now, evangelism is, of course, of infinite importance, but the lost see it as of no value at all. If you have no faith, then you certainly can’t understand the incredible blessing of salvation. But everyone who has ever been thirsty understands the value of a glass of water.
(Mark 2:3-12) Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins … .” He said to the paralytic, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”
He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
Jesus forgave the paralyzed man of his sins — and he could have given him no greater gift. But no one glorified God. But when Jesus healed the man, even his enemies gave glory to God.
The Gospels teach that Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, and gave sight to the blind because of his compassion. To be true to his nature as God’s Son — the God who is love — he could have been no other way. And he also healed to demonstrate his credentials — to prove that he really is who he says he is.
Just so, the church is the body of Christ, and so must walk and live as Jesus walked and lived. Jesus had compassion that compelled him to help those in need. Jesus wept. If we do not feel the same way, we aren’t very much like Jesus. It’s not a choice on a smörgåsbord of Christian pleasures — it’s our essential nature as re-created by the Holy Spirit.
This is why we’ll never prove our credentials as true Christians until we heal, feed, and visit. Basketball and relationship-building events may make us a great social club, but we won’t be the church Jesus died for until we lay down our lives and serve others. Even the pagans serve themselves.
It has nothing to do with law. Rather, it is being true to who we are.
(Phil. 2:12-13) Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
You see, God — through his Spirit — works in us to want what he wants and so to do what he wants. And we know what God wants, because he lived among us and showed us. He wants us to live lives of compassion.
Compassion, therefore, denies the check-the-box mentality. The question is never: why one more benevolence effort? Or why one more missionary? But how many more can God empower us to do?
Thus, we have a fourth view of benevolence:
Good works and evangelism are synergistic. Indeed, neither works very well without the other. We never, ever do benevolence in order to save. We do benevolence because we love those we help. But because we love those we help, we also teach them about Jesus. But if they refuse the good news, we still help them.
(Luke 17:12-18) As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him-and he was a Samaritan.
Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Only one of the 10 thanked Jesus, but Jesus didn’t return the nine back into lepers. And Jesus healed them although he knew (knowing the future) that they’d be ingrates. And he kept healing. Compassion could do no less.
Benevolence, you see, does much more than feed the hungry and give us a chance to teach them the gospel. For example-
- Benevolence changes those doing the giving and helping. It softens our hearts and reinforces compassion in us. We become what we do.
- Benevolence defeats the argument that we’re all hypocrites. Christians will never be sinless, and we’ll always have leaders whose failures embarrass us. We can overcome our inevitable human failures by doing irresistibly good works, showing Jesus through our actions rather than pretending to show Jesus through our supposed perfection (or supposed perfect pattern keeping).
- This is because benevolence causes others who see what we do to praise God — and to recognize us as truly Christian.
- Benevolence gives the church a richer, more powerful sense of mission.
- More importantly, it gives us a sense that we are — finally! — being what we were called to be.
- Benevolence encourages giving. Especially in the Churches of Christ, people give as they see need rather than from discipline. Of course, if we would actually do what we are called to do, the discipline and the need would be the same.
- Benevolence can balance budgets from the other direction. It’s cheap. It’s cheaper to paint houses here than in Memphis. Cheaper to play with foster children here than in the Bahamas. Cheaper to teach job skills than to give hand outs. Cheaper to teach literacy than support the illiterate. Cheaper to get into the lives of the poor, bring them to Jesus and Christian living, and end the cycle of broken families, drug dependence, and crime that is destroying our society — than not. And people who’d struggle to give a weekly tithe will gladly stop by Home Depot and buy a can of paint and bring a ladder for a project they are working in.
- Benevolence speaks to the hearts of children. Too many kids grow up thinking church is about being a nice person and figure they can be nice without having to pay a tithe or get up on Sundays. Benevolence shows that Christianity is about changing the world.
- Benevolence speaks to the hearts of the Postmodern. The new worldview demands that we be “authentic” rather than just having the right positions. Of course, this means that God is just bit Postmodern himself. If we don’t live what we teach, we won’t reach those with this worldview.
- Benevolence changes the world. Done properly, we don’t just give the hungry fish, we teach them how to fish. We don’t just give money to the poor, we teach them how not to be poor. We teach individual responsibility, not dependence.
- Benevolence breaks down barriers. Today, at Tuscaloosa Middle School, whites and blacks often fight. The racial barriers are huge. But imagine if the blacks at TMS spent Sundays in an apartment-based VBS with the white kids helping out. Imagine a world where the blacks know their mother has a job because the father of the white kid next to him taught her to make a resume and interview for a job. Imagine a world where Alberta blacks and Wellington whites paint houses together during the summer — in Alberta rather than Memphis.
- Fellowship is noun, not a verb. We are in fellowship. It means partnership or sharing, and it has much more to do with working side by side than eating brownies together (2 Cor. 8:4). Of course, a partnership or sharing leads to social interaction, because goods deeds done together lead to friendship. And it’s in that order. Although friendship doesn’t necessarily lead to good deeds, we try to attract the lost by promises of “relationships,” which is a selfish motivation. As a result, we produce a crop of selfish Christians. To the extent we can seek and save through benevolence, we’ll produce converts to lives of committed compassion. Hence, benevolence makes for better fellowship, better converts, and better Christians.
- Benevolence also makes for better worship. We think we have to hire a professional worship leader to celebrate. I have a better idea: let Jesus accomplish something through our church worth celebrating! When our student finally gets a job, when our patient finally gets well, when the house is finally painted, when our friends made through service accept Jesus in baptism — hard work and a significant mission will lead to extraordinary celebration.
- And it’s great to praise God for forgiving my sin 40-plus years ago, but even better to praise God for what he’s doing in Alberta or the hospital or Harvest Hands right now! Benevolence gives us a better sense of God’s powerful action in the world. We don’t have to meditate to find God: we find God in the faces of those in need (Matt. 25, again).
- Benevolence makes for better study, meditation, and prayer. It drives us to our knees as we learn compassion for people with incredible needs. We seeks God’s presence because we know we have to rely on him, not to assuage our over-privileged American angst, but to help us cope with the sufferings of those around us. We study to be better at our mission, not for intellectual curiosity.
- Benevolence makes for better evangelism. For many, it’s easier to invite a friend to paint a house or help teach literacy than to attend a Bible study or worship. In fact, in this Postmodern age, it’s getting easier and easier to do this. And when a friend sees the power of God’s Spirit in our fellow workers, he’ll “see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
- Benevolence can also be the way to grow without yielding to the temptation to compete with other churches in town by catering to the latest whim in worship or architectural style. We may never be able to have the most exciting worship service (no band) or the most beautiful (no organ). I don’t think we’ll ever match the sanctuary at First Presbyterian. Perhaps the solution is to grow by entirely different means: by growing as a natural result of being Christ on earth to those who most need him.
- Benevolence unifies. We may disagree with many churches in town on many issues, but we all agree on caring for the poor. I can paint houses side by side with someone I may not be able to worship beside.
- Benevolence shows the world the unity of Christ. Of course, there’s not much unity to show, but what unity there is, is shown through the Soup Kitchen and Good Samaritan Clinic far, far more than through anything else. Frankly, if we’re ever to realize Jesus’ prayer in John 17 to be shown to be his disciples by our unity, it will come through benevolence, not ecumenical negotiations or, even less likely, doctrinal debates. We’ve tried those. They don’t work. Maybe love for our neighbor will get us there.
- And perhaps benevolence will help us outgrow our American desire to compete against the other churches in town. As we get involved and feel touched by the vast unmet needs in the community, we’ll quickly find that our congregation isn’t big enough to solve the problems. If we really care, we’ll go looking for help from other churches, and if they realize the same blessings we receive from service, we’ll be happy, because that will bring more workers into the field.
- As we bring Jesus to the poor, some may prefer to join a different congregation, and we should be happy that they found Jesus. On the other hand, we must make every possible effort to let them feel welcome and wanted at our congregation. We can’t truly love people and then shunt them away to another community.