We’re not going to find the answer in our culture (American or church)–which pretty much lets out surveys. Rather, we have to take a fresh look at scripture. We are so culturally conditioned to our way of doing church that we are often blind to what’s missing–not just the leaders, but the church as an institution.
Some of our more mature members sense that there’s a problem. They know in their bones that this isn’t right. But they don’t know why. And so they leave looking for an answer.
You see, we’re often guilty of limiting our walk with Jesus to good moral behavior and sound doctrine, and certainly these are important to Jesus. But Jesus spent most of his time on earth preaching the good news and helping people in need our of selfless compassion.
Repeatedly, the gospels summarize Jesus’ work in passages like this–
(Matt. 9:35-38) Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
We American Christians habitually focus on the evangelism aspects of this passage, but just as important is the compassionate care of those in need.
Indeed, the last lesson Matthew records Jesus teaching before his crucifixion is a picture of the Judgment–
(Matt. 25:34-36) “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “
We rarely preach that salvation depends on how well we treat those in need, but Jesus thinks its essential. Any theology that ignores this and countless similar passages is false doctrine. I’m not denying salvation by faith. I just think we need to honor the teachings of Jesus.
Now, let’s quickly dispose of some false interpretations of these passages:
* This is not about the church having a benevolence program. Rather, the lesson is about the church being a benevolence program. Jesus plainly teaches that this is how Christians are to live. Consider —
(Matt. 25:37-40) “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'”
The saved are not pictured as helping others because it’s one more checkmark on the list of how to be organized according to the pattern. And not because helping people equates to helping Jesus. Rather, they helped out of compassion for those helped.
This is why we’re called the “body of Christ.” The church is called to be Jesus on earth until he returns–and that means continuing his work.
* We serve out of love. Therefore, helping those in need is never conditioned on participating in a Bible study or being a church member. No one feels loved while being coerced.
Jesus helped many–most–who never responded to his message. He knew they wouldn’t. He helped them anyway.
Now, to the point. I think the reason so many Christians, especially mature Christians, get dissatisfied with church is that most churches aren’t doing what they were called to do. They’re doing some of it, but not all of it.
We are like an army that has a great USO program, great army hospitals, and great chow lines–but no guns. If anyone suggests that the army actually conquer territory or defend the borders, the army gets all huffy and points out the urgency of great payroll services and motor vehicle repairs.
“You can’t fight a war without great military academies and army psychiatrists,” the army argues, and it’s true. But you can’t be an army if you never engage the enemy.
We church people want to do everything God calls us to–except seek and save the lost and serve those in need. We love to study and teach, worship and fellowship, pray and meditate–just don’t ask us to deal with those outside the church!
Which is why our programs appeal more to the immature and growing than to the most mature among us.
And this creates a great, gnawing, empty hole in the church as an institution–and in our souls.
We protest that this is the “social gospel,” but it’s not. The social gospel is the church prevailing on the government to help the poor. The gospel–the one Jesus preached–is the church helping the poor. There’s a difference.
Some claim this is a works based religion. Well, if it is, it’s the same religion Jesus preached. (Any theology that sets Paul and Jesus at odds has misunderstood them both.)
Others claim that the poor don’t need help because they’re lazy and spoiled. Only those who’ve never worked with the poor think this way. There are, of course, lazy among the poor (and among church goers!), but this is not the root of the problem.
In the next post, one possible way to address this problem.