Monday, December 01, 2008

What Christians Should Do

Lately, I have been frequently critical of efforts by evangelical Christians (I am one) to impact culture, engage in politics, and fill their churches and evangelize. Rather than merely criticize, I thought I would offer some alternatives that would do more good, but, first, a little historical background is needed.

Around the start of the 20th century, under the influence of leaders such as Walter Rauschenbusch, American Christians began talking about something called the "Social Gospel." Advocates of this movement focused on the Christian imperative to meet the physical needs of people.

Of course, Christians have always done this to one degree or another, but Rev. Rauschenbusch took an either or approach that resulted in an unfortunate division. His idea was to focus on meeting physical needs instead of preaching the Gospel as most Protestants have historically understood it (that Christ died for our sins, rose again, must be received by faith, and so forth). It is not surprising that the liberals of his day embraced that idea, as by then they did not much believe in things like substitutionary atonement and the need for deliverance from divine condemnation because of sin anyway.

What is unfortunate is that the evangelicals and fundamentalists of that day reacted against the Social Gospel by regarding as suspect any ministry that focused on meeting physical needs instead of evangelizing. While conservative Protestants never abandoned an interest in meeting physical needs, they clearly became more focused on evangelizing to a point where they sometimes would not be involved in compassionate ministry unless there was some evangelistic goal. Some preachers would dismiss ministries meeting physical needs, saying it would do no good to give a man a full stomach with which to enter hell.

The role of the church, both conservative and liberal, in meeting physical needs was further eroded in the aftermath of the New Deal, as the government, rather than the church, became the primary focal point for meeting human needs. Again, this should not be overstated. Christian organizations have contributed billions of dollars and countless hours in volunteer time in meeting human needs. However, these efforts have tended to be ad hoc and uncoordinated. Arguably, they have never been a centralized focus for most evangelicals, nor have they contributed as much as they could have if they had been a greater area of focus.

Readers can criticize this broad brush overview with a thousand exceptions, but they are exceptions. The rule is as I have described.

And that divorce from compassionate ministry meeting physical needs has been both unscriptural and has done great damage to the evangelical cause. Evangelicals today are not for the most part known for their contributions in helping hurting people or to the culture. They are known mostly for what they are against.

There are two important things that evangelicals should do in a coordinated way if we want to minister to our world.

First, we should start schools that would allow the least among us to gain access to a quality, classical education. Of course, Christian churches have started lots of schools, but most of them have been for our own kids. These should be schools in the worst parts of cities, where we can provide hope to the single mother living in between two crack houses that her kids can have a chance at something better. We should not wait for legislatures to pass voucher programs before we do it. We should raise the money to allow the poorest children to enroll. Catholics have done some of this work with parochial schools in disadvantaged areas. Evangelicals have contributed very little. That should change.

Second, we should get in the health care business. Of course, hospitals still bear names showing that they were founded for charitable reasons, but that mission has been largely lost. Christian groups need to get involved in a big way in providing primary care medical services to those who cannot afford it. While everyone else argues about political solutions for those who cannot afford health care, Christians should find a way to provide it.

Objections? Well, it won't be evangelistic. True, but somehow, I think that people might be more prone to listen to our message if we demonstrate -- with no strings attached -- that we really care, and that the love has Christ has transformed us to care to such a degree.

It will also be expensive. These types of ministries would be costly and would require significant fund raising. We might have to cut back on the high tech glitz that we have become accustomed to in order to help pay for this kind of ministry.

In all seriousness, that would be a sacrifice. Sometimes, I like the glitz. However, it might also be refreshing for those of us who enjoy neon to recall that we worship a Savior who entered this world into a barn.


Blogger Lanette said...

You mentioned things that take entire churches to accomplish, but where should the work start? With individuals. What suggestions do you have for the individual Christians to make such changes in meeting the physical needs?

1:09 PM  
Blogger MCO said...

First, I am not sure that this work can really be accomplished by individual churches operating independently. I think it would need to be an effort that involved the entire evangelical community in a region. That is part of the problem. Churches don't collaborate enough, especially when it involves crossing denominational lines. That is unfortunate, as evangelicals should not regard themselves as being in competition with one another. We are all on the same side.

As far as individuals, I think we need leadership from committed Christians with good business sense and a zeal for ministry to create the vision, raise the money and commitment to volunteer support, and drive these ideas into existence. To be done well, they would need both paid staff and volunteers for both professional and all other kinds of roles.

1:39 PM  

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