Mondays are for Discussion
Ed Stetzer had a great discussion at his blog last week. I got in on it so late that no one is going back there to read it. So I thought I would bring my comments over here in a slightly edited version
I have struggled with this question for the last 30 years. The church I planted and pastored for 17 years was in part an outgrowth of this struggle. I was sick of churches that proclaimed but did nothing and others that did something but proclaimed nothing.
Ed Stetzer, has asked which is to have priority, justice or proclamation? My own spin on this is that a wholistic reading of the gospels has to come down on the side of proclamation. I think any significant meditation on the life of Christ as a whole, not just selected parts, has to come to this conclusion. At the same time, the gospel is only truly evidenced by transformed lives that overflow with real tangible compassion for the poor.
One biblical warrant then, proclamation must be prior. But there is also strong reason based on church history, to be extremely cautious about moving justice to the foreground. Let me add a personal reason that, if we all reflect for a moment I think will have broader implications for the entire body of Christ because it is not just personal to who I am but to who we are as human beings.
Bear with me on some background that I know some of you know but others need to have to fully understand the direction of my thought.
Relevant personal history to stave off hate mail for what I am about to say:
The church I started and pastored for 17 years was multi-ethnic (23 countries of birth), started a food pantry that last year gave 23 tons of food to the poor, started a health clinic that last year served its 4000th patient, started a clothing pantry that puts warm clothes on the back of emigrees and appropriate clothing on the backs of parents going for job interviews. We negotiated with the local social service agency in our area to allow their housing coordinator to office out of our building. This year the church will open a dental clinic in the building. There is an eye clinic in the health clinic. And the church has begun to train other churches in how to start food pantries.
Out of this context, I wrote a devotional book, published by Broadman and Holman for those who are searching for a job (currently hoping to republish). The church leadership has received awards from the city for its work with gangs. All of this allowed us be highly personal in all aspects of these compassion/justice related issues. I love that God in his grace has allowed us to do all these things. They are part of the Kingdom of God coming near. But here is the difficulty.
While all of these things are good and laudable and biblical and Christlike they are not the gospel of repent and believe that Jesus preached. We love doing them; we should do them; we will continue to do them. But they are not the gospel itself.
Here’s a bigger problem however. All of these things that we do because of the love that Christ has given us through the gospel are things for which the culture loves us. And that, that thing that they love us for, is the hidden, intoxicating danger. EVERYONE, in the community loves that we do these things. They think that this is what the church and Christians should be doing. Even the atheists in town love us for doing these things. They smile at us. They pat us on the back. They tell us we are wonderful. They tell us that our church is a “real church.”
One mega church leader in our area says that if our church, which is five times smaller than his, disappeared, the whole region would feel the impact. This is intoxicating. And that is why, in some ways, it is easy to do. Who doesn’t like to be told that they are wonderful?
But proclaiming the gospel, the exclusive claims of the gospel, that there is salvation in no one else, that there is no other way to the Father except through Jesus, that hell is real, that heaven is only for those who repent and believe–that message will get you persecuted. And that’s why we will always tend to downplay proclamation in favor of activity.
That’s why we will substitute good deeds for essential proclamation. We love the pats on the back and we don’t like persecution. That’s why proclamation must be prior. That’s why so-called “missional churches” are just playing word games and deluding themselves if they are not evangelistically engaged. The data points of the gospel that Christ died our sins (1 Cor. 15:3) and that all men everywhere are commanded to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15) is critical and prior to everything else we do.