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7 Non-Negotiables for Church Engagement in Compassion

7 Non-Negotiables for Church Engagement in Compassion

The Greatest of All identified Himself with the “least of these”.  Jesus’ economy flips ours on its head – rich is poor and poor is rich.  He modeled healing and feeding to open ears before disclosing who He is (i.e. the Gospel).  His parables of the Good SamaritanSheep and Goats, and Rich Man and Lazarus could even be misread to infer our eternal fate hinges on our response to poverty.  Of course, we’re saved by God’s grace alone, but the implication is clear – no authentic Christ-follower will ignore the (materially) poor.

For roughly 1,900 years, churches took those warnings seriously.  Local churches were the food bank and homeless shelter – the first place the destitute turned for help.  The Church was the spiritual, social, and charitable “center of town” across the globe – integral and integrated.  Even the word “charity”, derived from Old English, means “Christian love of one’s fellows”.  Few disputed our right to speak up on issues of importance to a community or culture – in their eyes, we had earned the right to do so.  Yet over the past century, churches gradually abdicated the front lines of poverty alleviation in America.  The failed Social Gospel Movement and New Deal era sparked that transition, but another movement emerging over the past few decades accelerated the separation of compassion from evangelism – Church Growth.

The Church Growth Movement is incompatible with Jesus’ model for Kingdom growth.   It encourages attraction and retention of churchgoers, not development and deployment of disciples.  It treats congregations as “customers” rather than Kingdom “employees”.  It directs attention and resource allocation inward, not out, toward the real “customer” that every Christian should be pursuing – those in dire need of help and hope.  Consequently, performance expectations have shifted, with members church hopping and shopping to find the best “experience”.  Church has become centralized around a place and pastors, asking attenders to encourage friends to come next Sunday to hear the gospel from a “professional”.  Invite/Involve/Invest (engaging attenders in church) is now our rallying cry, not Prayer/Care/Share (sending disciples out to reach the lost).  Churches no longer feel at liberty to demand “consumers” take personal responsibility for discipleship, compassion, and evangelism.  However, if churches still viewed congregants as Kingdom workers, we would imitate companies and train them to be effective in their “mission fields”.

The only way the Church in America can stem its decline in growth, impact, influence, and public perception is to abandon Church Growth principles.  No organization that targets the wrong customer or ignores its intended customer can succeed.  The safety net in America for hundreds of years was not government programs but generous churches and Christians.  Yet today cynicism mounts each time we run seasonal “outreach” events that double as church advertising – and then retreat back into our 4 walls, seemingly forgetting that those we served are still hungry and hurting after the holidays.  As Christians, we won’t regain our voice in the marketplace of ideas until we resume sharing and demonstrating Jesus’ deep love for the poor – year-round.

Assuming a church is its members, members are its Kingdom “employees”, and the unchurched are its biblical “customer”, here are 7 non-negotiables for church engagement in compassion:

  1. Pray for the Lord to reveal the ideal opportunities, not just what’s expedient…

Prayer precedes Care and Share in Jesus’ model because the options and outcomes of our compassion and evangelism are in the Father’s hands.  Too often churches default to what’s most convenient – a service day at a popular local ministry or meal packing event on the church campus.  An externally focused church would assess pressing issues in its community and develop plans to address them collaboratively with other leaders.  It would surrender its priorities and goals to the Lord’s revealed will for reaching the city.  Surrender entails risking members gaining exposure to ministries where they may feel called to devote time and resources.  Surrender means seeking to maximize impact, even though that involves getting our hands dirty – walking alongside individuals and families as they plot and implement their own paths to a brighter future.

  1. Treat those we’re helping as equals, not as the “rich helping the poor”…

Every human being suffers some form of poverty, whether it’s spiritual, psychological, relational, or financial.  Maintaining awareness of our own shortcomings keeps us dependent on the grace of God.  However, emphasis on church growth papers over some of our Christian duties by imagining the central focus of the church is to meet our personal needs.  Once those needs are met, we’re conditioned to feel anything we do to serve others deserves “extra credit”.  On the contrary, the Bible teaches that poverty alleviation is not optional – a mandate, not a favor.  Failure to get involved is an expression of our own poverty and evidence of the depths of our depravity.  Only when churchgoers understand who the real “customer” is will we learn to imitate Jesus in His humility as a servant.  However, we can’t follow His example until we’re aware of how Jesus treated everyone with dignity.  Yet few churches still offer personalized, intensive discipleship (studying Jesus’ life to walk in His footsteps) because the commitment required conflicts with Church Growth priorities.  So rather than adopting a stance of humility and service toward the materially poor, we often perpetuate an illusion of superiority by serving sequentially (after our needs are met), selfishly (expecting kudos), and sporadically (transactionally, on occasion).

  1. Train members to share the Gospel powerfully and proactively…

Evangelistic responsibilities of churchgoers have essentially been reduced to testimonies and invitations.  For the same reason companies lack the leverage to push customers too hard for referrals, churches aren’t willing to ask members to do things most find extremely uncomfortable.  Invitations to church absolve us of our personal responsibility for the Great Commission.  Testimonies alone are problematic.  They emphasize what Jesus did for “me” and associate the first part of my story (“who I was”) with the unredeemed listener.  Unfortunately, few churchgoers are prepared to go much further than a personal testimony.  So when churches do “outreach” they risk repeating the mistakes of the Social Gospel Movement, which attempted to preach the Gospel without words (through acts of kindness alone).  Churches should be increasing engagement in discipleship and compassion to put more Christians in positions to share their faith.

  1. Build ongoing relationships because that’s the answer to poverty in all its forms…

Our friends at True Charity and The Chalmers Center teach that material poverty originates through broken relationships (with God, His creation, ourselves, and others) and poverty ends when they’re repaired.  The strength of relationships determines the effectiveness of interventions.  However, the success of Church Growth models depend on members and visitors coming back next Sunday.  So most churches conduct occasional “outreach” events that require little time and few volunteers.  Unfortunately, that transactional compassion does more harm than good, building dependence and humiliating those in need of handouts to make it through the day.  That’s why Meet The Need’s new Link2Hope platform builds sustainable circles of support around families, providing comfort in the knowledge they’re not alone and in the hope found only in Jesus.

  1. Deal with the underlying issues, not surface-level symptoms…

Only churches can address and restore all four broken relationships at the root of material poverty.  Arms-length, infrequent events fail to take advantage of the unique position churches are in to heal the whole person – body, mind, affections, and will.  For example, a new job fully leveraging our strengths and capabilities positively impacts our physical, mental, and emotional state.  A pastor may counter that his church deals with the whole person and all four key relationships after people join the congregation.  However, that reflects a failure to recognize that those outside the church, not their members, are the true “customers” in need of healing.

  1. Test intentions to make sure compassion isn’t advertising or “checking the box”…

If churchgoers are treated as “customers”, then local mission activities are likely for their benefit, not for the (materially) poor.  The Church Growth Movement hijacked the words “outreach” and “ministry” due to the tremendous manpower its churches need to sustain operations.  “Outreach” now implies advertising and “ministry” refers primarily to internal “church chores”.  The design of initiatives reveals the heart behind them.  Their proximity, duration, budget, and metrics reveal the sincerity of a church’s commitment to poverty alleviation.  Significant expenditures aimed at moving the needle over a long period in unity with partners without announcing it to the world likely means a church is more about Kingdom growth than organizational “success”.

  1. Mobilize members into personal ministry in their neighborhoods and workplaces…

Waiting for the next church-sponsored event to serve or inviting people to church to hear the Gospel won’t reach all the coworkers, neighbors, family, and friends within each member’s circles of influence who remain unwilling to be part of a church body.  That’s why no one is exempt from GC3 – the Great Commandment, Great Commission, and Great Calling.  The Church Growth Movement’s lack of focus on personal discipleship, compassion, and evangelism was exposed during COVID-19.  Even long-time, faithful churchgoers were unprepared to be “pastors” of their neighborhoods and workplaces, missing countless opportunities to be the personification of church when the building’s doors were closed.

All flourishing organizations evaluate employee performance based on customer satisfaction, but dominant narratives of church growth measure the performance of the wrong “employees” and the satisfaction of the wrong “customers.”  We’ve asked too much of the church “professionals” and too little of the members.  In the end, refocusing our efforts on discipling members to reach the hurting in our communities is the better and more biblical strategy to expand the Kingdom of God.  Compassion evangelism is how the Church took the ancient world by storm, and it’s the blueprint for revival today.

 

This article was originally written for the True Charity Network

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