(main sources: When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert, The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns, and the book of Matthew in the Bible)
Let’s start with a quote from When Helping Hurts:
“When people look at the church, they should see the very embodiment of Jesus!” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.40)
Sadly, the following is what people actually see:
In 2006, Barna researchers found that only 16 percent of “individuals who had no strong religious convictions themselves… had a good impression of Christianity. Worse, only 3 percent [had] a favorable impression of ‘evangelicals,’ with 49 percent saying they [had] a bad impression! One interviewee put it this way: ‘Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe’… The data also suggests that [Christians] have become defined by those things we are against rather than those we are for. We’re seen to be against homosexuality and gay marriage, against pornography and sexual promiscuity, against alcohol and drug use, abortion, divorce, Islam, evolution… even against those who believe that global warming is a threat.'” (Stearns, p.227, 229)
I wonder what survey respondents in Jesus’ day would say about him…
Actually, the Jewish religious leaders who wanted to kill him were probably more likely to be viewed the way Christians are today. They were the ones who strictly adhered to the Jewish laws concerning the Sabbath, tithing, fasting, etc. Jesus, on the other hand, was criticized for healing on the Sabbath, not making his disciples fast, and hanging out with prostitutes and tax-collecting swindlers. True, he probably did want to convert everyone. (I mean, if Christians really believe in the necessity of faith in Jesus, it would be hypocritical not to share about it.) But for Jesus, the thousands of people listening to him each day were there of their own volition and actually wanted to hear him speak.
Maybe Christians would be better received if we lived and communicated more like Jesus did:
“When we committed ourselves to following Christ, we also committed to living our lives in such a way that a watching world would catch a glimpse of God’s character – His love, justice, and mercy – through our words, actions, and behavior.” (Stearns, p.3)
Let’s break this down.
1. What if we communicated God’s character with only our words?
:: Mississippi in the 1960s ::
“Racial tensions were high as the federal government sought to end segregation… Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi…. terrorized African Americans throughout the region. Bowers was suspected of plotting at least nine murders of African Americans and civil rights workers, seventy-five bombings of African-American churches, and numerous beatings and physical assaults…
“While Reverend [Charles] Marsh preached personal piety and the hope of heaven, African Americans were being lynched… What would King Jesus do in this situation? Would He simply evangelize the African Americans, saying, ‘I have heard your cries for help, but your earthly plight is of no concern to me. Believe in Me, and I will transport your soul to heaven someday. In the meantime, abstain from alcohol, drugs, and sexual impurity”? Is this how Jesus responded to the blind beggar who pleaded for mercy [and so many others who asked for healing]?” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.35-37)
As James said in the Bible, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15-17).
What has happened to the church?
:: The Great Reversal ::
“The idea that the church should be on the front lines of ministry to the poor is not a new concept in the North American context. As numerous scholars have noted, prior to the twentieth century, evangelical Christians played a large role in ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor. However, this all changed at the start of the twentieth century as evangelicals battled theological liberals over the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Evangelicals interpreted the rising social gospel movement, which seemed to equate all humanitarian efforts with bringing in Christ’s kingdom, as part of the overall theological drift of the nation. As evangelicals tried to distance themselves from the social gospel movement, they ended up in large-scale retreat from the front lines of poverty alleviation. This shift away from the poor was so dramatic that church historians refer to the 1900-1930 era as the ‘Great Reversal’ in the evangelical church’s approach to social problems.” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.43-44)
Of course, in response to the Great Reversal, we shouldn’t just shift to dealing solely with social problems without teaching truth.
2. What if we communicated God’s character with only actions?
:: Bolivia ::
“A Christian relief and development agency attempted to improve crop yields for poor farmers in Bolivia’s Alto Plano. Although successful in increasing output, the impact on the farmers’ incomes was far less than hoped because of the farmers’ deep reverence for Pachamama, the mother earth goddess who presides over planting and harvesting. Seeking Pachamama’s favor, farmers purchased llama fetuses, a symbol of life and abundance, to bury in their fields before planting. At the time of the harvest, the farmers held a festival to thank Pachamama. The larger the harvest, the larger the celebration was. In fact, a large percentage of the farmers’ income was being spent on the fetuses and on the harvest festival, thereby contributing to the farmers’ material poverty. (Corbett & Fikkert, p.80)
:: Rwanda ::
“Converts need to be trained in a biblical worldview that understands the implications of Christ’s lordship for all of life… Failure to include this “all of life” element in the gospel has been devastating in the Majority World. There is perhaps no better example of this than Rwanda. Despite the fact that 80 percent of Rwandans claimed to be Christians, a bloody civil war erupted in 1994 in which the Hutu majority conducted a brutal genocide against the Tutsi minority and Hutu moderates. Over a three-month period, an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered, the vast majority of them Tutsis. How could this happen?… For most Rwandans, Christianity was ‘little more than a superficial, privatized veneer on a secular lifestyle characterized by animistic values and longstanding tribal hatred and warfare… The church was silent on such critical life-and-death issues as the dignity and worth of each person made in the image of God.” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.45-46)
Bolivians and Rwandans have years of rich culture and history that have consciously and subconsciously contributed to their belief systems, just as years of culture and history have influenced our North American understanding of the gospel (sometimes resulting in beliefs that may not be completely Biblical, as evidenced by the Great Reversal). Culture and history should definitely be taken into consideration when trying to figure out how to communicate and understand the truth of who Jesus is most fully (i.e. contextualization), but great care should be taken in determining what the unadulterated truth of the gospel actually is.
That being said, clearly communicating truth is essential and universal. As Corbett & Fikkert explain, “[teaching] the values of a ‘Protestant work ethic’ without teaching about the Creator of those values and about the transforming power of Jesus Christ is like giving out penicillin without ever explaining the source of the penicillin’s power.” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.91-92). Yes, Jesus healed and hung out with people – but that’s not all he did. He also preached a ton of truth about who he was and his role in the fulfillment of Jewish law – and that was absolutely necessary for people to understand the whole idea of the kingdom of heaven.
Let’s go one step further.
In When Helping Hurts, Corbett & Fikkert write that “the coexistence of agonizing poverty and unprecedented wealth… is an affront to the gospel… [What] is at stake is not just the well-being of poor people – as important as that is – but [also] the very authenticity of the church’s witness” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.16)
We’ve already seen that the church’s witness is pretty bad right now, and it’s not doing us or God any good if we as Christians – people who are supposed to be Christ’s ambassadors of love, justice, and mercy – are not doing anything about this coexistence of poverty and incredible wealth.
“There are some 340,000 Christian churches in the United States and about 155 million regular churchgoers. Let those numbers sink in for just a minute. Think of the possibilities. Think of the resources. Ponder the potential to change the world if all of these churchgoers ‘activated’ and ramped up their commitment to love their neighbors to a new, even higher level.” (Stearns, p.237)
More on this next time… 🙂