|Emergency food for Liberian orphans, Feb 2004|
The Early Church was radical in serving the needy (Acts 2:45-46; 4:32-37) in an emergency situation. Generosity has always been encouraged, but not required or imposed (Acts 5:4; 2 Cor. 9:7) because it is a matter of the heart. “Doing good and sharing with others” (Heb. 13:17) as Jesus had done (Acts 10:38) was a natural act of servanthood for early Christians whom Jesus had sent out (John 20:21).
Before the advent of the welfare state, churches saw it as part of their ministry to care for the poor, sick, and needy. Christians today still provide the majority of volunteer and financial support for most of the good work done in our country. Evangelicals who are faithful in church attendance give more to their churches than do nominal members (or even members of liberal and mainline churches), and they also give more to secular charities than non-believers. Evangelicals are more likely to volunteer time, and they give more blood than anyone else. “Non-religious” sociologist Ram C. Cnaan of the University of Pennsylvania studied 12 churches in Philadelphia alone and found that each church, on average, provided $476,663.24 of services in 2009 to their surrounding communities. First Baptist Church, Philadelphia alone provided in 2009 over $6.1 million of services to the community (nearly 10 times its annual budget).
Some evangelicals are hesitant to affirm the value of social ministry, fearing repetition of the error of some liberal Christians in substituting social ministry for the preaching of the Gospel (the so-called “Social Gospel”). But social ministry and gospel ministry are not an either/or. They are a both/and partnership. Both are valid expressions of Christ’s love. For many non-believers, the emphasis on serving the community, the poor, the sick and the needy is a validation of the Gospel message which we offer. While receiving service ministry should never be made conditional upon one’s reception of the Gospel, the reality is that social ministry opens doors to hearts and builds bridges to communities and people’s hearts by which the Gospel can be communicated effectively. When we demonstrate Christ’s love, non-believers see and appreciate that our faith is real and vital.
The new generation of churches and leaders who call themselves “missional” do not see a dichotomy between social ministry and gospel ministry. They are fused together as one validates the other through a genuine desire to serve. The danger for them is repeating the mistakes of the early 20th century of doctrinal drift from the exclusivity of Christ and an historic evangelical position to a more classical liberal mindset. That drift has become evident in some groups who have quite conservative theological roots. Why? When a staff member is needed who specializes in the social aspect of ministry, they often overlook the staff member’s doctrinal accuracy in favor of her or his expertise in social ministry. Thus the drift begins. The safety factor is to teach those with a high view of Scripture and the exclusivity of Christ the importance of ministry to society in Jesus’ Name and the dangers of enclosing one’s church in a fortress mentality to fight against the world. Jesus said that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the church, not the other way around (Matt. 16:19).
I am indebted to John Hammett at Southeastern Seminary for much of this material.