I’m currently reading The Poor Will Be Glad by Peter Greer (president of HOPE International) and Phil Smith. Just getting into it, but am really enjoying it so far. The book brings up the idea of what “gospel” really is – or maybe more acutely, how we as Christians are supposed to bring Jesus to the world. The two main sides of this debate have been “social” gospel, by which Christians minister to the world through meeting physical needs, and the “saved” gospel, in which Christians minister to the world through preaching and converting people. There are, obviously, many more layers to each of these, but for this letter these basic understandings should be suffice.
In the chapter “Making a Feast for Jesus,” Smith writes that for centuries after Jesus’ time on earth, the Christians grew the Church primarily through meeting the physical needs of their neighbors, especially during plague and suffering. Out of fear of catching various illnesses, unbelieving folks fled from outbreaks and epidemics, while believers stayed behind to provide care for those in need (possibly because of their assurance that this life was indeed temporary, yet still important). The result was that many sick unbelievers, who were abandoned by previous social networks, converted to Christianity. This wasn’t some sly, back-handed way of “making conversions” as some say it is – it was simply the local church being the big Church. Loving people.
The “saved” gospel emphasizes the need for salvation and repentance. Leaders and movements focused exclusively now on teaching and preaching the Word, with primary concerns being saving souls and going to heaven. It’s what is primarily being focused on today in most churches. It’s focus became imminent after the “social” gospel began only focusing on physical needs and neglecting the spiritual needs. As with many things in life, the pendulum swung from too far to one side, to too far on another side (note the lack of “left” or “right” in my words).
Jesus’ great commission (go and baptize all nations) and his great commandment (love them as you love you) reflect the seamless harmony of both these mini-gospels to create the real Gospel. It’s not one or the other (social or saved), it’s both. And that’s what we as Christians need to take to the world. Meet their physical needs (as James tells us true religion is), but also tell them about Jesus. Errors in neglecting either of these mini-gospels has disastrous effects. If you feed the homeless day in and day out but never approach eternal issues, you’ve only met a temporary need. If you preach, teach, and evangelize from the pulpit or the streets but never provide food or clothing, your words may be falling on deaf ears.
I believe that the Church is reaching a point where the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way (back towards social). The Church has become known for what we stand against (largely due from preaching words and not loving deeds) and we’ve neglected our call to take care of the needy and poor. Also – the government has provided social services, such as Social Security and Medicare, that in some ways replace the need for church activities. I wonder by the time you read this, Jack, if we will have swung too far towards the social, and begun neglecting the spiritual needs again. I hope not, but judging from pendulum swings in history, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised.
I guess my real intent with this is to encourage you to love people in both ways. Meet their physical needs, but meet their spiritual needs as well. Phil Smith said that “Christianity grew because it was attractive and inclusive.” I hope that as you read this you can find those words to be true in your own life and in the life of your church. Till next time, Jack.