Sitting in our Global Sunday School class yesterday, I listened while the speaker pleaded for everyone’s involvement in caring for orphans. He cited numerous statistics portraying the church as insensitive and uncaring when dealing with marginalized people groups. Then he read James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”
Meanwhile, I’m reading yet another book, written by a ministry leader from Asia, that scolds the American church for our misplaced priorities. Here are a few quotes to give you the idea:
- “While much of the world is concerned mainly about where its next meal is coming from, affluent North Americans spend most of their wages and waking moments planning unnecessary purchases.”
- “I found that believers are ready to get involved in almost any activity that looks spiritual but allows them to escape their responsibility to the Gospel.”
- “Unless there is repentance among Christians—individually and in concert as a community of believers—an awesome judgment will fall on America.”
Books and blogs, magazines and sermons all focus on how selfish the American church is. How we worship comfort more than God. How we want to feel good rather than do good.
Of course, we all know that there is plenty of basis for these accusations. But is it really that bad? I’m aware of many, many believers who have made huge personal sacrifices in order to take the Gospel to where it has never been heard. Others rush to provide emergency aid in the face of disasters. And still others have chosen to forego the lucrative career they could have had in order to work for ministries at subsistence wages.
We don’t read about these saints in the newspapers or see movies based on their lives (with a few notable exceptions). Most go about their work quietly, in the background, not seeking recognition.
I think we underestimate the church. Look at the huge rise in the numbers of people heading overseas on short-term mission trips. When our church has a work day at the “disadvantaged” end of town, thousands of people show up to clean, paint, weed, and serve. When there is a food drive, we fill trucks. Provide an opportunity to help others, and we rush to sign up. And we don’t care who gets the credit.
And what about those pew warmers who are not involved?
Maybe the problem isn’t so much that people are unwilling. It’s that we look at the needs, magnified by our on-the-spot news reports from all over the world, and we feel overwhelmed. What can we possibly do that would make any difference at all?
Some people are really good at seeing a need and responding in just the right way. Others of us hesitate, not because we don’t want to get involved, but because it’s complicated. Do we give money? Will that help? Or are we enabling self-destructive behaviors? Do we befriend someone? How do we create a bridge between people from very different walks of life? Are we addressing a need overseas? What’s appropriate in that culture? We don’t know where to begin.
Even for those who truly are uncaring and self-centered, I doubt that blame and guilt are effective motivators. Is that how God woos us? Isn’t it God’s kindness that brings us to repentance (Romans 2:4)?
Perhaps what we need isn’t another message on how horrible we are at following Jesus. Rather, we need someone to show us how to do better. In short, we need leadership.
Ideally, the local church should provide that leadership. We should be helping widows and orphans. We should be coming alongside the poor, helping them help themselves. We should be sending missionaries.
Some churches do this very well, but most seem to focus on other priorities. We build buildings. We hire staff. We hold services with worship leaders, choirs, and skilled preachers. We sponsor conferences and teach Sunday school. And all these are reasonable activities. But—what about the poor, the marginalized, the unbelievers in our cities? What about those living overseas who have never had a chance to hear the name of Jesus? I think our church leadership is just as overwhelmed and clueless as the rest of us.
So what do you think? Does your church provide you with a way to care for the poor, or to bring the good news to those without access to the gospel? Are our hearts really so far from God’s heart? Do we deserve the bashing we’re receiving?