Jesus’s ministry vs. church ministry

Just a quick thought – I was just reading this article Mark Driscoll tweeted about how Acts 29, his church planting network, fared in the last calendar year: “4000 saved and 133 new churches.” 2010 was Acts 29’s “biggest year yet” after “an explosion of growth over the last five years.”

It’s pretty clearly implied in the article that numerical growth is linked to divine approval. Which is interesting. It’s one of the peculiarities of American evangelical culture that people simultaneously believe that their “persecution” is a sign that their version of Christianity is the true faith, and also believe that growing churches and revenue are a sign of divine blessing. It’s a convenient paradox; either way God is on their side.

The other thing that occurred to me was how very different the Acts 29 model of “ministry” is from Jesus’s ministry in the gospels. By a lot of measures today his ministry wasn’t terribly “gospel-centered” or all that successful. He had a small, rag-tag bunch of followers, most of whom were of pretty low status if not total outcasts (fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, adulteresses…). Sure, he told people to repent and converted people into his followers, but that wasn’t really the bulk of his ministry.

In the gospel accounts he seems to have spent far more time healing the sick, feeding people, and caring for the poor and marginalized, even arguing that such people were more righteous and closer to the kingdom of God that the rich and the religious elite of the time. He preached a radical vision for society: give up your wealth and security to follow the way, share what you have with those who have less, nonviolence, the poor are rich in spirit and the meek will inherit the earth, make yourself last if you want to be first. He spent a lot of time ministering to the physical needs of people who didn’t have much – something contemporary evangelicals consider to be a “distraction” from the gospel – and called that righteousness, and said those who failed to provide for the physical needs of those with less than them could not be part of his kingdom.

What if churches measured their ministries by this standard? What if they spent more time making sure everyone has food, shelter, healthcare, basic rights and needs than they did trying to police people’s morality or make their churches bigger or win more converts? What if they defined success by how many people they helped, by how much they shared with others, not how much money or people they could claim?

I’d be proud to belong to a faith like that.

15 Comments

  1. This post got me thinking a lot about my previous church (wanting to get bigger and win souls), and my current church which is all about helping others. I had a smile on my face.

  2. I think it is important to remember that the rag-tag outcasts were in need of a physician. That does not mean to imply the socially prominent were any less in need of a physician but I’m not so sure they were any more in need of a physician either. I think maybe the outcasts had less to be proud of and so were just more receptive to treatment.

  3. And yet Jesus’ final act before his ascension to (? hmm…) was to call on his disciples to go and make more disciples. I agree that the Church and the disciples made by the great commission should have a ministry which looks like that of Jesus, but is this incompatible with seeking to reach more people?

    • You missed the point. The point was that Jesus ALSO said “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me” and that people who don’t live up to that will have no part of his kingdom. If evangelicals tried to to live up to that part of the Gospels (and the many other parts that deal with healing the sick and caring for the poor) as well as they try to live out the part about converting people, people would be able to take their faith more seriously.

  4. It is interesting that many evangelicals had nothing but scorn for the Social Gospel groups who really put feeding the hungry first and foremost. (And whose study of the Bible and ancient cultures led them to reject literalism and eventually the divinity of Christ.)

    I was just realizing that I spent so much time at church, in prayer meetings, youth meetings, services etc. that I didn’t have time to go over and help my neighbours. I had a job that paid me to do youth work, but I didn’t have time to follow up with practical help. Church kept me too busy.

    • I was just realizing that I spent so much time at church, in prayer meetings, youth meetings, services etc. that I didn’t have time to go over and help my neighbours. I had a job that paid me to do youth work, but I didn’t have time to follow up with practical help. Church kept me too busy.

      I think this is the general model in many conservative evangelical churches. It’s like the point of church is to spend as much time as possible with fellow church members, and as much money as possible on one’s own church. Again, not terribly in line with what Jesus did.

  5. It seems to me this division between the the ideal and the practical is at least as old as Mary and Martha, and there is still something to be learned about our apparent inability to combine them.

    I believe it is too easy to focus on worldly need to the exclusion of spiritual need just as it is too easy to focus on spiritual need and expect God to fill the ever present need of the poor and broken.

    Given that the problem has existed at least 2 millennium I suspect it is a structural defect in human beings. As a friend of mine used to say, “I can do all things through Christ, just not at the same time.”

    Maybe the solution is to apply division of labor and encourage those with the gifts to minister in the fields in different roles to do just that, recognizing that there are many members of the body and not to think our own function more important than another, but instead to esteem other roles and ministries as better than our own.

    • Thanks for your comments and welcome to the blog :)

      In my opinion a huge part of the problem is that ministering to “spiritual” needs is separated from ministering to material needs. That’s precisely what makes it easy for so many conservative churches to neglect or ignore altogether the needs of the poor and human rights issues. True religion is caring for the orphan and the widow. Poverty and discrimination aren’t just material injustices, they cause psychological and spiritual trauma, too. The fact that so many churches are able to ignore this is testament to the fact that they don’t have any significant population of the poor or the marginalized in their congregations – it speaks to the incredible segregation (in many ways) of the American church.

      • Grace,
        Thanks for the welcome.

        I agree there are social problems reflected in the way ministries are incarnated in our society. An inner city church is a different experience in many ways from a suburban or rural church. What cannot and should not be different is the love and communion shared in those incarnations.

        The social perspective, the local dialect, the pressing issues of these individual churches are shaped by their environment and the make-up of their congregations. I don’t believe you are trying to imply that only white middle class churches are conservative. What I think you are saying is that middle class (regardless of race) churches seem blithely unaware of the problems of the poor because they are underrepresented in those congregations. My experience is that those churches do minister to the poor in their congregations and often to the poor in their communities. Either fortunately or unfortunately because of the very social distribution you identify the poor are not the largest part of their ministry and don’t get much press (as should be expected).

        I am not arguing that there is not social irresponsibility on the part of some “high minded” churches who tithe mint but neglect the weightier matters of the law. The Lord knows there is enough sin in all the churches to go around. What I am saying is that there are gifts in each church as well that provide the fullness of Christ to the world. I am suggesting we embrace and encourage the fullness of those gifts. Do you have a social gospel, praise God. Do you have an evangelical gospel, praise God. Do you have both, Hallelujah!

        As the wise man said:
        Let not him who eats despise him who abstains nor him who abstains condemn him who eats.

      • I grew up in overwhelmingly white, middle class conservative fundamentalist and/or evangelical churches (I myself am not white). I use the shorthand of ‘conservative’ because it’s tiresome to type that out in every post or comment :p So yes, I’m not suggesting that those kinds of churches are the only conservative ones, but they are the target of most of my critique on this blog.

        If it were the case that the make up of neighborhoods was random coincidence, I might agree with you. But the fact is that racial and class residential segregation are both the result of deliberate policies to exclude people of color and the poor that continue to have ramifications today, and the accumulation of millions of individual choices by white Americans to flee urban neighborhoods after once racial integration began to be legally enforced. Many middle and upper class conservative Christians (again using shorthand here) are blissfully unaware of the problems of others because they live in residential bubbles formed for precisely that purpose – to allow people the luxury of continuing to be unaware of these problems.

        The notion of a church that’s more gifted to preach an evangelical gospel than a social one makes very little sense to me. The evangel that Jesus preached *was* a social gospel.

  6. Grace,

    Thanks for maintaining the discussion.

    I believe we agree that the societal problems important to a church are influenced if not dependent upon its social context (I do not argue this is right and proper, only that it is). Maybe what we differ on is whether the make up and therefore focus of a given church has more to do with the society where it is instantiated than the make up of that society has to do with the doctrine of the church. I believe the former but understand the arguments of influence for the latter.

    Again I agree the gospel of Christ was social, but I also believe it was more than that. As Paul (I think) wrote, if we have hope in Christ in this life only we are of all men most miserable.

    • Maybe what we differ on is whether the make up and therefore focus of a given church has more to do with the society where it is instantiated than the make up of that society has to do with the doctrine of the church. I believe the former but understand the arguments of influence for the latter.

      I don’t think differences in doctrine matter as much as differences in culture, experiences, and demographics, honestly. The divide in the evangelical church is a perfect example of this – using the term “evangelical” more broadly to refer to certain beliefs about the Bible and salvation. You have whites and blacks who believe more or less the same thing, but for the most part worship in segregated churches. You see the same phenomenon in most Christian traditions, both liberal and conservative.

      Again I agree the gospel of Christ was social, but I also believe it was more than that. As Paul (I think) wrote, if we have hope in Christ in this life only we are of all men most miserable.

      Sure, there were spiritual aspects to what Jesus preached, but he was pretty explicit that neglect of the social aspects was neglect of the gospel altogether. He called people who failed to provide for the least among them evildoers.

      • You may have misunderstood me. I did not mean to imply that differences in doctrine were more or less important than culture WRT practice. What I was trying to say was that the churches are products of their culture (with a nod to the influence the doctrines may have on that culture). That is exactly why you see segregated churches, and I think we agree on this.

        Again I think we also agree that Christ taught the status quo of that social organization (which predates the incarnation of Christ) is neither good nor sufficient.

        What I am insisting is that the remedy of that situation must be addressed from both the result of changing the model (what is commonly referred to as the social gospel) and explaining the reason for that change (what we understand as preaching). Neither makes sense without the other.

        The idea that one church may be better than another in a specific ministry is borne out by Scripture. I’ve been to several churches and Apollos is a better preacher, I’d listen to him over Paul any day ;-)

  7. Well, you can also have different gods and different Jesus’ by using the scripture. Why do we pretend we need the scripture to validate what we believe?

    • This is Grace’s blog but I think the question was directed to me based on the reference to scripture.
      At Grace’s pleasure – the shortest answer I can give is that scripture is both a common (though sometimes imprecise) language to express spiritual principles and a reference that has been analyzed and validated( in as much as it has not fallen into disuse as that language) for many hundred years of human history. A fuller discussion is probably the subject of another blog (one I have been thinking about in fact).