In the last year or so, my son David, President of the Barna Group and author of the best-selling book unChristian, said to me, “Dad, it seems like Micah 6:8 has become the key verse of my generation.”
It reads: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Indeed, the last decade has seen a flurry of books on the “missional” church, some of the more notable being:
- The Church of Irresistible Influence, Robert Lewis
- The Externally Focused Church, Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw
- The Present Future and Missional Renaissance, Reggie McNeal
- Seek the Peace of the City, Eldin Villafane
- The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch
- The Hole in Our Gospel, Richard Stearns
- Let Justice Roll Down, John Perkins
- The Irresistible Revolution and Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne
Not to be overlooked, of course, are the multiple and sometimes controversial writings of Jim Wallis of Sojourners.
President Bush joined the movement by establishing the White House Council on Faith-based and Community Initiatives, based on the well-known but often underrated fact that faith-based organizations actually help people, often in more significant ways than non-faith based non-profits and government agencies.
As a result of President Bush’s faith-based initiatives, thirty-seven states established governor’s councils on faith-based and community initiatives, and most recently, here in Arizona, our Department of Economic Security (DES) has embraced an extraordinary department -wide effort to work with the faith community.
In my experience, however, conservative, evangelical churches have been slow to recognizing the opportunities. When I became Chairman of Governor Napolitano’s Council on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, I was stunned by the relative absence of the influence of local Christ-centered, Bible-believing churches. Thankfully, this is changing.
A little Bible and theology
The focus of ministry in the evangelical world has been to bring people to Christ, to disciple them in the teachings of the Bible, and to obey the Great Commission to reach the nations with the Gospel.
Mainline, liberal churches, on the other hand, have stood by the “social gospel,” the belief that the primary purpose of the local church is to help the helpless, to make a difference in the lives of the poor and economically oppressed, and to be a voice for social justice,
Evangelicals have generally rejected the idea of the social gospel, because it’s been associated with liberal churches who hold a less literal and orthodox view of the Bible and generally embrace left-leaning political and social causes.
Recently, for example, radio and television personality Glenn Beck warned people about “social justice.” Regrettably, he told his listeners to search the mission statements of their churches for the term “social justice,” and if they find it, to leave their church immediately.
Whatever we call it–the social gospel, or social justice–helping the poor and justice for the oppressed are important biblical themes. The Hebrew term for righteousness, for example, may be closer in meaning to the English word “justice.” In the Bible, righteousness is not just a matter of personal holiness, but turning the wrong-ness of the world into right-ness. This is inherent in the Lord’s prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
I like to define the kingdom of God, simply, as everything-that’s- wrong-made-right. Every time a teenager says, “That’s not fair,” or an older person cries out about what’s wrong at work, or a wife sobs because her husband is unfaithful, it’s an appeal for God’s kingdom to come. Without a lick of religion, everyone knows when there’s something about our world that should be different, that should be changed.
For me, this isn’t just the social gospel. It’s the other side of the Gospel. Most Bible-believing Christians stand firm on this essential element of the Gospel in John 3:16, “For God For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
We cannot, however, set aside the Gospel as it’s given in Luke 4:16-19,
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Two things about this passage are important for our concerns in this article: (1) Faith-based ministry is anchored in the phrase “the Spirit of the Lord is on me.” Those of us who follow Christ aren’t just called to be good people who do good things. It’s that and so much more. We have the transforming power of God’s presence to make an immediate and eternal difference in people lives. We Christians believe that people-in-need need love and practical help. But that’s not all they need. They need transformation.
In another place Jesus said, ” ‘Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive” (John 7:38-39). In other words, we have the life-giving power of God’s Spirit in us and on us, not for us, but for others.
Ministry Ideas That Work
Every year at Word of Grace, our calendar included a Heart for the World month (global outreach) and a Heart for Others month (local outreach). My goal during our world missions focus was to raise awareness of global challenges for the church and especially to get people to give financial support monthly to a specific missionary or project.
Our church gave 10% of our general fund offering to outreach, but we felt that let people off the hook. They just gave to the church and didn’t have to think about the Great Commission. So we asked them to pledge to give a sacrificial amount, over and above their tithe, to get them engaged personally in missions and to supplement the large amount we were already giving from our general fund.
We rolled out our Heart for the World each year in the spring. In the fall, we focused on local outreach. We set aside the three or four weeks just before Thanksgiving, because that’s when people naturally think in terms of helping the poor.
My goal during Heart for Others was simply to get as many people in our church as possible to give several hours of volunteer work in the community, not on a single day, but as their schedules allowed. We also required every small group to take on some kind of community project together–and to invite friends and neighbors to join them. We believed that people who wouldn’t go to church would agree to help out in the community, and as a result hear the gospel preached without words.
To help our folks connect, we presented videos each week of local organizations working in our community, and the last week of the focus, we invited representatives from dozens of human service agencies to set up tables and provide information about their work in a grand ministry fair on our main plaza.
Through the years, thousands of our people gave thousands of hours of community service to both faith-based and non-faith-based organizations. It was our way to sow kingdom seeds everywhere people were hurting in our city, and we became known as a church that cares.
I told our people, Share your faith when you have an mistakably clear opportunity to do that, but don’t go out there with a pocket full of God-pamphlets looking for every little chance to convert people to Christ.
One other element of our local outreach strategy is important to mention. Just about every church tries to create it’s own local outreach ministries, like a food pantry, or prison work. We did that to some degree, but not much. Our goal was to come alongside organizations already doing the work who (1) needed volunteers and (2) knew what they were doing!
So we didn’t just do our thing. We loved and helped what other people were already doing in our communities.