I’ve struggled for some years now through the issue of what “church” is supposed to be all about. Now I understand that, as a general rule, the church service(s) is typically a time for edifying, equipping, encouraging, and educating the members of that particular assembly. What I’m speaking of in this blog entry however, is the actual mission of the local church.
I’ve spent most of my life sitting in churches that are, more or less, islands unto themselves. The problem with this is that, although the view is great, the only interaction tends to be with the few people that already live on your little island. Even the churches I’ve been part of that have a bus ministry and visitation program tend to be the same types of islands. If somebody actually joins the church, they will typically look like the rest of the people who are there, and they will typically be part of the same basic income class as that of the general membership of that particular assembly. I don’t mean any of this as a criticism; this is merely my subjective evaluation and an opinion based on 30 years or so of observation. But I find myself asking, with increasing regularity, some version of the same nagging question: “what are we doing?”
The ministry of the typical local church (IFB) tends to be primarily geared towards the membership of that particular local church. Now, I’m not speaking of the regular weekly services here…..obviously, those should be geared towards the membership. However, if we take a look at the standard church and analyze the various ministries of that church, I think we will find that, even in her ministries, the local church is not typically attempting to fill any real need within the community. In my church for instance, we have activities for young adults, married adults, teenagers, and seniors. In the summer months we have camp, VBS, and teen VBS. While all of these are good things and often centered on a time looking at the Scriptures, they are not really geared towards meeting any needs within the community. Lest you think that I am criticizing these ministries, let me say that I appreciate these types of ministries and I view them as vital for the local church. The sense of community as well as the fellowship offered in these informal times is extremely valuable.
What I’m driving at is this: Why aren’t we getting involved in the community? Why is there not a concerted effort at reaching those who need reached most and attempting to fill a need by meeting the people where they are? How many churches have you seen that are involved in addictions recovery programs and teen pregnancy crisis centers? How many are reaching out to the outcasts and hurting in the community? You know, the people who nobody really wants. How many are involved in hard-core prison ministries – not just preaching once a month, but working with the inmates to get them ready for society? We tend to get so focused on making everything look so perfect within our own house that we miss the fact that the surrounding neighborhood looks like a war zone with all the consequential devastation, poverty, and ugliness that accompanies it!
Outreach is more than leaving a tract on the restaurant table with your tip. To tell you the truth, I dislike the term “outreach” because of the images that immediately pop up in our minds. Instead, I prefer the term “true ministry”. True ministry involves reaching out to the hurting, helpless, and hopeless. It involves getting dirty. It might involve getting out of your comfort zone a bit. It’s easy to sit in our church pew and “amen” the notion that the world has gone to hell and we need to avoid all the damnable trappings that come with it. It’s quite another to get out into the world and do something that makes a difference for Christ.
We pray for our leaders and we pray for our communities, but we make no relationships with them. As a matter of fact, most of the churches with whom I’ve been identified for most of my life have earned a solid reputation of not being involved in the community. The pathetic part of it is the fact that we take some sort of twisted pride in that reputation. The fact that the surrounding community knows us by what we don’t do rather than what we do is something we wear as a badge of honor. We’ve taken a principle of being separated from worldliness and twisted it to mean that we need to be completely uninvolved with the world. I’ve known of precious few local churches in my life that have made true inroads and made legitimate impacts in their communities…at least within IFB-dom. Instead, we tend to sit on our butts and criticize the churches who are trying to make a difference in the community as being liberal, compromising, false teachers who have no concept of holiness.
I guess this article is meant to be more of a challenge than anything. What am I doing to impact my community for Christ? What is my church doing to impact this community for Christ? These are good and convicting questions for each of us to ask. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that in many more cases than not, the answers to those questions is “nothing”. I’ve gotten some very “righteous sounding” answers to these questions before….answers about being “salt and light”. However, being salt and light in a community involves much more than good, clean, moral, ethical living…..that’s not all that difficult. As a matter of fact, I run into good, moral – yet unregenerate – people all the time. Being salt and light involves taking the extra step in order to effect major change in the lives of those around you. It involves people seeing the Lord Jesus reflected in your every action. How can we attempt imitate Him without a concentrated effort of reaching out to the dredges of society? The picture we see of Christ in the Gospels involves Him reaching out to some of the saddest, most desperate characters out there…..the “least of these”, so to speak.