Thursday, September 25, 2008

Life on an island....

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.


Don Johnson said...

Hi Ellis,

First, count me in the camp that says that the type of community outreach you speak of are NOT the mission of the church. As far as I can tell, there is no New Testament precedent for anything of the kind and there is Mt 28.19-20 and the other great commission passages.

Second, the discipleship ministry of the church does mean that a large percentage of the ministry should be saint-building rather than sinner-gathering. What percentage? I don't know, but it is the goal and certainly should be significant.

Third, the sinner-gathering part of the ministry should be preaching oriented. See 1 Cor 1 and the "foolishness of preaching". Now some ministries can be performed with the view to creating preaching opportunities - but (hopefully) not by manipulation. Nevertheless, every ministry should be oriented around proclamation and preaching. This is how God saves sinners. I suspect that a good deal of interest in 'other' types of ministries is to avoid the stigma that comes from preaching.

Finally, consider the many evangelical efforts that have been expended in many varieties of social action type ministries. How effective have they been in winning people to Christ and creating disciples? I don't mean, can you cite anecdotes from individual cases here and there, but consider the overall effectiveness of evangelicals in the last 50 years. Social action was one of their complaints about fundamentalism and they broke with us on purpose to promote it (among other things). How well have they done? Is our society better off? More godly?

Sorry to wax on, but I think that we do have to be careful in this area.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ellis Murphree said...

Thanks for the comments, Don.

I don't know that I completely disagree with most of what you are saying here, brother. Speaking in broad terms, where the Evangelicals have failed in this area is the fact that much of the time this "social action" is where they stop. In my opinion, engaging the community....meeting them on their turf so to speak, should be a means to an end. I think the Evangelicals had the right idea.....they just came up short in the execution.

The local church should certainly be geared toward the believer. However, this issue of being the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world" requires more than just sitting around the same campfire with the same people. Some of the things I mentioned (teen crisis centers, addictions recovery programs, pre-release ministries, etc.) are not only great opportunities to show Christ to the community, but they also provide us an opportunity to address the woes of society in a way that puts the Bible at the center of it all.

I get the impression from your post that you are inferring from my statements that I'm interested in social interaction that is "preaching-free". That's certainly not my heart.

What we tend to forget sometimes is that the people we are trying to reach are a mess. Sometimes their marriages are on the verge of ending; they are facing financial ruin; they are getting their butts kicked by some sort of an addiction.... Bringing them to church so we can preach to them is all too often the main focus of outreach in Fundamentalism. This particular methodology has failed as much as that of the Evangelicals.

"The foolishness of preaching" doesn't mean that everything we do in our interaction needs to culminate in a formal sermon, does it? Could it not mean that we meet these people where they are, offer them support and resources to deal with their particular messes, all the while presenting Christ to them?

I am a believer of all our ministry endeavors being organized around proclamation and preaching. However, I would propose that we can have it "both ways" so to speak.

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ellis,

I think we are probably in agreement, although we might not agree on the sort of outreach activity that should be pursued.

I do agree that getting people to come to church and using the church services as primarily evangelistic tools is probably not that effective. It is possible that special evangelistic meetings can be effective, but this usually involves a lot of other work ahead of time, a special emphasis in the preaching of the services, etc.

And I agree that many evangelical efforts that I criticise above fail largely because they don't go far enough, and the preaching is minimized or abandoned.

So mostly what I am sounding here is a voice of caution. Social engagement is fraught with peril! The means can become the end.

And some means are really incompatible with preaching. You mention a crisis pregnancy center... such a ministry seems quite compatible with preaching the gospel of grace one on one. Other ministries seem less compatible ... disaster relief, for example. I think we might have a human obligation to help out in a disaster as we can, but does that help give me a license to preach? Is it preaching oriented? Does the one helped owe me a hearing? I'm not sure about all that, and thus I am not sure that it is compatible with the mission of the church. It still may well be the right thing to do because of our common humanity, though.

So when I think a ministry of helps of some kind, I think I need to be doing something that is compatible with preaching, or allows me to preach in some way as I minister.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Beth said...

Good post, Ellis. Wish you could be here--we're doing it, and it's drawing the people we can reach. Glory to God!

Ellis Murphree said...

We almost packed our bags and hopped in the car after reading the last newsletter....:) You guys are in our prayers and on our hearts daily.