Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Social Program

One of the questions that often comes up when the church is trying to figure out how best to minister to the community around it, or what the church is even supposed to be, is what types of social programs the church ought to be involved in. Most pastors will readily confess that the majority of problems that they address in their congregants' lives are sociological ones.

So it only makes sense that the church would try to figure out a way to intervene. Right? After all, Jesus cared deeply about the poor.

Yes...and no. 

One pastor recently told me that of course they have programs to meet the sociological challenges of their congregation. This, he said, is the best way to show the love of Christ. And, he continued, when you show the love of Christ in a real, tangible, meaningful way like these social programs permit, people tend to want to know more about Him and will then come to a relationship with Him.

It's a nice thought, but I'm not sure we ought to so quickly agree with either the premise or the conclusion. The conclusion is easiest to see - consider all of the persons touched by programs in your church or in churches you know, and then ask yourself how many of those persons can be found in your sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. The numbers are surprisingly small. The church has become such a benevolent organization that our communities turn to us for human help, but little else. The world has become so focused on its own needs that it no longer sees, and doesn't care to, the motivation behind our grace. 

But it's not just the conclusion that is troubling; the premise is equally so. It's true that Jesus spoke often of the poor and spent His ministry reaching the outskirts of society. But it is also true that He never once did it through a program. He didn't set up an outreach to the demon-possessed. He didn't call for a meeting of the blind. He put Judas in charge of the disciples' funds; He did not create a fund to assist the poor. And He never advised His disciples to do this, either. 

He never told His disciples that once He left them, they'd have to figure out a way to meet, en masse, the real needs of people's lives. He never told them that their overall mission would to be solve the world's social problems. In fact, He said essentially nothing about the world's social problems at all. Instead, He told them to go out, teach, preach, love, heal, and make disciples. 

And indeed, these are the very things that the early church devoted themselves to. We are told as much in Acts. Yes, they shared their resources to help one another in need. Yes, the churches often took up collections for those back in Jerusalem, who used the monies to help the poor. But the primary emphasis of the church was not to help the poor; it was to teach, preach, fellowship, love, and heal. 

I'm not saying our social programs are bad. Not at all. What I am saying, however, is that we should not justify them by saying that this is what Jesus would do; it's not what He did. He had a more radical intervention in mind. And for as much good as our social programs are doing, I think they are in large part a reflection of our own hesitations. 

More on that tomorrow. 

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