In Honor of my Brothers…

Last spring some of my colleagues in the area and I had a little heated theological discussion.  The presenting issue was a rather poor article in Christianity Today entitled Speak the Gospel, Use Deeds When Necessary.   The article dealt in various ways with the oft spouted maxim “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”  The idea being that we don’t need to tell someone the Gospel, but rather we can demonstrate it to them through our actions.

I was a proponent of the maxim, and defended it vigorously against two of my brethren.  In particular, one of them argued that the Gospel could only be spoken, it could not be demonstrated.  The Gospel might inspire our actions, but it would be impossible for someone observing or receiving those actions to know that they were Gospel motivated if we never actually spoke the Gospel.  The Gospel is the unique story of the Son of God becoming incarnate to be born, live, work, suffer, die, and rise from the dead again – and the importance of all of this for every living person on the planet. 

Eventually, I changed my position to agree with them. 

Good works are only that – good works.  They benefit our neighbor, and we are commanded to do them as followers of Jesus Christ.  But we are mistaken to think that the works alone will communicate the unique message of the Gospel to anyone.  At best, our good works might open a door towards conversation, at which point we could share the Gospel.  But unless we actually speak the Good News of Jesus Christ to someone, they may not know that it is this Good News that motivates our actions, and this Good News that easily eclipses whatever meager kindness we may extend to someone. 

A Muslim can do good deeds for their neighbor.  So can a Buddhist. 

So, it would seem, can a strip club

It’s good that the Muslim, the Buddhist, and the strip club are doing good deeds to serve their neighbors.  But those good works look awfully similar to the good works that a church might do to raise food for the hungry, or to provide clothing to the less fortunate.  Identical, in fact – unless the church also includes the Gospel somehow.   We must use words to communicate the Gospel, because only the spoken Gospel can differentiate between simple neighborliness, mis-guided theology, or the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

More and more this is reshaping my thoughts on the social activities that are traditional to Christian congregations.  If a church was offering the same flu shots and free buffet as the strip club, but nobody ever shared the Gospel with the people that came through the doors, the action is, while nice and neighborly, possibly inappropriate for the church.  The people who benefitted from the flu shot and the food might never benefit from anything deeper, just as the patrons at the strip club in the article don’t seem to be particularly affected by anything else that happens at the place. 

This is a hard argument to make and to hear, and I’m not necessarily suggesting that it should be universally applied.  But it bears some thinking. 

Anybody – apparently – can provide free flu shots and a free meal.  And it’s good that they do so.  But only the church can provide the Gospel, at least as a corporate entity.  Individual Christians are able to share the Gospel in any manner of settings, but the one thing that a person should get at a church that they probably won’t get at any other organization is the Gospel.  So a church that focuses on social services without also providing the Gospel is missing the boat completely.  Just as a church that did not engage the community at all would be missing the boat.  It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.  The church needs to own that the most valuable gift it can give is the Gospel, and then engage in whatever social ministries it feels led to and capable of with the understanding that the Gospel needs to be shared through those programs. 

Somehow.  In some way.  It needn’t necessarily be through preached sermons.  Maybe it will be through short written or graphical accounts of the Gospel.  But it needs to be included somehow.  Because our good deeds alone are not going to share the Gospel with anyone.  And if we as Christians and congregations aren’t the ones to share the Gospel in and with all that we do, exactly who else  is going to share it?

Part of me hopes the strip club won’t, or lots of churches are going to go out of business pretty quick.  But another part of me thinks it would be cool if the strip club *did* share the Gospel.  A whole lot of people might hear it then who would never hear it otherwise.

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