Good news or deeds?
I am becoming increasingly convinced that it’s been one of the devil’s cleverest tricks to create the impression in the minds of some evangelicals – especially of the more reformed hue – that ‘evangelism’ and ‘care for the poor’ are somehow in opposition to each other. Over the years I have read many articles and heard many statements that create the impression it is dangerous and un-evangelical to focus too much on caring for the poor because it could undermine evangelism. It is said evangelism is the priority for Christians and churches and that we must be careful not to be distracted from this primary task by getting too involved with social action. This approach has, I believe, seriously damaged the evangelistic effectiveness of reformed individuals and churches. To undermine evangelism in the name of evangelism is a trick worthy of the great deceiver!
Towards the end of the 1990s Tim Chester and I had the privilege of working with a group of Tearfund’s development experts on drafting Operating Principles for the organisation. In part it said:
In the future God will establish a new heaven and a new earth. We serve God now in the light of this hope. We want rich and poor to have the hope of a home in this new creation where there is no more death, mourning, crying or pain and where God is present with his people. Therefore reconciliation with God through submission to Jesus Christ is the greatest need of the poor, as with all people. We are therefore committed to the proclamation of the gospel. And we challenge people to prioritise the future through commitment in the present to the gospel and the poor, so that they invest in ‘treasure in heaven’ rather than ‘treasure on earth’…
The New Testament gives little explicit teaching on either evangelistic or developmental methods. Instead it calls upon the church to be a caring, inclusive and distinctive community of reconciliation reaching out in love to the world. When we see the church in this way there is no opposition between evangelism and social action.
In all that we do we are totally dependent on God. There is a spiritual reality to development which a secular worldview often ignores. We are engaged in a spiritual conflict. Therefore prayer is essential for Christian development. The only way to keep going and see significant change is through the gracious power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
In Tearfund we found one of the major blockages preventing churches having an impact for good – in every sense – on their societies, was a strong fortress mentality in some churches. They saw themselves as besieged minorities under threat from the world. The main focus was on trying to recruit soldiers that would be prepared to go out into the hostile world to persuade sinners they were in grave danger and to come and join them in the fortress. This attitude was a reflection of an unbalanced view of what the church is – the glorious body of Christ. So we focused initially on Bible teaching on the nature and purpose of the church. Passages like Matthew 5:14-16 and 9:35-38 show that followers of Jesus together are meant to be a blessing to their societies – to be salt and light and harvesters of the harassed and helpless. The task of the church is not to get people into our fortress. The world is to see our good works which means living the life more abundant that is to be found in Jesus the Messiah, so that others will give glory to the Father.
The church that is convinced its calling is to bless its society holistically will find a way to do it – especially if that church believes in the sovereignty of God. At Tearfund we encourage churches to try to understand their societies by creating a simple map of their area and marking where amenities are found, where young people gather, where drug pushers operate, where poverty is concentrated, etc. or conduct a community questionnaire to find out what people believe is good and bad about their area. The aim of these methods is to engage with the community in tackling together what the community sees as the major problems it faces. This is something that we do often overseas, but rarely in our own communities.
I saw something of the impact of this process in the Masai country in Kenya. Led by the small evangelical Anglican churches that had been established as a result of many years’ mission work, communities have come together, producing fruit in two areas. Firstly, churches are experiencing a more rapid period of growth among the Masai than has ever been known. The number of churches had almost doubled and all congregations were growing very rapidly by Masai standards. Secondly, I saw classrooms and a whole school, a headmaster’s house, ponds, cisterns, a dipping facility for cows, protected vegetable plots and even a church building that had all been built by the communities without any money from the West. Everywhere I went there were signs that the quality of life of this traditionally nomadic people who live in very harsh conditions was improving.
Christian love that seeks the good of the other without reservation does sometimes breed hatred and persecution but it also makes many people well disposed to the gospel. This seemed clearly to be the case among the Masai and it is more dramatically the case in many villages in Cambodia. Tulo Raistrick, Tearfund’s Church and Development Advisor, tells this story:
Trapeang Keh is a very poor village in rural Cambodia. It appeared a very unpromising environment for church-led community transformation. The land was dry and hard, and the water wells were dry most of the year. Men went to the cities for months at a time to earn money, but often come back broken and sick. Many in the village were in debt to powerful money-lenders. Like most Cambodian villages, there was little trust or co-operation between people, the legacy of the horrendous Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge regime during the 1970s. And the church itself consisted of only four members, who were persecuted and marginalised by the community.
However, things began to change three years ago. Two Christian community facilitators from FAITH project began spending time with the local Christians, visiting for two days every fortnight, staying overnight in the village. This surprised most of the villagers – visitors who ever came to their village seemed only too quick to escape the primitive living conditions that were there. Each visit, both Christian facilitators would spend time doing Bible studies, helping the Christians to see how God wanted them to be agents of transformation in their community and building their confidence in the fact that they could be used by God in this way.
The local Christians began to realise that if they helped the village begin to work together things could change. They invited the community to a meeting, but the villagers were very sceptical. They were not sure they could trust these Christians. So the Christians visited every person in their home, one by one. Gradually they began to win people’s trust, then when they called a community meeting, almost everyone came. Over the next few meetings they began to realise why they were poor and that they could do something about it!
The community began to work together to address some of the problems. They helped dig more and better wells and improved the irrigation. They were able to start vegetable gardens, and now grow crops all year round. The men no longer need to leave for the cities so there is less social disruption, as men stay with their families. There is less wife-beating, and more sharing of the tasks that had always been left to women – gardening, water collection and cooking. There is less quarrelling and fighting in the village, and less alcoholism. The village is more united, and decision-making within the village is fairer and more inclusive.
And, significantly, attitudes to church have changed too. The Christians have grown in confidence to care for their neighbours and share their faith. There is less persecution. In fact now people respect the Christians as they have shown themselves willing to help others. And the church has grown. All but two of the households in the village now attend the church! It is a story of remarkable, holistic transformation.
For villagers in a Buddhist community to begin regularly attending an evangelical church where the gospel is proclaimed and the Bible is preached is a real sign of God’s grace beginning to work in their lives. And it happened because the Christians around them were willing to think and act holistically. The idea that you could minister to your neighbours’ material needs, and not tell them the good news about Jesus Christ is preposterous. But it is equally absurd to think that we can tell our neighbours about the love of Jesus which transforms lives for the better, and not show them how our transformed life is able to reach out in love to them. People in Cambodia and in the Masai have heard the gospel, and seen the impact of the gospel both on individuals and a community. Is the same true of our own neighbourhoods?
Dewi Hughes is Tearfund’s Theological Advisor.