Neighbour-Love in Word and Deed
There is a tension between serving the needs of those around us and serving them with the gospel. One church has been able to do both through partnering with Christians Against Poverty.
Many church leaders have reported that during the coronavirus pandemic more people than usual are reaching out and asking some of the fundamental questions of life. Churches have seen many visitors to their online Sunday services and many evangelistic courses have seen better attendance than in pre-lockdown times.
But this is also a time of unrivalled material hardship for some, and the worst consequences of the reported economic implosion may be yet to come. Whilst some may be asking questions about purposes, significance and ultimate security, others are far more concerned with practical questions of employment, debt, and being able to afford the regular bills.
In times like these, when we are commanded to do good to all, especially the household of believers (Galatians 6:10), we have an opportunity to serve those around us in both word and deed.
Serving in word and deed
It seems there is an imprecise relationship between these two elements. We don't serve others in deed just so that we can serve them with the gospel - acts of neighbour-love are not just instrumental. Yet if we fail to love people and serve them in their practical situation, it maybe that we never have opportunity to share the gospel with them.
Harvie Conn summarised the need to maintain the tension between these two imperatives best when he said: “World-centred spirituality asks, ‘what does spirituality mean to a person paid inadequate wages and renting a rat-infested tenement room?’ Soul-centred spirituality asks, ‘What do inadequate wages and renting a rat-infested tenement room mean to a person when his soul is saved?’”
Partnership with Christians Against Poverty
At Grace Community Church we have found that our partnership with Christians Against Poverty (CAP) is one way in which we can attempt to serve those around us in both word and deed. We partner with CAP to provide debt-coaching and a money course, and through CAP we meet many people we would not ordinarily meet.
Partnership working is never straightforward, but our experience has been that CAP are fantastically on the front foot about people's need to hear the gospel, not to mention serious about providing top-quality, industry-leading debt coaching.
In our meetings with CAP clients, we offer to pray with them and to date, I think only three clients have turned the offer down. Some of those we help through CAP are fairly independent; they receive the help on offer and then go off on their way.
Others, however, connect with us at our Foodbank, or at one of the other groups we run to serve those in the community. They may become friends with the volunteer who is looking after them, come to a Christmas service, an evangelistic event, and some are ultimately brought to a saving knowledge of Jesus.
It's rarely straightforward, and the whole endeavour can be costly, complicated and nuanced. But there are some members of our church family today who have been brought here by God through our partnership with CAP.
Of course, this alone is not a justification for doing anything. Such logic can quickly become worldly-pragmatism - "look it 'works', let's do it!" However, at Grace, we think of it as an application of Galatians 6:10, and of the pattern for reaching people we can see in Acts 16 with the slave girl Paul encounters in the market. This, in turn, is part of a wider, whole-church evangelistic strategy.
Serving in a secular society
There are two things worth noting before I finish.
Firstly, unlike in previous eras, there is much less Christian literacy amongst our friends and neighbours and within our communities. Our society has become more secularised, and as a result we often have to do more work with people than in previous generations before the concepts inherent in the gospel message make sense to people. One way we have been able to meet people who are spiritually a long way away from Christianity and help them move closer, is through our work with CAP.
Secondly, in a more secularised age, where people are more disenchanted and more materially orientated, a crisis like the one we're currently experiencing exposes the weakness of that view of life. A secular worldview can't provide the answers many are looking for when faced with economic hardship, illness and, for too many, death. Why will they listen to us, their local church, and our message?
Lesslie Newbigin argued that all knowledge is personal and faith based. Those in our community are more likely to hear the message we offer if they know we love and care for them in ways that matter to them.
Like I said, the relationship between word and deed is imprecise, and I don't think Jesus intended us to clarify it. He merely asks that we obey both the great commandment - loving our neighbours as ourselves - and the great commission - making disciples wherever we can through gospel proclamation.
We leave the fruit up to the Lord as we pursue these twin goals and Christians Against Poverty have helped us do both.
If you are considering partnering with Christians Against Poverty, their new resource for churches, ‘Kick Start’, has been made available for free.
Kick Start is CAP's response to the needs that exist in communities all over the UK as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. It is designed to equip local churches to easily help people get their lives moving along following the impact of the crisis.
The course covers areas such as job searching, living well on a budget, dealing with worry, and coping with loss. It consists of nine succinct, video sessions that can be used individually or combined to form a course, to be used in an online format.
The product, available for free, also includes some resources to help churches facilitate conversations about faith and invite people, where appropriate, to engage in other church or community activities.
You can find out more about Kick Start and sign up to access the free resources on the Christians Against Poverty website.
Header image mural by Annabelle Wombacher, Jared Mar, Sierra Ratcliff and Benjamin Cahoon.