I’m trying to prevent country club-itus from getting into our church. That happens when a group of people comes together, likes each other, finds a rhythm, gets into it, stays in it, dies in it, and gets embalmed in it. More than a few churches have been accused of becoming irrelevant to their world—sort of like steam locomotive museums. They’re nice places to visit, but you don’t seriously go looking for transportation there. Anyway, I don’t want to be the curator of a museum.
Something about spiritual vitality demands a certain level of outflow and exercise. In fact, all living organisms work that way. I’m sure you’ve seen videos or photos of sixty pound housecats that would need a scooter to catch a mouse. Or dogs so obese they look at their owner who just threw a stick, as if to say, “Not in this lifetime, pal.” In nature that doesn’t happen. Cats are naturally lithe and quick. Dogs like to jump and run. It’s only when exercise gets deleted from lifestyle that they turn into pet potatoes.
Exercise for Christians means a robust approach to outreach. It keeps faith from atrophy. It puts you on the cutting edge of the action. The problem with outreach is that it involves reaching out. And right away, we think of old school evangelistic approaches—door to door, confronting strangers with canned gospel presentations, or any number of high stress shenanigans. Three quarters of the church will say, “No thank you.” As a friend of mine used to quip, “I have a shrapnel injury from ‘Nam that only acts up when it rains or when it’s time to preach the gospel.”
We had to do something though, or else become Dudley the beagle, who has to be carried from room to room on a trolley. We chose Steve Sjogren’s book, Conspiracy of Kindness, and agreed to read through it. It promotes servant evangelism, which conceives of gospel preaching as riding on the coattails of good works. The deeds come first, not the presentation.
Now I’m already a bit suspicious of any approach that leads off with works, because of how easy it is for the gospel to get lost in the shuffle. Social activism tends to be a haven for those who feel humanitarian urges, but don’t want the creator or redeemer of humanity involved. Sjogren’s book wasn’t that way of course, since his overriding concern is for the gospel. Still, we read the book in fits and starts, arguing with concepts at certain points. His gift theology and some interpretations raised a few of our eyebrows. But we finally got to where we needed to be…out there with people. That was good, because most of the people in our town don’t know we meet in an upper room on Northwest Boulevard Sunday mornings. Worse, they live life assuming God is indifferent toward them.
This summer we threw ourselves into serving the community with projects and small acts of kindness. The effort was more focused than usual. We painted the school, handed out bottled water to runners, and held umbrellas for people as they left the grocery store on a rainy day. Our men’s ministry even cleaned bathrooms in area businesses. I have to admit it all felt a bit strange. I kept wondering what it looked like to the people we approached. Weird? Suspicious? After a hot fourth of July parade we indiscriminately handed out refreshments. I approached a young couple with my hands full of kool-pops. How would this be understood? A man in a cowboy hat walks up and asks if he can give your kids something. They probably thought it was weird.
But those same parents approached me later and thanked me, several times. It surprised me. I gave them kool-pops, for crying out loud, not one hundred-dollar bills. But then it occurred to me that probably no one had done anything for them in a long time—even something small…with no strings attached. Jesus does those things just because that’s the way He is.
In fact, He did things for people who didn’t end up following Him. Some never even thanked Him. Check out the story of the ten lepers He cleansed, and how only one expressed any appreciation for it. The rest took off to enjoy their newly changed lives without Him (Luke 17:11-19). Then there was the guy who was thankful for being healed, but immediately disobeyed Him (Mark 1:40-45). Yet Jesus continued going around doing good works (Acts 10:38). A good God kept intersecting the lives of people, reminding them He existed and their lives mattered to Him.
Of course, the Lord wanted those He served to continue with Him. The plan was never about putting band-aids on gunshot wounds. Jesus had words that could bless eternally. He would tell people who had an open heart about “things hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matt. 13:35), things of the kingdom of God and salvation. But if they only wanted the drive-through treatment, He was kind to them anyway.
When it comes to servant evangelism, I could argue and contest points all day long. I could talk about the theory of the gospel and whether our works were merely token in nature (I mean, cleaning toilets…really?). I could ask if the balance of word to work had been kept in proper tension. I could ask how many people “got saved” and calculate whether it was all worth it. I could look around the church on Sunday morning and ask why those people I approached didn’t show up after I went to all the trouble of giving them kool-pops.
Those very thoughts have a nasty habit of clouding the real issue, which has to do with getting out and crossing paths with sinners, reminding them there is a God who thinks about them even in tiny ways. And if only they would listen, He would have so much more to say to them.
In the meantime, I’ll be ready with a car wash sponge in one hand, and a Bible in the other.