In the twentieth century, American Christians seemed divided between the liberal mainline churches that stressed caring for others and social outreach, and the fundamentalist churches that emphasized personal salvation through Bible-study-based faith.
Should the Christian follow traditional evangelism, which took pains to save people's souls, even if it did nothing about the systems locking them into debilitating poverty? But to some, the price for emphasizing the caring for others and doing social outreach would be the weakening of one's sound Scriptural grounding and knowledge, and thus the lessening of one's zeal for saving souls. On the other hand, in the world then and now, we see so much poverty and painful need, all around us. Can we really turn a blind eye? Today, how can we possibly go in both directions at once?
Some have argued that Christians should only do social outreach and caring for others as a means to the end of advancing the faith. That is, we should do mercy and social outreach only because it helps us bring people to faith in Christ. But, this does not seem to fit in with Jesus' charge not to give to needy people only to get something in return (Luke 6:32 - 35). "Doing" social outreach can indeed draw people to listen to the message of the Gospel, but to consider that deeds of mercy and caring are identical to Gospel proclamation is not correct.
So, perhaps there is more than one technique for obtaining Scripture grounding. Traditionally, it was done by "preaching" Scripture, paraphrasing Bible stories and otherwise teaching Scripture by word of mouth.
But, sometimes people's ears are "closed" to such words. Either they do not believe the words, or they can't muster the desire to live by them. Sometimes instead, what really moves and excites people is real-life examples that exemplify the Scripture teachings ---- actions taken in everyday life that are selfless efforts to help other human beings. Think about the Good Samaritan parable! We quote that story to this day, even though not a word of Scripture was reported to have been said!
Let's look for a link between Bible study and the example we project as practicing Christians, as mirrored in our actions toward others.
Imagine an eloquent Christian preacher who every Sunday delivers compelling sermons. But one of his parishioners learns that the minister verbally abuses and browbeats his wife daily. After the parishioner discovers this, for him the sermons are completely unpersuasive. Are you surprised? The preacher's deeds contradict his words, and so the preacher's words have no power.
Imagine instead, a new minister whose public oratory is quite mediocre. However, as time goes on, the parishioners come to see that he is a man of sterling character, wisdom, humility and love.
Soon, because of the quality of his life, his church members find that they are hanging on every word of his preaching. His deeds and behavior support his words.
Deeds of mercy and caring should be done out of love, not simply as a rote means to the end of social outreach. And yet, at the same time there is no better way for Christians to lay a foundation for the Scriptural understanding and belief than by doing social outreach.
Why? I suggest that active social outreach as a helpful antidote to our natural tendency to think first about serving ourselves, about which Scripture has plenty to say!
Deeds of mercy and caring can take many forms. One can serve in a soup kitchen for the homeless, visit and encourage hospital patients, collect used clothing for the poor or bring meals to the handicapped. Or it can be as simple as helping a neighbor with their children's educational needs, or with finding a job, or helping them learn English as a second language.
If we wish to share our faith with needy people, and we do nothing about the painful conditions in which they live (whether they be rich or poor), we fail to really show Christ's beauty. But we must find a balance between seeking Scriptural understanding and belief, and "doing" social outreach. We must not separate these two things from each other. The problem is that both goals use up a person's available time. How do each of us intentionally find the proper personal balance?
These thoughts are brought to you by CPC's Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage your personal spiritual growth this spring at CPC.