Sunday, February 28, 2010

On Evangelicals’ Danger and Hope

When Evangelical churches consider giving (they are the only churches which I have first-hand experience with), their first impulse is to maximize salvations. They want to work in places that are “unreached.” Then they look for missionary organizations to win souls. Some of them will go one step further, and support explicitly Christian organizations to serve the poor, but only so long as they do it in Christ’s name. Never would they give to a ‘secular’ charity (for how would the people hear the Gospel, or know from whence the goodness comes)?

Do not misunderstand what I am about to say. I believe in missions, and in evangelism. Of any single action, it is still, in my mind, the most valuable; it is a deed with the highest honor. But there are other parts, essential parts, of Christianity which have been eclipsed by our blind pursuit of this highest honor. Any virtue or impulse may be corrupted if it is sought at the cost of all others. As C.S. Lewis points out on the dangers of focusing purely on the love of humanity, “If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials ‘for the sake of humanity,’ and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.” So, I think, if we hyper-focus on missions and evangelism, we will become a cruel and loveless church.

One commandment of God which is almost completely ignored by us today is charity for our brethren in Christ. Paul tells us, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all [men], especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10) and the author of Hebrews reminds us, “For God [is] not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister” (Hbr 6:10).

We do a mediocre job locally with the poor in general with food drives and homeless shelters. But we do an appalling job of providing for poor brethren abroad. We know generally about poverty and how we are to provide for the poor. But we forget that we have a special obligation to poor Christians.

But who takes collections for poor believers today? How high a priority in the modern Church are poor abroad? We often see poverty work only as a means to the end of evangelism. How many church dollars go to some few thousands of pagans in the Pacific Islands, while millions of our brothers starve in Africa? We send missionaries to the “10/40 window” because there are few Christians there. But how many of us really care about the plight of our brothers in that same window? How many sermons are preached on the plight of the brethren in that window? I have not heard one. We are letting our brothers starve so that we can first win new converts. This ought not be so. We ought to first take care of our own family , and then seek to serve others.

And were we not commanded to? Who are the sheep in Jesus’ Matthew 25 parable? Was it those who were powerful missionaries? Were the goats sent to hell for their lack of evangelism? No. It was for a lack of charity to “the least of these my brethren” (Mat 25:40). Those who saw Christ’s brethren in prison or naked or hungry and did nothing were sent to hell. And who are Christ’s brethren? He tells us: “he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!” (Mat 12:49).

And where are the least? Where are the hungry, poor, imprisoned Christians? They are in the developing world. The centroid of Christianity is moving back again to the south and east, where there is still terrible poverty, disease and death. There is again a need amongst our brethren to the south and east. It is not now in Jerusalem, but in Africa and Asia.

Remember also Paul’s warning, “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Ti 5:8). John also questions the faith of those who fail this duty, “But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels [of compassion] from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (1Jo 3:17). We Evangelicals struggle with hypocrisy, with doctrine, with patience and lust. But there is no place where we are closer to hell than in our apathy about the poverty of our brothers abroad.

We care more for the material condition of the unsaved than our own family. After coming to Kenya, I’ve often been asked about the missionary opportunities and never about the poor condition of the brethren. And I was not offered help to relieve their condition, but instead, Bibles. Bibles are good in themselves, and so are missions. But the fact that the condition of our brothers in Kenya is not even thought of is damning. In the present and manifest distress, the fact that church global missions budgets are often an hundredfold higher than global poverty budgets is damning. We must repent.

Providing for our own family is of utmost concern. Of what other duty which if we neglect it, are we promised hell (Mat 25:46), called worse than infidels (1Ti 5:8), said we abide in death (1Jo 3:14) or asked how the love of God could abide in us (1Jo 3:18)? What other duty was so important to distract Paul, the missionary’s missionary, from missions (Rom 15:26, 1Cr 16:3, 2Cr 8:2)?

But consider the wonderful opportunity God has arranged for us. For where we are poor, our brothers are rich; and where we are rich, they are poor. We should remember: we in the West were made rich in money but poor in spirit. Consider the power of the Holy Spirit, spreading Christianity like a wildfire across China, India and the rest of the developed world. Missionaries, evangelists and prophets are being raised up in multitudes by the Spirit there. And what of us in the West? Though we have a heritage rich in Missions and Evangelism in the First and Second Great Awakenings, now it seems to be God’s will that the fire be cooled.

But in the place of that fiery passion, God has blessed us instead with the riches of this world. We are the most productive people ever to have lived. We are far richer than the Romans, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Arabs, the Byzantines and the Britons. We have money, business, ingenuity, organization and technology. We are better equipped than any other people in the history of the world to end the desperation of poverty, an affliction persistent since the Fall of Man. We are the first generation in the history of the world with the ability to actually do it.

Missions is a higher calling indeed (1Cr 12:28), but not one that we are particularly good at. I came to Kenya thinking there was some opportunity for missions. I soon realized that I had exchanged an excellent mission field for a poor one. Though God has given me gifts in evangelism, there were fewer opportunities in a rural village in Kenya than in the ivy halls of Stanford. Christianity is stronger in Kenya than it is anywhere I have seen in the US, and I found myself especially ill-equipped to evangelize, particularly when compared to my fiery brothers here.

While not given particular gifts in evangelism, we as a culture have powerful and unprecedented gifts in “healings, helps, governments” (1Co 12:28); let us use these to their utmost, while ever coveting the greater gifts of our brothers in the developing world. We have a greater ability to give than any people at any other time in the history of the world. One in our middle class has a greater ability to give than even kings and merchants of old. So let us give in abundance and “with simplicity” (Rom 12:8).

And let us never forget the other edge of the sword of opportunity; it cuts both ways. “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required” (Luke 12:48). We will not be held guiltless if we squander the greatest opportunity for generosity in the history of the world. And we will surely draw close to hell if we close our hearts to our brothers.

Let this generation of Evangelicals be remembered as our great forbears in Britain were. Two centuries ago, William Wilberforce and his fellows ended the slave trade in Britain and will be forever remembered for it, both on earth and in heaven. Let Evangelicals of this generation be remembered not as those whose greedy hearts were cold, but as those who set the captives of poverty free, those who brought food and shelter forever to billions. Let us act like the Philadelphians, the city of love for the brethren, a Church that keeps God’s word to provide for our Christian brothers and for the poor. And then we can receive Christ’ promise, “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, [which is] new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and [I will write upon him] my new name” (Rev 3:12).

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