Better together: Integrating word and deed
"Evangelism creates the committed people, the concern for the needs of people and the broad community base from which to launch social action. Social action, in turn, fleshes out the Lordship of Christ, reaching people's spiritual needs through their felt needs and developing an indigenous economic base for the work."
- John Perkins, A Quiet Revolution
As intertwining aspects of the same overarching mission, good news and good works have the greatest effect when they are practiced together (see Mutually reinforcing benefits of evangelism and social ministry").
Is your church's social ministry bearing spiritual fruit? Check whether the Gospel message is being communicated through your ministries as much as you hope or think it is. Do program staff and volunteers actively seek opportunities to sensitively pray with people or to share their faith? Are church members given opportunities to connect with the people you serve, or is all the community ministry delegated to professional staff who may or may not be Christians? Is the church's mission structure consistent with its theology and vision for the community, or is it unduly influenced by secular norms or pressure from funders? If your evangelism strategy depends on sharing the motivation for your good works, are people actually asking you why you do what you do - and are ministry personnel actually prepared to give an answer (1 Peter 3:15)?
Research has identified five main ways that religious programs can include a religious dimension (see Ways of Incorporating a Spiritual Dimension into Social Service). Whatever methods they use, churches that integrate a spiritual dimension into compassion ministry must take care not to reduce social ministry to a mere "tool" of evangelism, a hook to snag prospective converts. Benefits must be offered as a blessing and not a bribe. Give people advance notice of any evangelistic activity so they do not feel tricked into hearing a "sales pitch." Be clear up front about the program's religious nature, and do not force people to enter a faith-based program against their will.
Keep in mind that the spiritual dimension of a social service ministry has a greater impact if a personal relationship is Involved. How might your church introduce relational evangelism into community or economic development ministries? For example, Tenth Memorial Baptist Church hosts a "welcome to the neighborhood" party for new homeowners whose homes have been built and financed through the community development corporation affiliated with the church.
What matters most is that the spiritual component is presented in a loving, sensitive and relevant way. Psychological manipulation, or trying to bribe, threaten, or shame people into some religious response, is never appropriate. We must serve people whether or not they accept the gospel, care about their whole being whether or not they recognize the spiritual dimension of their needs, and love them whether or not they understand that God loves them through us. This is the standard set by the grace of God, who "sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" (Matt. 5:45). (For more guidance, See Ethical considerations in evangelism and social service")
Take note: A shoddy program will undermine a holistic intent. The quality of Christian outreach is an elemental ingredient of the incarnational holistic message. "That's why I talk about excellence in the organization," exclaims the director of a community development agency that coordinates several church-based after-school programs. "You can preach, but people want to see results when they come into your building, before they make a change." If materials are inferior or out-of-date, if staff are ill-informed or unprepared, if the building is dirty or unsafe, clients will rightly question the truth of your words. Excellence gives you a better platform to share the gospel.
For diagnostic aids for assessing the holistic nature of your outreach, see Tool #13, Sharing Faith in Social Ministry Programs; Tool #27, Assess Your Church's Ministry Partnerships ; and Tool # 25, How Holistic is Your Church's Outreach?.
Adapted from Ronald J. Sider, Philip N. Olson and Heidi Rolland Unruh, Churches That Make a Difference: Reaching Your Community with Good News and Good Works, chapter 4. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, copyright (c) 2002.