Be the message; don’t just say it
By Kevin Blue
The purpose of the church includes a mandate to care for the poor and to be involved in substantive justice work. We are to be Jesus’ body, ministering to a world gone mad, with a particular concern for the poor.
As is always the case in following Jesus, as we do what he has instructed, we discover more of who he is and what he is doing in us and through us. We are changed as we hope for and pray for change in others and in society around us. We are called to be God’s reminder to those who suffer in poverty and injustice that he has not forgotten about them. We are the physical expression of his love for them, his compassion and his desire to be with them.
We are directly commanded in Scripture to have this type of presence, this type of ministry. We are to have a particular concern for the poor and needy in the world, those people without a voice, without power and without options. This concern is off-center in a self-centered world.
This is not an issue just for the West or the United States, nor is it an issue only for wealthy believers. It is part of the ministry and purpose of the church across the board, regardless of economic status and area of the world. We are to be in solidarity, together, in this kind of ministry.
Yet I have found a curious thing in my years of following Jesus in the United States. Is it not curious that we spend so much of our church budgets on things that are simply not commanded in Scripture? Why is this?
Countless (OK, hundreds) of passages in the Old and New Testaments directly command us to minister to the needs of the poor. We are commanded to spread the good news of the gospel to every people group, in every corner of the world. We are even commanded to support the work of those missionaries who do such things—who go on behalf of all of us who stay. And yet so much of our budget is consumed with the building fund, or building upkeep, or high-tech gadgets, or the band, or the organ—billions of dollars every single year.
All of this for a God who says he will not dwell in a house made by human hands. How is it that we can spend millions of dollars on a new cathedral in a city where people have problems finding food to eat, clothes to wear and places to sleep? My brothers and sisters, this should not be so.
Surely it is not necessarily a problem to have a building or musical instruments. But it might be, and given our culture’s seductive materialism and consumerism combined with the love of wealth, we should be very careful.
Personally, I am tired of the needless debates that have raged in the church about whether the gospel actually includes social action or is just about verbal evangelism and the saving of souls. The Gospels show the Lord ministering to those in need as he taught about the kingdom of God. Ministering to those in need is not the whole gospel. Talking about the kingdom alone is equally pathetic. Scripture itself offers that the kingdom of God is not about mere talk (see 1 Corinthians 4:20). At the same time, social concern alone is an emaciated representation of what the healthy body of Christ should look like in action. Loving the poor is a demonstration of the gospel and is commended in many parts of the Bible, but this should be coupled with verbal witness, as the Scripture demonstrates.
The gospel has, through the generations, been a source of social transformation. The kingdom of God is about many things. It is about forgiveness; it is about character transformation; it is about purity in sexual relations; it is about compassion for those in need; it is about healing; it is about declaring and demonstrating the good news to those who don’t yet know. Let us never throw out that which is ours by design. We have been given no right to renegotiate the terms on which we will follow Christ.
We may struggle, for such is our human condition and such is the testimony of the disciples who came before us. Even Peter, who Jesus called the great rock of the church, struggled as he followed. Both before and after Pentecost, he fought with his preconceived notions of what the kingdom and the gospel and Jesus were about. But God did not let him define the faith in whatever way he wanted. Jesus and his Spirit continued to work in Peter, as the Gospels and Acts record, to make him accept the full picture—without exceptions. Should we expect to have it easier than Peter did?
Peter’s longest struggle was with the ethnic inclusiveness of the gospel. Sadly, this remains a major struggle in our day as well. Another of our difficulties is with our responsibility to those in need. The issue is holism: we should be concerned with the whole package, the whole gospel, and not just one or a couple of aspects of the faith.
How do we address the lack of concern for substantive justice and righteousness in the church, beyond certain popular public topics? What does it mean to be the message and not simply say it?
It is my sincere hope that we shall come to terms with the whole of the gospel and see the kind of revival that many of us long for in the West. Indeed believers in other parts of the world long for a revival among us here, for they (more so than us) feel our shortcomings. We must take seriously Scripture’s call to justice, righteousness and concern for the poor.
Kevin Blue is the author of Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World, a director with Servant Partners, and lead pastor at the multi-ethnic Church of the Redeemer in south central Los Angeles.
Adapted from Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World by Kevin Blue. Copyright © 2006 by Kevin Blue. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.