The case for evangelism and benevolence
Twenty years ago, a minister started circulating a petition critical of Convoy of Hope’s outreach to the poor and suffering. “The church should focus on evangelism and leave compassion to the government and humanitarian organizations,” he said.
Fortunately, the petition was short-lived because the author discovered that thousands were coming to Jesus and connecting to local churches through Convoy’s community outreaches.
The author was not alone. Historically, similar criticism has arisen when compassion ministry revives within the Church.
The concern is certainly not without grounds. In the early 20th century, Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister, reacted to the perceived lack of commitment to the poor and suffering among evangelicals. He focused his efforts on meeting human need and became known as the father of the Social Gospel in America.
Many evangelical churches felt Rauschenbusch had minimized evangelism. And, as a reaction to the Social Gospel, they abstained from humanitarian efforts to focus on the spiritual aspects of their mission.
But the radical division between the spiritual and physical demands of the gospel is entirely a human invention.
The Scriptures indicate that Jesus came to Earth to glorify His Father, to seek and to save the lost, to make disciples, and to serve the poor and suffering. Jesus clearly described His mission in Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”
In John 9, Jesus demonstrates His love for the whole person when He heals a blind man and leads him to salvation. Following his encounter with Jesus, the man departs to wash in the Pool of Siloam. Sometime later, Jesus goes searching for the man. And when He finds him, He asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” That day, the man receives the gift of salvation. It wasn’t enough for Jesus to meet the blind man’s physical need; He also wanted to put an end to his spiritual blindness.
Jesus wasn’t satisfied with being humanity’s Healer or humanitarian of the year — He came to be our Savior.
The Great Protester
Jesus is the greatest Protester the world has ever known. He came to Earth to redeem, but also to protest the status quo. He denounced sin, poverty, oppression, racism, legalism and more. He didn’t employ petitions, boycotts, marches or rallies. Instead, He used disruptive compassion to deliver His message.
Through word and deed, He peacefully and profoundly said, “Enough is enough — this is unacceptable.”
Jesus did not abdicate compassion to those outside the Church. But neither did He intend the local church to be merely a benevolence agency. It is a place where people also come to find hope and spiritual guidance.
Like Jesus, believers are concerned about the whole person. We don’t want to see people suffer now or for eternity. Jesus called us to minister to both spiritual and physical needs. (See Luke 10:25-37; 14:13-14.)
Some suggest humanitarian groups and government agencies have the capacity to meet the world’s basic human needs. “Let the world feed them — and we’ll save them,” they say. But that is a tragic miscalculation.
Without the Church’s response, children will die from malnutrition, young girls will be sold into slavery, and disease will ravage the elderly. And many will never have an opportunity to receive Jesus.
Jesus never said, “Meeting human need isn’t your concern — let someone else do it.” Instead, He actively recruited His followers to serve the poor and suffering by providing them with food, clothing and shelter.
He even compared ministry to the poor to ministry to himself: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. ... Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35-36,40).
The Book of James speaks clearly to this: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
Spiritual depth will not cause us to ignore the world, but rather to “go into it” and influence it. “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16).
Throughout Scripture, the Spirit of God urges believers to stand against injustice and raise their voices in defense of the weak. “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Proverbs 29:7).
Is the Church prepared to join Jesus in His protest of sin, oppression, racism, poverty, disease and more? We should be. Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). The Church is the body of Christ, His representative on Earth, and as such is responsible to serve.
Some say, “Social action dilutes the gospel — it takes time we could spend more profitably in direct evangelization.” But no one would suggest that when Jesus took time to heal the sick and feed the hungry He shortchanged the gospel. No — His ministry was complete.
During periods of revival, when many come to salvation, pastors often face a tipping point. They must decide whether to give more focus to the discipleship of new converts for a season or risk losing them. In like manner, church leaders have a responsibility to find an appropriate balance between addressing spiritual and physical needs.
A Time for Holy Anger
As social problems mount, communities and nations are increasingly looking to churches for solutions. To retain their good standing in the community, congregations must move beyond pity and disgust and take action. In other words, a holy anger needs to rise among believers, which leads to acts of kindness and disruptive compassion.
In Mark 1:40-42, Jesus expressed compassion through anger and action: “A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.”
No one would suggest that when Jesus took time to heal the sick and feed the hungry He shortchanged the gospel.
Most Bible versions translate Jesus’ feelings as “compassion” or “pity.” The NIV renders it “indignant” because some early reliable manuscripts contain a phrase that means “filled with anger.” Jesus was not angry at the leper. He was angry at how the enemy had victimized the man’s life. This holy indignation compelled Jesus to do something about it.
Today, it is easy to become tolerant of poverty, disease, racism and abuse. But these are weapons the enemy is using to destroy lives. Silence is not an option. In the name of Jesus, may we, too, raise our voices and offer a helping hand to lost, hurting and needy people.
God did not create men, women and children just so they could die of hunger and malnutrition. He didn’t create them to be drug addicts, gang members and prostitutes. They are God’s unique and special creations, and through our words and deeds, Jesus is asking us to place value on people the enemy has devalued.
Where is our moral indignation when 16,000 children die each day from hunger and water-related causes? Where is our outrage when 1 billion people live in poverty, without access to medicine and clean drinking water? Where are our tears when millions pass into eternity without access to the Word of God and an understanding that Jesus died for them?
The world claims it has not witnessed enough outrage from believers when it comes to issues such as drug abuse, gang warfare, teen suicide, human trafficking and more. That perspective may be unfair and uninformed, but many contend believers are so focused on spiritual issues that we neglect the millions fighting for physical survival.
In the future, may the world acknowledge our concern — both for how people live today and where they will spend eternity.
Compassion and Revival
Disruptive compassion has also characterized every genuine spiritual awakening. Jesus-inspired protests of the status quo resulted in salvations and social action. In the wake of revival, Christians established schools, hospitals, feeding initiatives, jobs training programs, alcohol treatment centers and more.
America’s second Great Awakening (in the first half of the 19th century) spawned the “Great Eight” benevolent societies — organizations that reached the down and out, mobilizing believers to minister to the nation’s impoverished.
Evangelist Charles G. Finney, who spearheaded the second phase of that revival, believed that a righteous life followed a reborn spirit and that true righteousness must impact the world, not just the Church. He believed that people Christ transforms should always transform society.
Finney was first an evangelist, a seeker after souls. But he was also an activist for social change. A British citizen named George Williams came to Christ through reading Finney’s works. Later, because of the influence of Finney’s social reforms — which Finney considered part and parcel of revival — Williams founded the YMCA.
Intentional social activism has accompanied many great moves of God. William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army, were first and foremost fervent revivalists. Their early motto was “soap, soup and salvation” — good works and the gospel together. They maintained that starving people won’t (or can’t) listen to the sermons of those who care nothing of their physical plight.
The Prayer Meeting or Layman’s Revival of 1857-58 started in the U.S. and reached the British Isles in 1859. In his 1908 book, Mighty Days of Revival, George E. Morgan observed: “The visitation of the Spirit first taught afresh the lesson of the New Birth; then, living faith was translated into good works, multiplying on every hand and producing world-wide results. A host of zealous converts carried the message of Divine love and practical sympathy into the darkest abodes of human woe.”
The revival, Morgan wrote, “reached out to body and soul.” Converts refurbished communities, founded hospitals, exposed the plight of sweatshop workers, improved the lot of prisoners, and established scores of philanthropic organizations.
Evangelist D.L. Moody, himself touched by the Prayer Meeting Revival, was responsible for multitudes of benevolent causes that came to life following his crusades in the United States and Great Britain.
Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross in the United States, referred to the words of Jesus in the Golden Rule in her call for social action: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).
For more than a century, Pentecostals have also served the poor and suffering. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, for example, pastor-evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson fed thousands each week at her church in Los Angeles.
From the early days of the Assemblies of God, its missionaries served the needs of the poor and suffering, even during times when the Fellowship strongly rejected the Social Gospel. Missionaries such as Lillian Trasher, Mark and Huldah Buntain, and John and Lois Bueno engaged in compassionate outreach, and they were not alone.
The Spirit moved on hundreds of AG missionaries and pastors to minister to the needs of the poor and suffering — often from their personal resources. Due to Social Gospel concerns, their efforts were not widely reported in AG publications.
Recognizing the Spirit-led nature of compassion ministry and its biblical foundation, leaders updated the mission statement of AG World Missions in 1982. They included serving the poor and suffering as one of the four components of the mission, along with evangelism, church planting and the training of national believers.
Though the proclamation of the gospel diminished as some organizations gave their primary focus to addressing human need, this does not justify separating spiritual ministry from compassion ministry. Even denominations founded solely for spiritual purposes historically face the same sort of drift and decline.
Fervent, Spirit-led leadership is the key to keeping any type of ministry balanced and effective.
Following Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Early Church grew rapidly. The disciples appointed Stephen to oversee the distribution of food to the widows. Acts 6:5 says Stephen was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” He was “a man full of God’s grace and power,” who “performed great wonders and signs among the people” (verse 8).
The world is crying out for modern-day Stephens who speak in tongues, but who are also willing to feed hungry mouths. Like Jesus, may they alleviate human suffering and lead many to salvation.
Believers are awakening to the realization that following Jesus goes far beyond church attendance. The evidence of Christian living includes both words and deeds. The salvation of souls is our mission, but it is not our only mission.
Compassion ministry — hands-on service to people in need — will not lead God’s people away from the gospel. It will only heighten our awareness of the importance of every soul and inspire us to emulate Jesus by meeting physical and spiritual needs.
The overwhelming evidence in the Word of God and in the history of the Church leads to this conclusion: Being involved in compassion ministry is being obedient to God. That’s why local churches and ministries like Convoy of Hope will continue, unapologetically, to reach out to the poor and suffering in the name of Jesus.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 edition of Influence magazine.