How would you finish that sentence? Pick up any book written in the past 5-10 years, and you’ll hear mega-church pastors from across the church world proclaiming the urgency to show Christ’s love to a lost world. They’ll know we’re Christians when they see how much we love them. Start a food bank, a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, a home for unwed mothers or a relief agency for the poor. Go to where the hurting people are and meet their physical needs. There is no greater way to be the hands and feet of Jesus and to show His love for a lost and hurting world. Well, that’s what they tell us.
Maybe our town is unique. One man told me the story of how he visited an elderly neighbor who invited him to take some food from his overflowing cupboards. He explained how he had a regular route he followed each week to get free groceries, but he had so much he didn’t know what to do with it all. One pastor told me how he carried a box of groceries to a woman’s car only to find six other boxes in her trunk that she had procured from other churches in town that same morning. A man who runs the food pantry at a church in a neighboring town tells the story of how some “poor people” come on Wednesdays for the free food and then turn around and sell it so they can buy cigarettes. Maybe no one else has experienced this. Or maybe it’s a sign of the times. People have come to the point of expecting someone else — namely, the church — to provide free food for them. Meanwhile, they use their money for cigarettes or cell phones or cable television. And, I’m sorry to say, I see very few of them deciding to give their hearts to Jesus and join the fellowship of the local church.
Several months ago a local battered woman’s shelter called our church. They were updating their list of community resources for their clients and wanted to know what free services we offered to women coming out of their program. The following week a woman stopped by the church because she was just about out of gas. “Of all places I thought the church would be able to help me with gas,” she exclaimed. Not long afterward, a young family man who is no stranger to our neighborhood stopped by my home asking for money to do any kind of odd job for the church so he could pay his rent at a local motel for the week.
Is this what the church has been reduced to? Is it just a place to get “free stuff”? Maybe we’re just kidding ourselves if we think we’re really making an impact on society.
Here’s where I have to go back to the words of Jesus. He said that people would know we were His disciples by OUR LOVE FOR ONE ANOTHER. Take a look at the picture of the early church in the book of Acts. In chapter two we learn that there were no needy people AMONG THEM (that is, among the believers), for from time to time someone would sell a piece of property and divide it among the needy. In chapter six there was a bit of controversy that came up because some of the widows AMONG THEM were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. Notice that they weren’t distributing food to all the widows in town, but to those who were part of the fellowship of believers.
I might be wrong here, but I can’t help but think the reason the church was growing by leaps and bounds was because people saw how Christians poured out love on other Christians. They saw there were no needy people among them, and they wanted to be part of a group that had that kind of commitment to one another — a group where Christ obviously influenced the way they treated each other. In Matthew 25, when Jesus shared the story of the sheep and goats, He commended the sheep for their works of righteousness — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison. And He summed it up with this: “Whatever you have done for one of the least of THESE BROTHERS OF MINE, you have done for me.” Now that’s profound, isn’t it? Jesus, earlier in His ministry, indicated that the disciples, His followers, were His “brothers.” And so it is throughout the book of Acts. The “brothers” are fellow believers. While I believe Christians ought to take care of the needs of those outside the church when the opportunity arises (as the Good Samaritan did when he came across the left-for-dead traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho), our primary ongoing responsibility is to care for ONE ANOTHER. We are to do good to all people, but especially to those who belong to the household of believers!
But you know what most people find when they go into a church? They find backbiting and gossip. They see Christians who won’t speak to one another because of some supposed slight from 4 years ago. They hear people complaining about the carpet, the style of music, the pastor’s attire or the fact that someone else told them what to do and they didn’t like their tone of voice. How much do they see the love of Christ for one another? What would be the result if people on the outside saw us hugging each other, praying spontaneously for each other’s needs? What would happen if they saw people in the church, without being prodded, taking food to each other, making meals and sharing our material wealth? Do you think they might want to be a part of a church like that?
As long as our focus is on trying to meet the needs of those on the outside, all they will ever see us as (for the most part) is a place to pick up free food. But if we really got about the business of being the church and they saw that if they were a part of the church their needs would be met, then maybe they would actually want to be a part of the church rather than just a beneficiary of its services. Maybe the church would grow by leaps and bounds again. Maybe people would find something a whole lot more satisfying than food.