What I like least about the Christians I grew up with is that stewardship and compassion stop at the doors of the church. Not literally at the doors to the church building, though sometimes that is true, but at the boundaries of the Christian community.
What this means is that activities such as clothing the poor and feeding the hungry are, within the church community, matters of routine practice. So are comforting the widows and orphans, or giving financially to support shared resources and facilities, like classrooms, choir robes, buses, and even baseball fields, along with the ministers and their activities.
The outpouring of support, emotional, tangible, or financial, can be remarkably generous. The ten percent tithe is a benchmark, below which a family might fall because of financial hardship, or otherwise with pangs of guilt. But many people give far more, both to the church and other Christians, even at great personal cost.
I have seen it. I have been a recipient. My husband commented with astonishment at the food that arrived warm, painstakingly prepared, meal after meal in the days after my father’s death. I, who had grown up in the church, was more startled by his surprise. From my home across the country, I have watched with gratitude and humility as, week after month after year, men of the congregation have come to fix my mother’s plumbing, to replace loose shingles, to cart my nephews to club meetings and outings and Sunday school when my mother and their own mother could not.
People give without calling attention to themselves. When thanks are expressed to someone who has given much, credit is often deflected. “God has given much to me . . .” or “It is a part of my ministry . . .” or “Christ has called us to . . .”
All of this is routine, as I said. It is a given. The absence of such generosity and stewardship within my home church would be both troubling and surprising. Their presence is an unquestioned part of what it means to follow in Christ’s footsteps.
But if problems and needs exist in the world outside the Church, that is a different matter. Yes, there are ministries to inner city youth and to the elderly and to single mothers, but always with the intent of proselytizing. That is the point. That is the goal. Providing transportation to medical appointments, or filling hungry stomachs, or coaching soccer is a means to an end. Catholics in Latin America and Muslims in Afghanistan and Buddhists in India accuse Protestant aid organizations of trading goods and services for converts. They are not altogether wrong. And what happens in the church of my youth (and, I suspect, many others that have outreach ministries) is not altogether different.
My father spent all the years that I knew him, from my first awareness until his death, as a youth leader, guiding teens on expeditions that combined a focus on challenge and self discipline with a focus on experiencing God as He speaks through the marvels of creation. This was my father’s passion; he delighted in taking first boys and later co-ed groups into the wilderness and opening them to experiences that he believed were uniquely available there. Yet he never participated in environmental advocacy to protect the mountains and deserts he loved. Nor did he give to organizations that did so, in contrast to his regular giving within the church. I doubt that he ever considered such activities a part of his calling or his responsibility.
But if it wasn’t his responsibility, then whose? Who but someone who loves the wilderness, who has a keen sense of responsibility – of pulling his weight – of doing what needs to be done? This is my frustration: Christians who, because they are doing what is needed in the church community, behave as if they are exempt from participating in everything else that needs to be done in the world; Christians who can throw their weight behind organizations and politicians who are trying to fight specific sins, but ignore all of those that work to otherwise address human need and suffering. (Unless, of course, such organizations are church affiliated and provide opportunities to win converts . . .)
Children in poor neighborhoods have rotten schools? Of course it’s a problem, but not a Christian problem. Drinking water contains high levels of heavy metals? Definitely a problem, but not a Christian problem. Blood banks are having trouble because of short supplies? Hospitals are running out of funds to subsidize uncompensated care? Farmland is being eliminated by suburban sprawl? There is another famine in Ethiopia? Arms traders are providing machine guns to orphaned children in the Sudan? Manatees are becoming extinct because of pleasure craft activities off the coast of Florida? Not Christian problems.
The Christians I grew up with might take on responsibility for such concerns independent of their Christian faith, but they certainly wouldn’t take on these concerns because of their faith. No explicit models were offered to us as children and youth, either formally through youth activities or informally through discussion with our elders and spiritual mentors. I don’t think these activities were simply invisible to our young eyes. I think they were scarce: If those Christians who have the most sense of social responsibility are the ones who give within the church to the limits of their ability, then they have little to spare in terms of either time or money for other concerns. So what does that leave?
It seems to me that it leaves everything else that needs doing in the world as the responsibility of agnostics and Jews and Buddhists and other such nonbelievers. And that while they are struggling to do it all, struggling because there is a lot to be done, many Christians get to sit by, not just with the certainty of their own salvation, but also with a certain sense of moral superiority. Not only does such a posture seem ugly and off-putting, but I question whether it is even biblical.
First, I challenge the sense of moral superiority. In my modestly educated readings of the new testament, what I find is a clear statement that if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ with all your heart, soul and mind, you will be saved. Period. Nowhere do I find the gospel writers or the apostles stating that if you believe, you will be kinder than all nonchristians, or you will be more generous than all nonbelievers, or have more integrity than all nonbelievers or be more compassionate. The new testament writers don’t say this any more than they say that if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ you will be smarter than all nonchristians or healthier, or more financially successful. You will be saved, by grace. That is it. Seems to me a little humility is indicated.
Secondly, I challenge the demarcation, that says problems within the church community are the responsibility of Christians, and other problems are not. If you look at the early part of Jesus’s ministry, many of his miracles and acts of compassion were not accompanied by a “come follow me” message. They were simply done. The blind seeing and the lame walking and the hungry being satisfied and even the adequacy of wine for a wedding celebration were worthwhile ends in their own right. They weren’t a means to an end, they flowed from goodness and righteousness and God’s love.
When Jesus preached the beatitudes, He didn’t say, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth; oh, and by the way, come follow me.’” Nor did he say, “Blessed are the meek Jews for they shall inherit the earth.” He didn’t say, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy if they sell all their possessions and give them to the poor and come follow me.” Yet that is what He told the wealthy man to do if he would be saved. Jesus knew what He was saying and He said what He meant. There were times in His ministry that His focus was on being recognized as the messiah and times that He challenged specific individuals to join him. But that was not the whole of His ministry.
So how is it that anyone gets to draw a clean little line at the door of the church, and feel complacent about all of the compassion and stewardship they exhibit within? It seems to me that there is a lot of support for a broader, more inclusive moral mandate for those who are willing to recognize it, for those who are willing to acknowledge the real-ness and importance of both goodness and pain on the other side of the door.