Just last month, to the surprise of everyone in our community, Longmont and our surrounding area was the center of a national disaster when rain in the mountains filled up our rivers and flooded the towns along Colorado’s northern Front Range. At one point 7000 people in Longmont were evacuated, 2000 people in Lyons and 4000 in Boulder. Hundreds of homes were affected, the town of Lyons was shut down and cut off. Roads and bridges were washed out, cutting us off from nearby towns.
Churches in the community rallied volunteers to distribute food, house evacuees and help clean up and rebuild. It was an amazing thing to witness. Our church meets in a building that became an evacuation center, with up to 300 people making it their home for over a week. Since we weren’t able to have Sunday services because of that, we took the opportunity to work with the City of Longmont, who asked our congregation to help them set up a disaster recovery center in the Twin Peaks Mall. So that Sunday, in place of our usual service, our church met in an empty retail space at the mall; there were no chairs, so we stood and had a short Bible study and prayer and then got to work. Together with another church from town, we set up what became the first and largest disaster recovery center in Colorado and the epicenter for the relief efforts. We also organized work teams who went into The Greens neighborhood to muck out basements that were full of contaminated water. We helped people save photos and heirlooms that had been covered in mud and sewage. We also set up a disaster relief fund and are now working with a relief organization, Calvary Relief, to help with efforts in Lyons.
As good as all this sounds, I had someone ask me a few days into it: Why is the church putting so much effort and energy into this? Isn’t the government taking care of things? In fact, this question came from a man who had traveled to our area to help with the relief efforts! He was asking me what the point and purpose of all of this work was. At the root of his question was a fundamental question of what ‘the church’ is and what we exist to do. In other words: ‘what is our mission?’ and ‘does this fit into our mission, or should we leave this for others to do and focus on our mission?’
That isn’t a bad question actually. As I mentioned in my previous post, everything we do begs the question ‘why?’. Why should the church spend money and human resources on helping with disaster relief, when so many others are doing it already? Should the church be focused on helping people in temporal ways – or should we be focused on helping people spiritually?
One answer that has historically been given, is that if you don’t meet people’s physical needs, then you will lose the opportunity to minister to their spiritual needs – thus, the reason we should do humanitarian work is so that we can open the door to talking to people about spiritual things. After all, Jesus did say: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”
Another take on it is to say that the church exists to represent the values of the Kingdom of God in this world in order to bring glory to God and to please God by acting according to His heart of love towards the people He created. Jesus said: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” He said: ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
So, on the one hand, it could be argued that if we as Christians uniquely have the message of eternal life in Jesus Christ, then our number 1 priority should be saving people’s souls rather than trying to make their lives be more comfortable here and now. Any one of the many NGO’s can help rebuild; shouldn’t we focus on preaching the Gospel so they can be saved eternally? On the other hand, it could also be argued that we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves – and I know if my house was flooded and I was displaced, I would want some help! After all, didn’t Jesus meet people’s temporal needs by healing them and feeding them? Didn’t the disciples in the Book of Acts care for people’s temporal needs by feeding widows and collecting offerings to assist the poor?
What do you think? Should the church do charity work, and if so, why?
I’ll tell you this much – if we don’t show people we love them in practical ways, we are misrepresenting God. We need to preach the Gospel, which is the power of God for salvation to all who believe, but we also need to serve and take care of hurting people. Striking this balance is something that Christians have been debating, and even dividing over for centuries.
In a recent sermon, I defined the mission of God as a mission of redemption and restoration of all things affected by sin, and that our mission as Christians is to join God in His mission.
What do you think? Should the church be involved in charity work? If so, why? and to what degree?