But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?1 John 3:17
Prior to joining the staff at ATLAS of West Central Minnesota, I worked for another nonprofit managing homeless assistance programs. When trying to help an individual or family navigate a housing emergency, our staff would often ask about any support structure they might have, including family, friends, and if they were part of any type of faith community that might be able to offer assistance. It was a very rare occasion that someone we were serving was actually connected to a church in a meaningful way.
In the four years I worked in that position, it became abundantly clear that there’s a large gap today between the church and those who are truly hurting, poor, broken, and suffering within our communities.
Are We Running in Vain?
Tim Keller touched on this idea in his book The Prodigal God. Keller writes,
“Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers [from the parable of the prodigal son], they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think.”
In Galatians 2, the Apostle Paul writes about his Jerusalem meeting with the other apostles where they compared notes on the gospel “in order to make sure [he] was not running or had not run in vain.” (Gal 2:2)
If the effect of the church on the hurting, broken, and poor today is so different from what Jesus had on those same groups, as Keller says, then is the church today running in vain? Are we focused on priorities, carrying out programs, and engaging in practices that don’t really align with the priorities and practices of Jesus?
In some ways, unfortunately, I think the answer is yes.
The Only Way to Bridge The Gap
So what will move the church toward a more Christ-like engagement with people in need in our communities?
The only answer is the love of Christ.
The love of Christ challenges, convicts, motivates, strengthens, stirs, moves, and propels unlike anything else. When the love of Christ is unleashed in a believer’s life, gaps and barriers between people who have yet to hear of and experience Christ’s love begin to disappear.
If I think up all the best outreach, engagement, and discipleship strategies, but have not love, I am a dog barking throughout the night.
If all I feel is guilt for not doing more to serve and engage the poor and hurting in my community, but have not love, I will only seek to do the bare minimum to appease my conscience.
Only when we are awakened to Christ’s love for us personally, despite everything in us that makes us undeserving of his love, will we want to share his love with those the world sees as “unlovable.”
“We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
If Christ’s love isn’t our main motivation for engaging with hurting people, then something else that will inevitably turn out to not be very loving will become our main motivation. If the love of Christ isn’t what compels us, our pride, desire for power, or apathy will undoubtedly drain our efforts of their impact.
In fact, the existence of such a profound gap between the church and the hurting in our communities today indicates that the love of Christ isn’t what compels us.
But when the love of Christ is what compels us, we’ll no longer live for ourselves but will instead live for God’s glory by helping hurting people to know the joy and hope of following Jesus. (2 Cor 5:14-15)
When Christ’s Love is Our “Why“
I want you to passionately engage those who are hurting in your community with the love and message of the hope of Jesus Christ. To do that, I pray the Spirit awakens you to the overflowing love God has shown you through Jesus. I pray “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3:17-19)
If Christ’s love is our “why” in life, we’ll passionately pursue the “how” of passing his love along to others in need. And when this starts multiplying in your church, that gap between your church and your community won’t stand a chance.