Should local churches stick to evangelizing and producing disciples? Or should they strive to do justice and work for good in the culture? Or should they equally emphasize both?
Those who talk more of justice and cultural engagement are fearful of social marginalization. Without that emphasis, they believe, non-Christians will regard the church as a useless and divisive institution that should not be tolerated.
Those who stress evangelism and discipleship talk instead of the reality of limited resources. It would simply overwhelm the local church to try to meet the endless economic and material needs of the city, they say. Besides, there are plenty of agencies doing that, while the church alone is calling people to salvation through faith in the gospel. So the church should focus its limited financial resources almost exclusively on evangelism and the ministry of the Word.
How should we resolve this?
RESOLVING THE TENSION BETWEEN WORD AND DEED MINISTRY
First, we should establish that the ministry of the Word is the priority for the local church. The first thing I need to tell people when they come to church is “Believe in Jesus,” not “Do justice.” Why? First, believing in Jesus meets a more radical human need. Second, if they don’t believe in Jesus they won’t have a gospel motivation to do justice in the world. So the first priority of the local church under its elders is to make disciples, not to do housing rehabilitation or feed the poor.
However, the church must disciple and support its members so they love their neighbor, integrate their faith in their work, and seek a more just and wholesome society and culture. This means that within the church there must be adequate teaching, preaching, and emphasis on how to be Christian in the public sphere, and how to be loving servants in our neighborhood. And of course there should be strong “diaconal” or mercy ministry within the congregation to meet the economic and material needs of members.
Nevertheless, while the church disciples its members to help the poor and, for example, to be Christian filmmakers, the congregation should not own low-income housing or start a film production company.
So the institutional church should give priority to Word ministry, but Christians must do both word and deed ministry in the world, and the church should equip them to do so.
WHAT ABOUT LIMITED RESOURCES?
What about the idea of limited resources? Most of the money that members of Redeemer Church in Manhattan give for mercy ministry within the congregation and for service to the needy out in the city comes through annual special offerings and designated giving. One special offering is taken at Christmas and goes to diaconal ministry within the church. Another special offering is taken at Easter and goes to Hope for New York, a Christian 501©3 birthed out of Redeemer which does all sorts of mercy and justice ministry in the city. A lot of other giving to mercy and justice related ends comes from our membership through individual gifts. Many Reformed churches have funded diaconal ministry this way over the centuries, with second or “special” offerings taken on communion Sundays or on other special occasions for the diaconal fund. The money was then used to meet needs inside the congregation and in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, basic Word ministry is funded from regular offerings and not from special or designated giving.
This works very well for us. The special offerings do not cut into the regular offerings very much. They are generally “new monies” over and above regular giving. The existence of dynamic and compassionate ministry to the needy draws out giving that would not come if you did not give people the opportunity to give as their hearts direct. So Word ministry and acts of service are not an “either-or.” It is not a zero sum game. In fact, I have seen that when people see a church caring about its community in tangible ways, that generates a lot of goodwill and it makes people more willing to give to the regular offerings as well. So there is no trade-off. We have found that if you fund mercy and justice in this way, it only increases the overall giving to Word ministry.
What about the charge that “we don’t have the money or resources to feed all the hungry”? Well, we do not have the money or resources to take the gospel to every single person in our city either. Instead, we do what we can with what we have.
WHAT ABOUT RELEVANCE?
What about the concern for relevance? If the church is giving a priority to Word ministry, will our city think us useless? No. We have shown how a church can give priority to the Word and nonetheless show great concern for the poor in its message and raise lots of financial and human resources for the poor in its ministry. And the better the church’s ministry of the Word, the more it will fill the city with mature Christians doing “salt and light” work, tackling the needs of the needy in sympathy and service. The local church and its Lord can and should get a lot of credit for that.
Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, and is the author, most recently, of Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Zondervan, forthcoming 2012). An earlier version of this article was posted at the Redeemer Church City to City blog.
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