So near… and yet so far

I was intrigued by this video about The Church and Estates. I have spoken a lot about church in deprived communities so this is precisely the sort of thing that was going to pique my interest. You can watch it below:

Now, there is so much right about it. There are people going into deprived communities, clearly wanting to love and serve the people there. I liked the focus on ‘accompanying’ people and taking on some of their issues and bearing their burdens. I really liked the emphasis on living in and among the folk on the estate. There is loads to like.

I was alerted to this because the Bishop of Burnley – who has spoken passionately about this subject – put it up on his Twitter feed. Now you can see what I think about some of the Bishop of Burnley’s views on this whole area here, here and here. So, I must admit, I watched with some trepidation as I wondered – despite it being good that people were going to estates – precisely what was being taught on the estates they were on. As you can imagine, I wasn’t thrilled by that.

Three particular things stood out. One was the vicar arguing that people simply need to know that ‘they’re loved and forgiven by God.’ Now, unless I am badly misreading my Bible, that is not the message people need to hear. They need to hear that they are loved and can be forgiven by God. They need to know that they are loved because Christ came to die on the cross before they have been forgiven. In fact, they need to know that they are not forgiven until such time as they repent of their sin and put their trust in Christ. Jesus did not give an automatic pass into Heaven to people just because they are poor; he said the gospel was good news to the poor. And it is! But it is only good news if we actually tell the poor what it is.

Second, the same vicar insisted that people need to know they’re loved and forgiven ‘rather than come to church and go on about sin.’ But if they don’t know about sin, what exactly do they need to be forgiven for? If all that matters is God loves them, what on earth is he doing forgiving them when they’re alright as they are? But isn’t the message of the gospel that ‘God demonstrates his love towards us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom 5:8)? Isn’t the message that God’s love is shown in that he died for our sin so that we might become children of God? Jesus himself says, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:31f). If we aren’t telling people they are sinners, then what are we doing telling them about Jesus at all? He only came to call those who are sinners.

Third, there was a repeated emphasis on ‘doing good’. Now, I’m all for doing good. I think loving people is important. But, by some coincidence, Steve Timmis put this on his Twitter feed today:

Here is the nub of the problem. Social action and evangelism are not the same thing. The video emphasises good works and yet says nothing of the gospel. It is all doing good (which is noble in a sense) while incorporating none of the gospel.

Steve helpfully points out that social action and evangelism are inseparable. So, nobody is arguing that doing good is a bad thing. In fact, unless our gospel is backed up by a genuine love for the people we are reaching – and that necessarily includes meeting their physical and emotional needs too – then we may have the right message but it will seem hollow to those we are trying to reach. We need both the right gospel message and the right gospel action to support what we are saying. But to offer people only good works with no gospel is to comfort them in their immediate need, whilst failing to do anything about their deepest need.

I have seen a few Evangelicals saying how great this video is. Personally, I am not so sure. It seems to be taking a dangerous, false gospel into needy areas and comforting people with a message of patronage that does nothing for their spiritual state and standing with the Lord. That doesn’t strike me as all that good at all.

Where Evangelicals should feel a stinging rebuke, however, is in the fact that here are people willing to go. We can decry the message being presented all we want, but all credit to them that they are willing to go to where many of us won’t. If those who have missed the glorious truths of the gospel can gird themselves up to go, surely we who have the words of eternal life should be able to give it some serious consideration? We shouldn’t be too quick to point the finger at the wrong way they are doing it when the reply that will rightly come back is, ‘At least I am here; you are not.’

If we watch the video and think they are so near, physically, but so far spiritually; what shall we say of those of us who are so far physically that our spiritual nearness has no power to draw anybody else near either?