There are no end of people offering different services in our town. Food banks are plenteous, for obvious reasons, and yet still we don’t have enough of them. English classes exist locally, but demand far outstrips provision. Youth services exist but there are far too many needy children for our paltry services to handle.
The call, as you can so often imagine, is that the church ought to be doing all these things too. What about the youth, you have probably heard before. We also have questions about the poor, the hungry, the foreigner who can’t speak English, the jobless, the addict. What are we going to do about those people? Shouldn’t we, the church, be at the forefront of helping them?
Clearly, the Bible has lots to say about helping the poor and deprived. There is something to be said for helping the needy. And it doesn’t really matter where your church is, this applies to you too. If you aren’t doing anything to serve the poor an needy in your village, town or city you probably should ask yourself some hard questions about those bits of the Bible that are pretty clear about those things. It’s no good saying “but we’re in an affluent place” because I can guarantee you will be in the vicinity of poverty. It may be more hidden in your community, but I bet there are streets and areas people talk about in hushed tones or, worse, they use as a by-word for rough people we don’t mix with.
In communities like mine, the poverty is a bit more obvious. Everybody knows Oldham is deprived. It’s not like the South Oxfordshire village I mainly grew up in, that does have poverty in it, and people know there are people struggling, but the place is overwhelmingly middle class and so it’s easy to forget, ignore and overlook. But in places like Oldham it’s everywhere, not at all hidden. Much harder to ignore. And much easier to lose yourself in the forest of felt needs.
But there are others who can meet those needs too. There is nothing uniquely Christian about the church doling out food. Loads of people who would never set foot in a church happily do that. There is nothing uniquely Christian about teaching people to speak and read English. And just because it happens in a church building doesn’t make it especially Christian either. It is, at the end of the day, just another building among many others.
The only thing the church can uniquely offer anyone is the gospel. The very purpose and mission of the church is to make disciples who will make disciples. We might well want to leverage English Classes, food banks and various other things to help us with that mission. But if we don’t ultimately tell people about Jesus, what was the point? What have we actually achieved? The very point of the church is to tell people about Christ, to make disciples, and if we don’t actually do that because we have lost ourselves in all the need-meeting, we may just have lost ourselves and our very reason to exist. People can get their tins of beans and get taught the alphabet in loads of places across the town; in very few of them will anyone tell them about the life-saving message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
That is what the church can uniquely offer. The gospel. We can help people see Jesus. We can teach them the Bible. We can encourage them to know and love Jesus. That is what the church fundamentally has to offer. If we’re not doing that, then what is the point of any of what we’re doing?
This is important for a bunch of reasons. First, if we don’t give them Jesus, we aren’t actually doing anything they can’t get elsewhere. There really is no reason for them to come to us at all. Second, if we don’t give them Jesus, we actively encourage the view that he isn’t what they really need. Their immediate, material, felt-needs are the main issue and Jesus can come later if they like. That is a terrible place to leave people. Third, we miss the point of why we exist. Churches are there to proclaim the excellencies of God’s glory. We are there to make much of Jesus, to point people to him and encourage his people on in him. If we aren’t doing that, we miss the entire point of the church. Fourth, if we fail to do what the church was made to do – if we fail to do what Jesus created the church to do – we may just find that we end up losing even what we thought we had. That, it seems to me, is the point of the parable of the talents. We might think we’re achieving something, or holding onto something we think is valuable, and in the end Jesus will say we missed the point and even what we thought we had will be taken away.
We need to be clear as to why we, the church, are actually here. We need to be clear about our USP. What can we uniquely offer the world that they cannot get anywhere else. Which leads to the inexorable conclusion, if we don’t give them Jesus, just what is the point?