“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:16
I have argued before that the current context in which we broadly find ourselves in the Western World means that the church can no longer rely on being seen as an inherently good thing. Time was, people thought the church was inherently good, even if they themselves weren’t overly interested in it. They might send their kids for a bit of good morals, or spiritual formation, because the church was essentially alright, just not of interest to them in particular.
That clearly is not the situation we are in anymore. These days, we are not seen as a basically good thing. Indeed, we are no longer even seen as an essentially harmless thing. Now we are broadly seen as a bad, problematic thing. The world now sees itself as the good and the church as opposing what it stands for. We are, at best, viewed with a large degree of scepticism by many.
I say that not in any sort of despairing way. Just as a point of fact. Most people don’t actively hate us, they broadly nothing us. But what they do know about us, or think they know about us, is often not positive. Which means we are starting from behind with many people. They aren’t chomping at the bit to hear our gospel message of salvation. Some think they’ve heard it all before (but we know they haven’t) or think they know what we’re about already and aren’t that keen.
This matters because, if we are starting from behind and cannot assume people will view us as an unmitigated community good, we have to show them before they engage with us that it is so. I am minded to think many churches who sit in their buildings and do very little in their communities but run the occasional outreach event are rightly viewed as not being much of a community good. Before most people are going to engage with us these days, we have to show them that the gospel we claim is good news is actually good news in practice. I am convinced the good works the gospel drives the church to do are necessary for us to get a hearing. People may have their preconceived views, but they cannot deny objective community good. If the reason for our community good is the gospel we proclaim as good news, that is what is likely to get the gospel a hearing.
That isn’t to say we can’t go and share the gospel with whomever we want. It doesn’t mean we have to “earn the right” to share the gospel. But it probably does mean we can’t be that surprised if we find little fruit and few receptive ears because people don’t think they have any reason to give us the time of day. It does seem we are more likely to be fruitful, and gain a hearing, if we have given them a solid reason to listen in the first place.
We may sometimes think our efforts to serve our neighbours are a bit pokey and rubbish. But we have no idea how the Lord might be using what we are doing to open up doors for the gospel. Serving people in ministry simply because the gospel compels us and it works for the good of our neighbours may seem fruitless, but these may well be the very things that open up doors for the gospel. Not merely opening doors for hearing, but opening doors for a receptive hearing. They may well be the groundwork required – not so much for us to share the gospel itself, which we can blast through a megaphone in someone’s face who we’ve never met if we like – but for a genuine, receptive hearing that bears fruit.
Sometimes in our effort not to smell of the social gospel we can forget that the Lord Jesus does actually call us to do good works that may cause our neighbours to praise and glorify God as a result. Without doubt, we don’t just want to be social workers who have no gospel to share. Nor do we want social work to so overtake everything we do that we never actually get round to sharing the gospel. But some of us are so averse to these things that we refuse to do any good works at all, viewing them as frivolous and not “real gospel work”. Jesus begs to differ, so long as those good works are directed towards the end of causing our neighbours to praise God. That should include sharing the gospel, but it surely includes doing good to and for them too.
In the end, our witness before our neighbours matters. That is not just walking with integrity before them personally (though that surely matters too). But it means walking in such a way that we inevitably do good to them because of the gospel. It means serving our neighbours in real and practical ways so that, when they see the good works we do, we can point them to the gospel and they may give thanks to the true and living God who, because of his Son and in the power of his Spirit, we are compelled to do them.