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Good Words, Good Deeds

In an effort to learn from those with more experience combining Good Words and Good Deeds, we read The Externally Focused Church by Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson and The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns.  We also interviewed Denny Henderson, Pastor of the Hill Country Bible Church at University of Texas, and Terry Erickson, the National Director of Evangelism for InterVarsity. We also learned many lessons during other elements of research conducted for this project.

In the book unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons reveal that a majority of non-believing Americans aged 16 to 29 hold an unfavorable view of Christians. One non-Christian summed it up like this: “Christianity has become bloated with blind followers who would rather repeat slogans than actually feel true compassion … [it] has become marketed and streamlined into a juggernaut of fear-mongering that has lost its own heart.”

The authors also found that young adults see Christians as “uncaring, while overly focused on getting others ‘saved’.”

Non-Christians want to see compassion in us—a deep awareness of the suffering of others and a willingness to help. We cannot simply tell them that we are a caring and compassionate people. They must see it in our actions.

In the book The Hole in Our Gospel, author Richard Stearns suggests that this view may be justified. He writes:

More and more, our view of the gospel has been narrowed to a simple transaction, marked by checking a box on a bingo card at some prayer breakfast, registering a decision for Christ, or coming forward during an altar call.  I have to admit that my own view of evangelism based on the Great Commission, amounted to just that for many years.  It was about saving as many people from Hell as possible—for the next life.  It minimized my concern for those same people in this life.  It wasn’t as important that they were poor or hungry or persecuted, or perhaps rich, greedy and arrogant; we just had to get them to pray the “sinner’s prayer” and then move on to the next potential convert.

Stearns proposes that a “whole gospel” focuses on the entirety of a person and the issues immediately felt by them in life.

In The Externally Focused Church, Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson advocate that churches embrace this compassion in action, calling it “the proof side of proclaiming the gospel.” They share story after story of churches reaching out with love and compassion to their communities by tutoring students, painting schools, repairing half-way houses, and offering English classes, citizenship classes, and counseling.

“Through witnessing these selfless demonstrations of love and helpful acts of service, observers believed that the church just might have something worth listening to.”

Dave Workman, lead pastor of Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, agrees: “It takes between 12 and 20 positive bumps [refreshing encounters with the church] before people come to Christ. Our presence in the public square through service gives us opportunities to provide these refreshing encounters.”

The authors go so far as to say that Good Deeds and Good News cannot and should not be separated: “The good deeds, expressed in service and ministry to others, validate the good news. The good news explains the purpose of the good deeds.”

Blessings for the Blessers
While this dual focus has obvious benefits to the victims of injustice, there is also a bounce for the movement. According to a study conducted by Hartford Seminary and conducted by Faith Communities Today (FACT), “Congregations with a strong commitment to social justice and with direct participation in community outreach ministries are more likely to be growing than other congregations.” One example of this is LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado. When they began a concerted effort to focus on others rather than themselves, they grew from 1,100 members to 15,000 members in just 8 years.

Successes and Cautions
During our research we interviewed several leaders of non-Campus Crusade evangelistic organizations. We asked each one what success they have experienced combining “Good Deeds” with the “Good News.”

Terry Erickson, the National Director of Evangelism for InterVarsity, told us that his organization heavily emphasizes an approach to students using “social justice” themes.

“You must pick your social justice issue very carefully,” Erickson said. “If people see different solutions along political lines, you may end up in disagreement.”

Annually, InterVarsity holds a big event within its US chapters. This year, they chose “Sex-Slave Trafficking” because any action taken would be seen as “standing up against evil” by Christians and non-Christians alike. Their plans for the 2009-2010 school year include:

• Inviting several congressmen to speak on this issue on campus.

• Holding a 6,000 person march on the busiest street near campus, protesting the sex slave trafficking trade.

• Partnering on campus with representatives from International Justice Mission and World Vision.

• Setting up proxy stations around campus (thought-provoking media stations manned by Christians trained to ask questions, listen, and provide answers).

• Partnering with additional non-Christian groups, since both Christians and non-Christians feel strongly that the issue needs attention.

However, the people we spoke with also recognize the risks. Denny Henderson of the Hill Country Bible Church at UT, expressed concerns about “Good News, Good Deeds” as an evangelistic outreach.

“Right now the students love the idea of social justice and humanitarian efforts,” Henderson said. “They kind of really resonate with that.  The problem is when we leave out the gospel, we’re not doing a whole lot, but feeding some stomachs. If we don’t share the gospel, we don’t give them hope for eternity, then we’re not really doing a whole lot.”

But even though Henderson has concerns about a possible separation of evangelism and the good deeds, evangelistic/humanitarian aid missions are still a part of HCBC UT’s plans because of the benefit to the believers.

“We’ve really amped up our whole global missions strategy this year. We have an ongoing ministry in Mexico twice a month—about 40 students each time,” Henderson said. “We are going down there and feeding the hungry. We are working in an orphanage and doing medical clinics, and that is really a good thing.

“We want to give our students an easy win,” Henderson said. “We get them to share the gospel outside of their normal sphere of people, get a tangible win, and then they say, ‘I can do this.’  So a big part of that for us is our short-term mission trips. They experience sharing the gospel with someone they’ll probably never see again and get used to it.”

As our readings and interviews show, there has been a radical and negative shift in cultural thinking about the Church.  If we do not find a way to improve outsiders’ views of us, then we will find ourselves increasingly marginalized and ineffective.

One first step may be to consider what in their negative perception about us is accurate. Perhaps we need to take a look at the things they see that make us so unattractive—self-centeredness, lack of compassion and kindness, hypocrisy to Christ’s moral standard, and seeing people as one dimensional potential converts.

It’s also important that as we add good deeds to our repertoire, we ensure that talking about Christ remains our ultimate motive, though not our ulterior motive.  None of these activities should just be a strategy to get the attention of non-believers. Outsiders will be able to see through that as a bait-and-switch.  But we have to find ways to communicate to our students, and to the lost, that love compels us not to stop at merely meeting their immediate needs.

If we are truly living the gospel, words and deeds will become inseparable. The church will give itself to the world—and in that sacrifice, the world will see the light of Christ.

These books about combining Good Words and Good Deeds persuade us that it may be valuable to:

• Champion the sowing value of compassionate acts.
Good Deeds, when done out of true love, can help us sow the seeds of the gospel in a hostile culture.

• Train our staff with new skills to help them combine Good Words with Good Deeds.
Many of us are seeing God’s heart for this re-integration, but don’t know what to do. Explicit training can help.

• Add Good Deeds components to our existing ministry activities.
Summer Projects could be a great place to experiment with this. If a student’s heartbeat is for sowing with social justice or other good deeds, they will be more attracted to our projects that include this as a focus.

• Incarnationally partner with non-Christian organizations that are already doing Good Deeds on campus.
This can create great opportunities for body and natural mode evangelism with those we work alongside, as well as those whom we are seeking to serve.

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