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Christ Centered Engagement

There is a big difference between following the mission of the church and becoming a parachurch ministry or organization.

By Bill Hall, National Director, Canada

It was an interesting conversation that day in Toronto. I was there as the Saskatchewan representative of Food Banks Canada’s national advisory council. I had been involved for a few years in running a food bank in my community and was also Executive Director of Food Banks of Saskatchewan.

During a break between meetings, I asked a friend why he was so passionate about helping the hungry. He responded that he wasn’t a person of faith; rather, he considered himself a humanist and believed in supporting the dignity of all people. As such he had a heart for those living in poverty and wanted to see an end to it.

So, while we both cared about the poor, we had two different motivations. In my case I took this famous passage found in Matthew to heart:

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.”

Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?” Then the King will say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me” (Matthew 25:34-40 The Message)

However, looking back at my days at the food bank, I realize there was a real tension between my work there and preaching the gospel. While I am a Christian, my work was in isolation with my local church’s mission. Although I had a lot of opportunities to share my faith, I was basically working in a humanist organization.

Although I have left food banking, the organization I ran and the national movement I was a part of continues to do well without my Christian influence. It continues to do good works and feed the hungry.

Lately, in GCI we have heard about engaging our neighborhoods by showing the love of Jesus as part of the Love Avenue. Many of our congregations are doing just that, but my story is a cautionary tale to be aware that there is a difference between following the mission of the church and becoming perhaps a parachurch organization or a helping organization.

To me there is a vast difference.

The mission of the local church is to reach out to invite people to be part of a local believing community. In other words, to show that God is reaching out to all humans and offering them an intimate relationship with the triune God and other fellow believers. It’s an invitation to a personal, nurturing relationship, based on unity and trust, within the believing community and with God. This must be the primary focus of all ministries for a congregation, both internal and external.

A parachurch organization may have a similar goal of reaching people with the gospel message of hope through Jesus. But how they accomplish this is more global in scope. How well they do in connecting people with a local group of believers differs from organization to organization. Many of them were founded because a group of Christians saw a need that required someone to step up and try to alleviate. This is particularly the case when the state wasn’t involved in caring for their citizens.

While a local church can partner with or provide some aid to a parachurch organization to expand their reach, it’s easy for this to become a distraction from our real mission. While providing parachurch aid makes a person or congregation feel they are reaching out, the neighbors and friends being served aren’t even aware a local church exists. In my case, people knew of my association with my church and Christianity, but this didn’t translate in introducing my neighbors to a triune God who cared for them.

I still have a heart for caring for the poor, but I now see this type of ministry in a different light. Our congregation in Winnipeg operates a bi-weekly food bank (or food pantry) out of their church every two weeks. It has been quite effective in introducing their church neighborhood to their local congregation. It is a place where food bank clients get to interact with the members of that community. Many have become friends, and as a result are starting to have more of those deeper conversations about the church that occupies the building they come to every other week.

One caution I would like to add. Too often avenues of engagement are viewed as a way to “save” a congregation. If that is the motivation, then we may be disappointed. Our motivation must be our love for the people of our neighborhoods – which results in engagement. When Christ’s love compels us, we will follow the example of Matthew 25 as part of our fulfillment of the great commission of leading people into a relationship with Jesus (Matthew 28). With this as our motivation, we are participating with Jesus in his mission. We share his love and his life with others because we love them. This is living and sharing the gospel.

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