Friday, June 20, 2008

The Failure of the American Church

The Failure of the American Church
By Keith Giles

"While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.

When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. "Why this waste?" they asked. "This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor."

Aware of this, Jesus said to them, "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her." - Matthew 26:6-13

When Jesus tells his disciples that they will always have the poor among them, many have concluded that this statement is meant to downplay the practice of giving to the poor in order to focus on more important things, like corporate worship and giving to the building fund.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the passage Jesus is quoting here is from the book of Deuteronomy and it contains a teaching that they would have known by heart as good Jewish young men.

OLD TESTAMENT COMPASSION
"There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land." - Deut. 15:11

In contrast to what we may erroneously assume about the meaning of Jesus' words, this passage is actually a command to give generously to the poor, because they will always be with us.

In fact, to read the entire passage in Deuteronomy is to catch a very surprising whiff of just how much God is concerned for the poor in our midst.

In verse 4 of chapter 15 there is a very interesting statement God makes that any good Christian should take note of: "However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you"

God's command to His people was to show such amazing generosity and compassion for the poor that there should be no poor among them, even though later on, in verse 11, He affirms that the poor will always be among them; suggesting that while their love may fail the test, the needs of those around them will not cease.

FULFILLING THE COMMAND
The great news is that, once Jesus arrived on the scene and began to model life in the Kingdom to his disciples, they began to understand what real love and compassion towards the poor looked like.

From the very beginning our Lord Jesus turned to his disciples and gave them a simple command: "Love one another" - John 13:34

From the very beginning, these faithful disciples obeyed this simple command.

"All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need." - Acts 4:32-35

In fact, many New Testament scholars and Early Church Historians have concluded that the amazing love these first Christians had for one another was more instrumental in drawing people to Christ, and to receive the Gospel of the Kingdom, than any of the signs or wonders performed by the Apostles.

A FAILURE OF COMPASSION?
Some have suggested that this radical compassion for the poor eventually failed and was proven unsustainable because later on in the New Testament Paul the Apostle writes a letter appealing to other Churches in the region to send money to support the now-bankrupt Churches in Jerusalem and the area of Macedonia.

"At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: "He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little." - 2 Cor 8:14-15

While some may see Paul's appeal to other churches for financial assistance as proof that the radical compassion and charity of the early Church was unsustainable, I would argue that it proves the concept was spreading and part of God's plan to spread the Gospel throughout the Earth.

THE POINT WE'RE MISSING
The model of radical compassion that Jesus left us, and that the Apostles promoted, was designed to grow and expand as the Gospel spread. At first the sharing of all things within the community was between neighbors on the same street, and then between those within the same city. As the Gospel spread the sharing expanded to include those within the same region, and then eventually to those within the nation. The circle was meant to grow ever outward. As the message of the Gospel spread so too would the demonstration of radical community and giving would expand to include those brothers and sisters who had never even met in person.

"All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." - Acts 2:44-47

THE MANNA PRINCIPLE
When Paul quotes Exodus 16:18 in 2 Cor 8:15 (see above)"...they that gather little did not have too little; those that gathered much did not have too much" he was subtly reminding them of the manna principle that God gave the Israelites in the desert. It was a principle of trusting God for daily bread and not taking more for yourself than you need for today.

The beautiful thing is that those early Christians and followers of Jesus got it. They gave hilariously. They gave sacrificially. They gave because they knew that God would supply their need tomorrow in view of their generosity and open hand today.

THE FORGOTTEN WAY
Where have we in America gone wrong? How have we made being a faithful Christian about getting more stuff? How could we twist faith in Christ into a tool for amassing more wealth and blessing for ourselves?

"It is sad to see that, in our highly competitive and greedy world, we have lost touch with the joy of giving. We often live as if our happiness depended on having. But I don't know anyone who is really happy because of what he or she has. True joy, happiness and inner peace come from the giving of ourselves to others. A happy life is a life for others." - Henri J.M. Nouwen; Life of the Beloved

I pray that somehow God would touch and soften our selfish, greedy hearts and begin to break us, giving us eyes to see the poor in our midst.

-kg

5 comments:

paul said...

C'mon now. "Failure of the American Church"? Are you referring to the approximately 350,000 Christian churches in the US (including yours)? If not, which ones are failing? Are you willing to be specific? Also, how is failure determined? What is the minimum percentage of service to the poor (time/energy/money) needed to earn a non-failing score? And who, this side of judgment day, says so?

What does one do with Acts 6 where the Twelve delegated serving the poor to others? Were the Twelve failures in this respect? It seems that, for pastors, some things are more important than others:

"It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:2-4, NIV).

OK. Isn't the term "American Church" a bit ambiguous? Aren't all 350,000, to some degree, engaged in serving the poor and needy? Are any doing "enough"? Could not even the MOST New Testament (organic, missional, house, Jesus, Acts, early, social action, liberation theology) church have instances of overlooking visiting widows, or giving food to the homeless (say while they're having a meal together, or singing songs)? Don't all churches fail -- at times -- to devote adequately to the cause of the poor? And if not, again, what is that magical quantifying theorem that separates failures from successes?

Also, how do we account for those greats like Mother Teresa or Henri Nouwen who served officially in the most organized Christian denomination ever? As Roman Catholics, (Mother) Teresa and (Father) Henri propagated organizational structure (hierarchy), property ownership, the building of elaborate buildings, and, frankly, an ethos where only certain believers are called serve the poor. According to Roman Catholic theology, they wouldn't endorse a notion that all Christians are called as they were called; neither would they hold that the role of the church is solely that of caring for the poor (see www.newadvent.org, sodalities). Orders of the Church such as the Benedictines, Dominicans and Sisters of Charity were created for the sole purpose calling-out those with special callings toward ministering to the poor; but never did these heroes of the faith posit the erroneous idea that all churches are to become orders, or Christians, missionaries.

In my humble opinion, the article sounds a bit divisive. I think we need exercise restraint in the elevation a particular church model (to which we are inclined) over other expressions (to which we happen to disagree). I think Jesus loves his church, every last one of them, regardless of their failures.

In fact, I think he's coming back for our churches (us)...BECASUE we're all failures. We could never be good enough, which is why we find our goodness not in our righteousness, but in his.

Keith Giles said...

Paul,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to this article. I think you raise some important issues and I'd like to attempt to answer some of them.

First, I disagree that my article is offensive. I think you may disagree with my title, but the article itself is mainly a study of what Jesus meant by "the poor you will always have with you" and connecting that to the passage in Deuteronomy. That's not offensive, is it?

Secondly, my article points out that the first Christians had a gigantic emphasis on the poor and compassion for those in need. That's not offensive either. It's historical and Biblical fact.

Also, you point out that the Apostles had to appoint extra people to wait on tables...but why? Yes, because the Gentile widows were being overlooked...but they appointed more people to serve the poor because the work among the poor was growing and they didn't want to neglect this very high value.

I think we also have to take this lone verse in context with hundreds of other verses which clearly reveal the very personal concern each of the Apostles had for the care of the poor.

In Galatians 2:10 Paul the Apostle reveals that not only was caring for the poor the "one thing" Peter and the other Apostles required of him as he set out to plant churches among the Gentiles, it was also the "very thing" he was "most eager to do"!

That doesn't sound like caring for the poor was optional..and incidentally it was the direct concern of the Apostles themselves. They were personally concerned about caring for the poor, and yes, they appointed more men to help them with this very important work...because it was important.

You speak of a "magical formual" for "doing enough" and I'm not arguing that there is one. In fact, if you're doing "something" I think that's better than "nothing at all".

Again, it's not about quantity of people served or the size of your ministry, it's about loving people or not loving people.

Again, in this article I'm not arguing for one model of church over another. (That might be another article, but not this one).

To your point about Mother Teresa or Nouwen not endorsing that all Believers follow their footsteps, although I would disagree with you there, the point is that it doesn't matter what they want me to do! It matters what God wants me to do, and God very, very clearly commands us to care for the poor among us.

Have you read the words of Jesus in Matthew 25? Have you read the book of James? Or the three epistles of John? Have you read verses like Jer. 22:16 "Did not your father eat and drink, and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; then it was well. Is that not what it means to know Me?" declares the LORD."


There's an amazing amount of Scripture where God makes care for the poor among us a priority.

My concern is that you, and all Followers of Jesus, know about this.

It's close to God's heart and it should be close to yours and mine as well.

Love you,
Keith

Loads more references to Scriptures on God's Heart for the Poor are here:
http://fortheleastofthese.wordpress.com/2008/01/18/life/

chuck said...

At Paul:

It is pretty safe to say that 350,000 churches in the us have collectively failed in light of the poor in this country. The contrast between rich and poor within the church is a scathing indictment to our mishandling of the word. That is how failure is determined. It is an atrocity when big name preachers have jets, Bentleys, and monster homes while people in their churches scrape by. It is disgusting.

"In my humble opinion, the article sounds a bit divisive."

My response to that is that the truth is divisive. If it hurts, good. Now we can move towards healing.

Keith,

"Again, it's not about quantity of people served or the size of your ministry, it's about loving people or not loving people."

The lack of love, or misguided love (love of self over others) is the crux of the problem. Not too sure how that would preach in today's church.

Anyway, keep it up Bro. Love God, love others.

Peace,
Chuck

Paul said...

Chuck:

Can you respond to any specifics I note? Again, specifics. What about Acts 6, or Mother Teresa who explicitly told people to care mostly for the poor in spirit?

The disparity between rich and poor was also found in the New Testament. The early Christians met in the homes of the rich (e.g., Chloe's household).

It's fairly easy to criticize one's ideas, as you do. It's another to be specific and make rational refutation. I'd like for you to respond to what I write. I'd be honored to hear what you have to say.

Few of the pastors of the 350,000 churches drive Bentleys.

OC House Church Network said...

Paul - I believe I addressed most of your specific concerns in my response (before Chuck's).

I'd like to ask you how you understand the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-36 where we're told that Jesus will judge the sheep and goats based only on how we have (or haven't) shown mercy to the poor and the lonely and the hungry.

Doesn't this suggest to you that one of the primary concerns of a true follower of Jesus should be the care of those in poverty?

What about the value that the early church had for the poor and that continues to this very day? Don't you see that this has always been a primary part of the DNA of God's Family?

It's all through the Old and New Testaments. Jesus places a high value on this concern for the poor. Can you agree with that?

-kg