Last week, the entire External Focus team got to attend a conference called Rethink Poverty, produced by the creators of the amazing resource When Helping Hurts. (If you subscribe to our Straightforward Service newsletter, you might remember us promoting this awesome conference.)
Among many other topics, the people from the Chalmers Center explained key principles for addressing need. One of these principles starts by saying that when we hope to serve others, we should
"Use words to introduce people to KING Jesus..."
And that instruction - along with the Bible passage attached to it - have been on my mind since the conference.
It's a mistake to serve people only because we want to share Jesus with them. (The conference talked about that, too.)
But it's also a mistake if we think that simply by "doing good works," people are going to understand the true God behind our service. We have to use words.
It's at this point that the speaker reminded us of Acts 14. Paul had healed a man in the city of Lystra, and then...
...when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. (Acts 14:11-13 ESV)
(You can read the rest of the story in Acts 14...)
The speaker pointed out that, without words explaining the WHY and WHO behind our volunteering, people will fit our acts of service into their own worldview. Just like the citizens of Lystra did.
He described the work of some overseas missionaries, who shared scientific crop-growing principles with a tribe. Yet when the new methods helped produce a bigger crop, the tribe gave credit to their harvest god! Why? Because they hadn't come to know God as the Creator and Sustainer of all things.
So how can this principle play out in our own backyard? I've been pondering that, and I think I have a couple of ideas.
First, we will still encounter false gods - as well as false understandings of the true God. For instance, a "Prosperity Gospel" is prevalent in many of the communities in which Watermark members live or serve. So when people receive the blessings of our service, this could actually reinforce bad theology if no one in their lives is patiently explaining truth.
Likewise, those who follow other religions aren't generally going to turn to Christ just because someone "from a church" happened to serve them. Instead, it will usually require the sharing of the gospel that helps them understand that neither Allah nor various saints nor anyone but the true, loving God is responsible for their provision.
Second, we should keep in mind that simply sharing our time, talents, and treasures with the poor doesn't cause them automatically to live according to biblical principles. Their worldview may have led to conflict, self-medication, laziness, despair, gluttony, addiction, etc. So they're likely to persist in poverty if their relationships, finances, work, and other facets haven't been submitted to King Jesus. Not only do we need to use words to introduce people to Jesus, but they must come to see Him as King over all their lives.
Ultimately, there will be moments we serve when we're not able to use a lot of words. Or when we don't have the chance to use enough words! This principle is more about our ongoing efforts, as well as giving us a way to evaluate our service.
This principle probably does mean we should pursue fewer "one time" service activities and more often invest in places we can build relationships. It also heightens the value of serving with trusted ministry partners, who we know will share - in words - the truth of King Jesus.
Get a new dose of External Focus wisdom weekly at our blog. Or just subscribe below!