Recently a conversation was had involving the nature of the term outreach as used within the church. The discussion viewed evangelism and outreach as one unit. While I reject the premise that works must accompany, or, more accurately, precede our Gospel message in order to win us a hearing, it did get me thinking about the nature of outreach as a whole within the church.
As we focus on outreach two sides to the coin appear, the works associated with outreach to the poor, homeless, addicts, etc., and the pronouncement of the Gospel. The idea is this: The Gospel points to Christ while works point to His Kingdom. Alone the Gospel is effective at getting people into the Kingdom, but works alone are only effective at showing people a picture of a Kingdom they will never be allowed into. Together they can both show you a picture of the glories of Christ’s coming Kingdom, and introduce you to the King.
Gospel witness on its own can be used of the Lord to change the hearts and minds of the hearers. Faithful men and women on the streets proclaiming good news to all who would humble themselves, repent, and turn to the one true God and redeemer of mankind Jesus Christ. To believe on Him, His work on the cross, and His resurrection sets a person free from the bondage of sin and death. This message must be spread, pray that God sends more laborers.
Mark 16:15-16- “And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”
On the other side of the coin which the church calls ‘outreach’ is the realm of good works. People helping feed the poor, clothing the naked, and administering to the needs of the community. Now we need to further break this down into two categories as well. The works associated with helping the Christian community locally and around the world by feeding, clothing, and teaching them, but this is rarely called outreach. (While it may fall under missions this is not normally what we are talking about when discussing outreach.) Then there is the works associated with the unbelieving community any one church finds themselves in. The needs can be very similar, the difference is just in who is receiving the help.
This meeting of needs can be seen in Jesus’ feeding of the masses, as there were no doubt both believers and unbelievers were present, but even this feeding is preceded by His teaching, “And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34), and we know what His message is because Matthew 4:17 tells us, “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
In the context of Christians helping Christians, the message is obvious to everyone. Christ takes care of His own through the means of His own, or probably a more common thought to the unbeliever is that we take care of our own. The message received through works aimed at the community are similar, but creates a different picture. While some may take the leap and say works show that Christ takes care of the world, this idea, although true on some level, when talking about outreach sounds an awful lot like universalism.
Another issue is that anyone can do works. It does not take a relationship with Christ to do works, and the idea that our motivation matters is only true in regards to our own spiritual benefit. As far as those receiving the help, they could care less whether you were an atheist, Buddhist or Mormon, and if you do not make clear that you are a slave to the Lord Jesus Christ they are in no way going to glean that from your motivation.
Combining these two becomes an effective tool to both make disciples for the Kingdom and help the needs of those around us today. This action accompanied by a strong Gospel message becomes a powerful testimony of both a Kingdom coming and the cost of admittance. Gospel witness on its own is necessary and more should engage in it, but works on their own tell us only of what cannot be had by the unbelievers who are served, leaving them with no understanding on how one receives it.
Jesus gives us a picture of this in Luke 4:18-19 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Again, works point to a place, whereas Gospel witness points to a Person. Works tell of the glories of a Kingdom to come with no poor, no needs, no hunger, where “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4). This place is more amazing than can be described, and our works providing physical needs here on earth in many cases are an attempt to point to that reality. While it is an amazing thing to point people to, if it is not accompanied by any sort of message it can mean nothing to them.
Even with a message people are confused as to what the purpose of the works are. This is seen all throughout Jesus ministry. He preached repentance and the forgiveness of sins, healed the sick, and the people continually missed the point.”Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.” (John 6:26-27)
The government provides more free food then any charity around, and no one claims they are pointing to Christ and His Kingdom. So when the church does the same without a Gospel witness, they are pointing to a Kingdom that the unbelievers will never see, and have no way of getting in to. You may have the motivation of the Love of Christ behind your good works, and you may see this as bringing a bit of the Kingdom to the earth, but without the message of the Kingdom neither do those you serve understand what you are doing nor do they ever get to take part in the image you are portraying.
To contrast that picture, the Gospel points to a Person, the God/Man Jesus Christ the one who is King of that Kingdom. The Gospel is not just a picture of the Kingdom to come it is the key to get in. It is a personal relationship with the King Himself. When we bear witness to the glories of Christ in the Gospel we show a true picture of the Love of God, and invite the needy in this world to be rich in the next.
The Gospel is always the central message. While the “pillars” of the church reminded Paul to “remember the poor” it was only in the context of going to the gentiles with the Gospel, Galatians 2:9-10- “And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do.”
Paul shows us this in many of his letters as he travels his goal is always, “Yea, so have I strived to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man’s foundation” (Romans 15:20), and while he did do acts of charity and support we see the support going back to fellow believers, “For the administration of this service not only supplieth the want of the saints, but is abundant also by many thanksgivings unto God” (2 Corinthians 9:12).
Works are amazing pictures of the Kingdom to come, and attached to a Gospel presentation they prove powerful witnesses to both the Love of God in the Cross of Christ and the provision of God in His yet future Kingdom. So alone the Gospel gets you into the Kingdom, but alone works can only show you locked gates with no explanation as to how to enter.