It’s rare that I read a Christian book and put it down in a fit of irritation after the first three chapters, but here we are.
I don’t want to mention the book’s name because I am certain that it glorifies God and will serve many people; I’d rather not turn people away from it who might find it meaningful. But it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been so aggravated – and once I figured out why, I wanted to write about it.
The book itself is pretty standard fare. It is a critique of the church and its insularity, which is both nothing new and probably very needed. It is also an attempt to encourage believers into living like Christ really lived – and, for the author, that means dealing extensively – indeed, perhaps solely – with the homeless, the disadvantaged, the materially bereft, the poor, and the downtrodden. This, the book says, is the heart of the Gospel, and these are the people who need to be ministered to, and the church as a whole is failing in that, and the church as a whole should be ashamed.
Okay. Fine. I can handle all that. I don’t think I can even argue with that to some degree. There is certainly so much more both individual believers and the church could be doing for those who need us most. But what I couldn’t handle was the thread of contempt that ran through the entirety of each chapter: a contempt that sneered at Christians who lived in the suburbs, who sent money to faraway countries or the troubled in their community rather than going and doing work themselves, who spent time in neighborhoods and local gathering places rather than out in the streets with those unlike them. The heavy implication in the book is that those “suburban” Christians are not really doing God’s work; that they are enclosing themselves within their little communities in order to avoid doing God’s work; that the reason Christianity is struggling is because of these “suburban Christians” who are not willing to get as radical and wild as Jesus was in His day.
And to that I would like to respond with this: people in the suburbs also need Jesus.
So do people in office buildings. And people next door to you. And nice ladies in nice houses in nice neighborhoods. And people who go to gyms and shop at Whole Foods and attend college. Should believers absolutely be generous to those in need and do their best to feed the hungry, help the sick, and comfort the lonely and downtrodden and marginalized in their communities? Yes! Are some believers called to minister primarily to those groups? Yes! Should we examine our motives and our hearts to make sure we’re not becoming insular and ignoring the hurt and pain that cries out for our help? You better believe it. Does this mean every believer should immediately pack up and move to the grittiest neighborhood imaginable, or fly to a foreign country as a missionary? By no means! Because then who will be left to minister in all the communities and suburbs left behind?
Paul started any number of churches and helped any number of people, and he traveled a ridiculous amount. You know what else he did? He went to the synagogue “with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks,” and he debated philosophers and learned men (Acts 17:16-34). Jesus spent a great deal of time with those who existed on the margins of society, but he also took the time to instruct Nicodemus: an exceedingly privileged Pharisee (John 3)!
There is a verse in 1 Corinthians that I suspect a lot of people don’t know entirely what to do with, and it is this:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
“I have made myself a slave to everyone.” Paul saw the potential of salvation everywhere he went: in learned men, in unlearned, in the suffering, in the strong, in the weak, in the Jew, in the Gentile. Everywhere. And he was willing to meet those people where they were, to find common ground, to make Christ known. More than anything else, Paul was practical, and I believe he very much lived with Christ’s words in mind: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50).
It’s not my intention here to defend the church from accusations that it can sometimes be out of touch or that it sometimes neglects the most vulnerable in our society. It sometimes can, and it sometimes does. But it’s a false and detrimental way of thinking that you can only be a “real” Christian and just like Jesus if you are ministering to particular people in a particular way at a particular time. Jesus did heal and help the lonely, the hungry, the sick, the hurting. He also helped learned men and corrupt tax collectors and centurions. He stayed with happy families. He fixed the refreshment problems at a wedding.
When our house was being built, I spent a lot of time talking to the contractors who were working on it. If you ever get a chance, chat with those guys sometimes – they have stories. And so many of their stories centered on the pain and the tragedies and the unbearable loneliness of seemingly affluent, well-heeled people. “There’s some mess in these suburbs,” one of the guys said to me once. “Just can’t see it because of the pretty houses.”
People hurt and are lonely and are suffering and are in need of Christ everywhere.
If you are the sort of person who feels that your Christian life is too insular, if you’ve been convicted about sticking too closely to your little community, then by all means act on that nudge of the Spirit. Go and do whatever you need to do, and I will praise God in advance for what I know He will do through you. But there’s no need, if you’re that person, to express contempt about the brother and sisters who might not be doing the same.
They have work to do, too. And God needs hands and feet all over the world, in all sorts of places: believers loving and serving and living where they are so that those sick in spirit and lost can come to know the overwhelming love of the Savior.
Let’s work together.