Going about doing good
The first half of this article focused on the importance of putting the church on a missionary footing. It emphasised the Rules of Engagement given to us by Jesus, and in particular the urgent obligation to present the multitudes outside our churches with the incredible message of the love of God. Now we have to move on to remind ourselves of something equally momentous: we cannot be on a missionary footing unless we are going about doing good.
There is nothing new or radical in that. It goes back to Jesus Himself and every one of His disciples has to emulate Him in this respect. The responsibility is not confined to individuals, however. It falls equally upon the church as an institution. The church as a church has to go about doing good. It’s not simply a matter of providing pews and organising meetings, important though such things may be. Jesus went about and mingled, listening to people, meeting needs, practising compassion, showing sympathy and actively healing. The apostles healed. They cared. They remembered the poor. Their great modern successors did the same. John Knox cared deeply about the poor. Thomas Chalmers gave himself heart and soul to the problems of pauperism in his Glasgow parish. General Booth sought to provide work, food and shelter for the thousands of London’s submerged poor. Spurgeon and Whitefield had their orphanages.
These men didn’t simply preach. They were concerned for men’s bodies as well as for their souls. They knew that there was no point in preaching to a drowning man. You had to throw him a life-belt. You had to meet men’s desperate temporal needs. You couldn’t simply be a church which listened to sermons. You had to be a community which went about doing good.
What might that mean? Well, whatever else it means it means that the church has to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. How often did Jesus defend the defenceless and speak up for those for whom no one else would speak! He spoke against the powerful and influential, not for them. He spoke for the publicans and sinners; for Samaritans and Syro-Phoenicians; for Roman centurions and fallen women.
That is one of the greatest tests we can apply to the church. For whom is it speaking? Is it saying what everyone else is saying? Is it obsessed with political correctness? Is it baying with the mob against asylum-seekers? Is it speaking only on behalf of those for whom the media and the politicians are speaking already?
Or can you hear it speaking for those for whom no one else is speaking? In Nazi Germany, when Hitler began to attack the Jews, the churches stood back and said nothing. They didn’t want to be involved. They didn’t want to meddle in politics. They couldn’t come down. They had to attend to their high calling: their meditation, their prayer and their preaching. They may even have said that expository preaching would solve everything. No one spoke for the Jews or the gypsies or the psychotics: not until the tiny sparks of harassment had become the fireball of persecution and Europe found itself engulfed in Holocaust.
People tell us, of course, that there is no poverty in modern Britain. Something (the Welfare State, perhaps, but definitely something) has banished poverty. Certainly, if you organise your life properly and take a care where you walk (or drive) you need never see it. No one on your street is poor. But if you are the children of a single mother, an alcoholic who hasn’t signed-on for three months and hasn’t received a penny, that’s poverty. In every city in Britain and every village in this island such problems are within helping distance; but never so pressing that we can’t walk by on the other side, chanting a hundred pious reasons for doing nothing.
But desperate reactive measures are not enough. The church has to throw the weight of its influence behind every force for good in the community. It is part of our ecclesiastical heritage here in Scotland that the church has never been concerned only with spiritual things. John Knox wanted a school in every parish and a university in every large town because he sought not only to save souls but to civilise and moralise a nation. One of the most intriguing things about Chalmers mission in Edinburgh’s West Port in the 1840s is the bill for soap. They were teaching girls to take in washing and thus provide themselves with a living. It seems a long way from John Seventeen and the Upper Room, but that’s where the needs were. The gospel has to descend to Lazarus’ sores. Any activity that offers the hope of raising the tone of a nation deserves our support. And we must do it from the bottom up. In the upper and middle levels of our society there is affluence, education and security. In the basement there is ignorance, squalor and violence. Our task is to raise the level of the basement.
One of our biggest problems in the Scottish Highlands has been the church’s coolness towards all cultural activities. As a result, it became all too plausible to argue that there was nothing for young people between the pub and the prayer meeting. You turned to either religion or drink. The whole Common Grace area was lost. It is part of the prophetic role of the church to persuade government and community to care for the young. I don’t believe the church itself should be the provider of recreational and leisure facilities. But it should be an instigator and encourager of those responsible for making such provision. It should not be content merely to tell individual parents how to raise their families within their own homes. It should address the community of parents and urge them to take their collective responsibility seriously. We have to create not only child-friendly churches but child-friendly communities.
There is much in the realm of art and culture behind which the church should throw its weight; and there is much in all of these areas which deserves criticism. But where is the Evangelical criticism of literature and art? We have ignored it, when what it needed was Christian evaluation. We have been Protestant monks and nuns, making daily sallies into the world to earn our livings, but otherwise content to let it go to the dogs.
I want to focus briefly on one final area: fellowship. The church must be a real fellowship. In the New Testament the whole idea of fellowship revolves around having things in common; and of course the one great thing we have in common is Christ. We believe in Him. We love Him. We live by Him. We are united to Him. He is our common Saviour and Lord. We are His subjects.
This Christ whom we have in common is the basis of all our fellowship; and that fellowship obviously cuts across all denominational barriers. There are many denominations (too many) in Stornoway, but there is only one church. There are many denominations in Scotland, and many more in England, but there is only one church. There is only one Body of Christ in the whole world; and we are one not on the basis of a common theology or a common polity or a common order, but on the basis of the miracle of the new birth and the wonder of adoption. God has made us all His own children. All those who call Him, “Abba!” are one.
Out of this come other things. We love to get together, as people do who have common interests. The more we do it the better, but we shouldn’t imagine that it carries no risks. All social interaction carries risks. You can probably avoid all the pain in the world by avoiding relationships. I once heard an old Christian lady say, “The longer I live, the more I love the Lord’s people and the less I trust them!” I now know what she meant. But that shouldn’t make us hermits. We need the support, encouragement, admonition and rebuke of other Christians. We need to come together; simply to be together. We need to be part of a critical mass in which faith stimulates faith and launches it into explosive activity. If you’ve been hurt by some Christian group don’t say, “I’m never again going to expose myself to being hurt by Christians.” We have to stick with the Lord’s people. They’re our people. They’re inseparable from Himself.
But fellowship also involves caring for each other. One of the biggest changes in the Christian ministry in my life-time has been the emergence of a specialist domain of pastoral counselling. Such specialists have their place, as do professional psychiatrists. But let’s remember that in the last analysis every Christian is his brother’s keeper: not in some meddlesome way, interfering, prying and bossing; but really caring. Paul told the young church in Thessalonica that they had to take care for each other (1 Thess.5:14). They themselves had to warn the unruly. They had to comfort the feeble-minded. They had to strengthen the weak. He didn’t say, “If you see someone feeble-minded or weak, find a counsellor for him. If you see someone backsliding, go and get someone to admonish him.” He said, “You do it. He’s your responsibility. Sort it out before it gets serious.”
But what I yearn for above all is enthusiasm for the gospel. There is much talk of evangelistic methods. People want courses and debate techniques. But the greatest evangelist of all is a man or woman who loves the gospel: who so loves it and is so thrilled by it and so sure of it and so overwhelmed with gratitude for it that he simply cannot keep quiet about it. There is no course on any campus in the whole wide world that can give you that; or make up for it if you lack it.
One of the men to whom the Scottish Highlands owe most is the itinerant 19th century lay-evangelist, Finlay Munro. He wasn’t far removed from being a simpleton and in his later years he suffered serious mental deterioration. But he knew the gospel, he loved the gospel and he couldn’t keep quiet about it. He was fully aware that the learned ministers despised him and that many even of the godly frowned on his quaint ways and bad grammar. But he wasn’t deterred. He trecked and trecked, sleeping in barns and preaching wherever he could gather an audience.
Of course the church couldn’t survive if it had nothing but Finlay Munros. It also needs its Augustines and Calvins. But I’m not sure but that at this juncture in our history it’s Finlay Munros we need: men of simple faith but strong conviction; men of indomitable courage; men the world thinks mad.
If I have one prayer above all it is that God would give us an overwhelming belief that this gospel is true; an irresistible urge to preach it; and courage to keep on propounding it at every possible opportunity.