There’s a lot of discussion out there about how a church’s service efforts fits with its mission to spread the gospel. But in my experience, there are two simple ways that a congregation’s acts of mercy can help with its gospel witness:
• First, our deeds of mercy can create opportunities to share the gospel.
As I speak, people are in the basement of our church building stocking the shelves of our food pantry. At a typical Saturday distribution, hundreds of needy people will come to the church building to receive groceries. Those people hear the gospel when the food is delivered and our church planters that serve their community often make follow-up appointments to continue sharing Christ with them.
It’s pretty simple, the act of service creates a point of contact; it creates a relationship between the church and the individual that would not otherwise exist. At that point, it’s the responsibility of our church members to seize that opportunity to build a friendship (through a shared meal, a visit, a personal conversation) and to continue bringing the gospel to bear on that person’s life.
• Second, our acts of service give credence to the gospel we proclaim.
Our actions often speak louder than our words. And while words are essential in our evangelism (hence Paul’s “And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” in Romans 10:14), our deeds can help to break down barriers with skeptical or disinterested people.
Our church has an outreach program for at-risk students at a local high school. We gather the teenagers on Wednesday night, feed them dinner, teach the Bible to them, and give them a safe place to hang out and have fun. As opportunity arises, we provide for some of their practical needs (food, housing, coats, supplies for their babies). The love of the congregation for these young people has made the gospel attractive to them, it “puts feet” on the word we’re preaching to them. Even the teachers and administrators at their high school are beginning to wonder about the church that loves their students. In this sense, our faith is shown in our service to those in need (James 2:14-18).
There is a real danger that our churches might become so focused on mercy ministries that they begin to neglect the proclamation of the gospel. But that need not be the case. When properly conceived, our acts of service can be a tremendous tool for introducing people to Jesus.