What?! Am I out of my mind? Pastors and other church leaders have been working hard for decades to get congregations to move from an inward to an outward focus. We have finally made some progress and now I’m saying that it is time to go back to the old ways?
I’m not suggesting that we go back to the old ways. Let me explain.
I have heard from all the experts that churches need to stop the focus on the congregation and have more of an outreach focus. It seems to make sense and even seems to work.
But as I would read the Scriptures, I was seeing something that was in tension with popular trends. The picture of the early church is one of congregations with a heavy emphasis on caring for their own.
One example would be Galatians 6:10.
Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Current wisdom would rewrite Paul’s sentence to say, “especially to those who are not connected to a church.” But Paul doesn’t say that. There is a need to bless all people, but there is especially a need to take care of those within the church.
The picture that Luke gives in Acts is one that emphasizes the caring for the believers.
Now the large group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common. And the apostles were giving testimony with great power to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them. For there was not a needy person among them, because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed for each person’s basic needs. (Acts 4:32-35)
What about Jesus? Wouldn’t Jesus emphasize outreach over internal ministry? Scot McKnight, in his book Kingdom Conspiracy, argues for a fresh interpretation of the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. Most people, including myself, have interpreted “the least of these” as anyone who is in need. McKnight argues that Jesus is actually talking about those who belong to the family of believers who are in need. It is our care for each other that is the measure of this serious judgment.
I can imagine someone reading this and responding with, “What about evangelism?” The early church saw many people coming to faith. You can’t experience that if you are inward focused.
First of all, I’m not arguing against evangelism or other forms of outreach. They are obviously biblical. But taking care of believers is not contrary to evangelism. The picture I see of the early church is that of a healthy and loving community that people outside the church found attractive and wanted to be a part of. The church grew as they cared for their own.
I said that I was not arguing that we go back to the old ways. What I meant is that although there was an inward focus in earlier generations, it was not in a biblical manner. The inward focus was on entertaining Christians and keeping them happy tithers. That is not the picture of the New Testament.
I’m arguing for a church that really cares for its members in the areas that matter. We should be taking each other’s needs seriously and sacrificing for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
I’m not suggesting that we stop feeding the hungry or caring for the poor in our communities. But I would challenge us as to how well we are doing that within our own congregations first. When we share the Gospel, we are not just offering Jesus, we are also offering the church. What kind of church are we offering to people?