Not God’s priority.

“What’s the point in feeding someone and keeping them alive for 70 years on earth, when they’re just going to spend eternity in hell?”

So said the earnest looking 14 year old boy who was passing our stand at Soul Survivor. I was there as part of the Christian Aid Collective, doing my best to enthuse these thousands of teenagers walking past about social justice, and encouraging them to get involved with fighting to eradicate poverty. With 10,000 or so mostly Christian young people, I sort of assumed they’d get it. I assumed that most young people care about poverty, and that the ones who call themselves Christians would be jumping at the chance to put their faith into action.

Collective

But, as this budding young evangelist showed me, there were plenty who  didn’t get it at all. Some were with big groups of friends, mostly concerned to keep up with the pack rather than stop to talk to anyone on a stand like ours. Some charged around looking for all the freebies they could find (presumably practising for Fresher’s Fair in a few years time), so grabbed our free chocolate and ran before I could say so much as “Would you like a magazine too?”. Others were blunt about their lack of interest in social justice.

It was this guy though, and the other handful who said similar things, which confused and disturbed me most. He was walking past the Collective stand when I stopped him and offered him a copy of our magazine, ‘Do Not Tiptoe’. I told him, cheerfully, “This issue is all about hunger, and how you can get involved in our campaigns to stamp out global hunger.”

“Alright,” he said, stepping out of the moving traffic of people and towards our stand, “can you tell me more about what you guys do? Is it just about feeding people and practical things, or do you combine it with evangelism?”

I’d asked a similar question at my interview, so I understood his concerns. What’s ‘Christian’ about Christian Aid? Is it about helping poor Christians over other people? Is there some kind of bait-and-switch where we give aid to people living in poverty and then baptise them too? Do we teach more efficient farming techniques alongside memory verses and the sinner’s prayer? Why should I work for a Christian development charity when there are so many others that don’t come with that baggage?

I told him not to worry, explaining that Christian Aid know how important it is not to mix up proselytising with development work. I assured him that we work through partner organisations in each country who also agree to this principle, who help people and communities of all faiths and none, and who never preach as part of their projects. So, that all dealt with, was he ready to sign up to our movement of young people passionate about ending poverty?

Turns out, no.

“I’m not sure it’s worth my time then”, Boy said, looking a little confused. “I understand feeding hungry people is a good thing, but surely you can combine it with the really important stuff of sharing the gospel? We’ve only got limited money and time to spend in our lives, we should be making sure we spend it on the right things. Ending poverty is good, but evangelism is God’s priority.”

I nearly choked on my tea (of which I had a constant supply, thanks to our kind neighbours on the Urban Saints stall next door). Did he really just say that? Ending poverty is good, but evangelism is God’s priority.

I wish I’d sat him down and handed him a Bible. I wish I’d taken him to the prophets, and shown him Micah 6:8, and read to him from Isaiah 58:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

I wish I’d got him to find Psalm 140:12, and Proverbs 31:8-9. I wish I’d opened with him the James:1:27 definition of true religion as “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

I wish I’d sat down with him to read through one of the Gospels and to meet the Jesus who never once led someone through the sinner’s prayer, or asked them to become a Christian, much less used the 4 Points, Two Ways to Live or the Roman’s Road to Salvation. I wish we’d talked about the Jesus who instead healed the sick, had compassion on hungry crowds, and included the social outcasts.

I wish we’d looked at the one of the best evangelistic opportunities that Jesus missed out on, recorded in Matthew 19:16-22, where Jesus is asked how to gain eternal life (the question every evangelist longs to be asked.) Instead of giving him any kind of good evangelical answer, like Admit, Believe, Commit, Jesus ends up telling him to sell all his  possessions and give to the poor.

I really wish I’d opened the Bible and showed him God’s priorities, but I didn’t.

Instead, I blinked at him. I stared at him. I pointed him back across the stream of people wandering past to the stall directly opposite ours, and said “Have you tried Alpha?”

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About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
This entry was posted in Evangelicalism, My life and faith, Social justice and politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Not God’s priority.

  1. Cherilyn says:

    Fantastic post; it is so disconcerting when fellow Christians try to separate the soul from the body. Both need to be fed.

  2. Well, and it’s not like the Lord separated the sheep from the goats based on how many one or the other baptized. Nice post.

  3. David R says:

    His language is clearly something that is rather blunt, straightforward, and rather typical of a 14 year old, but I rather do think if translated to a mature way of putting it he makes a point. As Cherilyn has posted above, both body and soul need to be fed. Perhaps then the initial questions that the kid was asking are the most challenging – why are we not using the opportunity to share the Gospel message? Jesus does want people to come to know him. That is why he gave the command to go out and make disciples of every nation and baptise (Matthew 28:19). That is why he said that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and that nobody comes to the father except by him (John 14:6), and that whoever believes that would have everlasting life through his sacrifice (John 3:16).

    The work that Christian Aid does is definitely to be commended. It is also not to be sniffed at that you will help anybody, regardless of faith, colour, location, etc, because all do deserve to be fed. But all deserve to be fed with the bread of life (John 6:35) and to do the work of God – Believe in the one he has sent (John 6:29). Perhaps the answer you gave was the right one – The job of Christian aid is to feed people’s bodies. The Job of the Alpha course is to feed people with the bread that means people shall never go hungry again; there are other organisations that are doing the rest of the work.

  4. Nicole says:

    Good post on the heart of God for the poor.

  5. Lucy P says:

    Hey Claire 🙂 Thanks, this is thought-provoking – so here are some thoughts from a non-Christian housemate 😉 Like that boy, I’m still not quite convinced; if Christian Aid’s work doesn’t involve evangelising, then what really makes it Christian? Because:

    1) Surely the thing that distinguishes living your life by Christian principles from living your life by general moral principles is that you believe that everything in life is about following God and making sure everyone knows about Jesus’ message, etc. Do you genuinely believe in heaven and hell, and that people who don’t accept Jesus into their lives will suffer forever after death? Because if so, from a Christian perspective as I understand it, life on earth is transitory whilst the afterlife is eternal and therefore the long term priority. Of course helping people and being generous and working to eradicate poverty and injustice are all good things – but any decent person, regardless of religion, could tell you that. The point of Christianity as opposed to morality in general, as I see it, is that it offers a completely different life view, and if the Christian message is believed to be true, then whether someone subscribes to it is fundamentally important to their wellbeing.

    2) For me, the Bible does contain some worthwhile moral teachings, but I don’t think they are uniquely Christian. For instance, ‘setting the oppressed free’ and ‘sharing your food with the hungry’ sound like pretty good ideas, and that passage is something I could take inspiration from without being religious. I think there’s a dissociation to be made between (for example) seeing Jesus as a role model for how to live, and seeing him as the son of God and the path to salvation.

    Of course, you may well say that a Christian’s take on the Bible is very different to that of a non-Christian. You might say that a Christian sees it as the ultimate manifestation of God’s word – the absolute guide for how to live your life, rather than just one possible source of morality amongst many. But in that case the Christian has to accept everything in it as absolute truth, which is pretty difficult considering some of the conflicting messages in it, and particularly the Old Testament teachings that are out of kilter with what Christian churches typically promote in modern society. In my experience, what Christians seem do a lot of the time is decide what seems right, and find something in the Bible that also says that, meanwhile ignoring or reinterpreting other parts that don’t seem quite so nice. Which is essentially what a non-Christian like me would do (the only difference being that I do it from the perspective of wanting to decide what’s right for myself, rather than wanting to determine what God’s priorities are).

    • Claire says:

      Helloo 🙂

      I’ll see if I can answer your points as I read them again…

      On whether I believe in eternal suffering in hell for those who don’t accept Jesus, good question – I’m still working on that one. I’ve been asking other people to write posts on the subject for me and I’m going to try and work out where I’ve got to personally on it fairly soon! You’re right that Christianity is different to just being a set of moral principles because it’s so much bigger. But it can’t just be about this kind of other-worldly, post-death existence, because it’s meant to be about following Jesus and reading what Jesus was about won’t let us keep Christianity as something just for after death… In fact, there was a Christian Aid strapline (now I think of it) that said “We believe in life before death”. If Christianity is about the kingdom of God, about God putting right everything that’s gone wrong in the world, and inviting us to be part of it all, it can’t ignore the here and now, it’s got to be about setting those wrong, unjust things right now, because now is where we are, its the little bit of time we’ve been given responsibility for! And that’s what Jesus modelled, doing those things in his little bit of time and space in first century Palestine.

      What I’m not saying is that Christian Aid’s values and aims are exclusively Christian – of course they’re not. Like you say, hopefully they’re things that lots of people could sign up to, and that’s why we have supporters who are not Christian themselves. If you do good development work, according to good principles, and you do it well, hopefully a lot of people can get on board. Christian Aid are Christian in their background, being set up by British church leaders in the aftermath of WWII, and is now the development agency of 41 church denominations. It’s Christian because it’s motivated by all that stuff about the kingdom of God – it sees development work as part of a much bigger, eternal story. I guess for Christians who support Christian Aid, it’s about the motivation they have for it, but while recognising that loads of other people are doing similarly great work with their own motivations, and that’s great, and we should be working together where we have the same aims.

      I’m not sure that answers the last part of what you said, but does it make a start…?

      • Lucy P says:

        Yeah, thanks for your responses 🙂 I do appreciate where you’re coming from in that Christianity is a way of life that encompasses both parts that are unique and parts that non-Christians would agree with. It looks to me as though CA objectively does the same things as any equivalent organisation might, but it’s the motivation behind what they do that’s the uniquely Christian part. Do you agree?

        • Claire says:

          Yep, absolutely. In terms of getting people in this country to campaign and give money and act in other ways, its more focused on Churches and Christians than other organisations might be, because of that motivation – so we also make resources to help churches pray for the projects as well as just giving money to them. But when it comes to the work on the ground, the types of campaigns we do here and the actual development projects overseas, they should be the sort of thing that any good development organisation would want to be involved with 🙂

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  8. Leo says:

    Hey Claire,
    I really enjoy reading your thoughts – keep it up! And, I hope you’re enjoying working for Christian Aid!
    I write as someone currently in Rwanda attempting to create a development organisation to encourage students of all faiths and nationalities to volunteer together on development projects, so have thought quite a bit about where my faith fits into all this. And this post has been a good way to clarify them.
    Here’s my confession… I sort of sympathise with the 14 year-old. Hear me out – I’m not agreeing with the dismissal of social justice. You dismantle such thoughts very well. Obviously the question at the top – why keep someone alive if there going to hell? – is not the right one. When I first read it I thought it was an atheist questioning God. One way to answer this (to a Christian) would be to say God gives the poor life, keeps them alive, loves them enough to die for them, and tells us to care as well – do we really need any more reason?!
    But I’m not sure that’s what the 14 year-old really meant. I think he was complaining about ignoring evangelism, as you criticise ignoring social justice. To present it as evangelism vs social justice is a false dichotomy, we need to be doing both. Often together. In the gospels we see Jesus teaching through and alongside healing and feeding. But, in denying the chance of ‘proselytising’, NGOs implicitly present just such a dichotomy.
    Now, I know that evangelism and social action cannot be combined all the time. There are often circumstances where forcing social action into an ‘evangelistic opportunity’ is completely inappropriate. And people have particular gifts which sometimes lead the to concentrate more on one than the other. But, I find it important, personally, as someone who is generally more prone to concentrating purely on ‘practical’, material poverty, to remember that a malnourished person who has never heard about the Lord Jesus is in just as much need of hearing the gospel as being given food. This still sounds counter-intuitive to me – a 21st Century Brit surrounded by well-intentioned skeptics – but I find it backed up in scripture in, for instance, Jesus proclaiming himself to be the Bread of Life, and the Holy Spirit being living water, and his Great Commission.
    So if we, especially collectively as Chist’s church, simply concentrate on social justice, then we can be a little like (and forgive the inadequacies of this analogy) a doctor who gives me my yellow fever jab but forgets to tell me about malaria tablets – they help with one problem, but I’m still in trouble!
    Which brings me to my question/point (which, now I see, is not so dissimilar to Lucy P’s friend): why should Christian NGOs prevent themselves from any evangelism through social action? Isn’t that the whole point of being a Christian NGO, rather than simply any-old NGO? In my opinion, there must be room wherever possible for appropriate witness through social action, which only Christians can provide. So, in the case of my secular organisation, I want it to work with church groups, but not at the expense of Christians telling people about the Lord Jesus in the context of showing them a manifestation of his love in a service. That would be too great a price to pay for some pocho and beans.

  9. Peter Hardy says:

    Speaking as a Catholic myself, his is the sort of attitude that makes me want to say very rude things about evangelicalism. It’s very difficult. I can barely understand how anyone could think that way. Helping the needy without any attached emotional manipulation to try to get them to join your belief system is the *only* evangelism worthy of the name.

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