Depending on whom you talk to, you will hear vigorous opinions on what our calling is as Christians:
“We must unabashedly share the gospel of Christ!”
“We must show Christ’s love to the world and heal the hurting!”
Depending on which camp you’re in determines how you spend your time and to whom you give money: Evangelism-focused missionaries or service-based nonprofits. But the two are rarely mutually exclusive and—most likely—better together than apart.
Ghandi was acquainted with poverty. He once said, “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Often the physical needs or even social barriers and past history are so great, that your hearers—whether in the U.S. or abroad—can’t hear your words of Christ’s love.
Wess Stafford, president of Compassion International, shares a story of growing up as a missionary kid in West Africa. In many of the villages he visited, white men had never been seen in their lifetime, but the tales of the white men who snatched children and family members for slaves were passed on for generations. When Stafford and his father would show their faces in villages, people would hide—for fear the old stories were true that white men ate African children.
Not surprisingly, the villagers weren’t all that interested when Stafford’s father tried to share the gospel. They had no reason to listen to or trust these strangers. But one day, Stafford’s father had a breakthrough. The mothers in the village had come out to hear him speak, but were clearly distracted by their sick babies with distended bellies. Stafford’s father knew the problem—their well was contaminated. He started working with the village to clean up the well, and after time the children’s health steadily improved.
At a village gathering, the chief stood up and asked, “What was it about us, sir, that so pleased you that you did for us this great kindness?”
And that was it—his chance to share the gospel of Christ’s great love with people who were now listening.
Although Compassion International is an openly evangelical Christian organization, we still work in many areas where some are hostile to Christians, such as Bangladesh and Burkina Faso. In the beginning, many in these communities—besides having aching bellies—also have fears and misconceptions about Christians. Many think we are only there to convert and are closed to anything we might have to say. Others may even think we have more sinister motives, such as registering children in our program in order to sell them.
It’s not until people have seen the genuine care and help and love of our child development workers, that many will let their guard down enough to hear the Gospel of Christ.
Pastor Noppadol, working in a Buddhist community in Thailand since 1999, has experienced this. The community was suspicious of Christians, and not particularly interested in getting any closer to them. But when his church started a child development center that helped pay for children’s schooling, served them meals and taught them vocational skills, some community members began to accept the church. They saw the ways their children had been helped and began to wonder why the church cared—let alone sponsors who were from halfway around the world.
Slowly, family members in this community have come to know Christ and lives have been transformed. Like Tanuwat, who used to be called “rice whiskey,” because even as a teen, he drank every day (besides gambling and smoking). His family members and neighbors were worried he was going to become a gang member. But Tanuwat was registered in Pastor Noppadol’s center, and his life has utterly transformed.
“After I accepted Christ into my life, I quit everything. I want to be a servant for God when I grow up.” Now Tanuwat is the president of his class and hopes to go to the university.
People aren’t one-dimensional. We aren’t only spiritual beings or only physical beings or only social beings. You can’t divorce one from the other—as so often our one-dimensional ministry efforts try to. When ministering to a person, there are not only spiritual needs, but also physical and social needs that are barring that person from being a healthy individual.
Jesus Himself said that this Scripture was fulfilled in Him: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
Jesus was anointed not only to preach the good news. He also was sent to heal the blind and release the oppressed. And in His actions, we see that these words aren’t merely metaphorical. Jesus showed in His actions and words that He was interested in all of a person—physical, spiritual and social.