The Gospel and Good Deeds

What is the mission of the church?

The story of a church plant

Once upon a time, there was a church plant. This church plant was passionate about reaching an impoverished American city with the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, with that as their goal, they hatched a plan. As is the story in many urban settings in the United States, the people living in this city lacked access to essentials like food.

The church plant, though, had access to food. So they stocked a pantry full of good food—not generic brand or old and moldy with a sour aftertaste. No, they stocked it with the good stuff like Fruity Pebbles and 2% milk. The church plant announced the opening of this pantry with great fanfare. The food would be free, with just one small caveat—to get a box from the pantry, you first had to attend a church service.

Gospel paywall

This idea is not an uncommon strategy for gospel outreach: offer something needed or desired, but put it behind a gospel paywall.

Okay, yes, “gospel paywall” is a crude metaphor, but it fits.

The principle of the paywall is quite simple. You might run into a paywall when you go to your local newspaper’s website—you might be able to read five articles for free, but you must become a subscriber to read more than that fifth article. Or, maybe you can use a smartphone app for free, but you have to pay the monthly subscription to sync it across devices. There is a barrier that requires money to get past—a paywall. You can have this thing you want, but I need something from you first. The New York Times wants $6 a week to access news articles and cooking advice. The local church just wants 30 minutes of your time to hear about Jesus.

The motivation is sincere. There is this good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this sacrifice lies the answers to all the questions humanity agonizes over. The church desires to get this message out. The feeding of the hungry seems valid only if paired with a gospel proclamation.

My first hesitation to this paywall exchange came while attending the Moody Bible Institute. Going to college in downtown Chicago brought many students into contact with people without housing for the first time. Panhandling and begging were common around the school’s downtown campus. Students quickly learned that giving money may hurt, rather than help, those on the street. Instead of providing spare change, many students opted to buy the person a meal.

Once seated, the Moody student would make their pitch. “If you died tonight, are you sure you would go to heaven?” I witnessed many of these encounters and quickly noticed a trend emerging. The person answering the questions knew how to jump through hoops to get what they needed. When the student-preacher put their hands on the steering wheel of the conversation, the person in need would fall into their role as passenger and participant in this evangelistic play. Many panhandlers immediately began speaking Christianese to show they were “in the tribe.” Others would let the student lead them in a prayer. The paywall to a person’s meal was listening and responding to the college student’s gospel spiel.

What’s the win?

I ask again: What is the mission of the church? Another way to phrase this would be to ask: What’s the win?

Acts 1:8 and Matthew 28:19-20 seem to say that the mission is to make disciples of all peoples. Western Christianity has done what we seem to be best at; we have minimized discipleship to its most basic definition. For many tribes in Christendom, we have minimized making disciples into confessing Christ. With that minimalist definition, the win we’re looking for is when someone confesses Christ as their Savior.

Someone professing their faith is crucial in becoming a disciple, but it’s not the only step. To truly follow the commands of Acts 1 and Matthew 28, we invite people to confess and follow Christ. Our goal is not merely that this person goes to heaven but that they meet the Father through the Son in the here and the now.

Lessons from a church plant

Remember that fairy tale of a church plant? Well, their food pantry idea didn’t work. People wanted the food. But they didn’t want to come and sit and stand and sing and be preached at for an hour.

One day, the church planter had an idea. Instead of offering food only after attending a worship service, the church made the pantry accessible to anyone who had need.

On Saturday, anyone could drive up, and a volunteer would place a food box in their car. And that church planter stuck his head in every single open window. He shook hands. He learned names. When people broke down in tears, he prayed for them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The food line grew and grew, and the reputation of the new church began to warm in the community.

Over time, some people from cars came on Sunday because they wanted to hear about where this love they received so freely came from. Why would volunteers smile and stand outside in snow, rain, or heat to serve strangers? They came and heard, and today, many of them follow Christ.

When I think about this church plant’s food pantry, I can see Jesus’ words come to life when he said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

As you plan outreach for the year, take the long view. Earn trust. Love people where they are. Allow good deeds and gospel preaching to work together to make disciples. And maybe, just maybe, you will be there when they turn and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.

Other resources in this series

Check out these other resources that are part of this outreach strategy series:

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