Between my time church planting in Brazil and my work in Edinburgh in one of Scotland’s most deprived housing “schemes”—a mixture of social housing and low-income homeowners—I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of short-term missions teams. And while I appreciate the help, I’ve noticed over the years that a lot of well-meaning, Jesus-loving groups from the United Kingdom and United States will show up with their paintbrushes and hammers, but with little understanding of the gospel they’ve come to proclaim.
The gospel is good news, the best news in fact. It is essential that we both get the message correct and also keep it in the proper place. If we get the message wrong, it’s like taking corrupted medicine: it can’t heal you. If we put other things in the gospel’s priority of place, it’s like buying a diamond engagement ring but forgetting to buy a diamond: we’re left with a setting that beautifully displays . . . nothing.
We must be willing to take the time to get the message right and to communicate it faithfully. Here are five reasons why:
The gospel addresses all of life, both in this life and the one to come. Many who want to serve on a short-term basis in the Scottish housing schemes are on fire for the poor and about being “missional” and “breaking down barriers,” but they often unwittingly put the emphasis in the wrong place. The gospel message isn’t simply that Jesus loves you or that God would like to get you out of your current difficulties.
To be clear, we’re not opposed to helping people with their day-to-day physical problems. There are situations where it would be positively wicked for a church not to help someone in physical need. But there must be priority given to the gospel message; it has to come first. Poverty, violence, and injustice are real problems at a personal and societal level. But they’re the symptoms of the spiritual disease we all carry around with us. Treating symptoms is good and noble, but without the gospel cure the patient will surely die. As we approach evangelism and outreach in our needy housing schemes, we must do it with this inside-out mentality.
2. Because It’s the Only Way People Are Saved
In Acts 4:12 we read, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” If that’s true, people must believe the true gospel in order to be saved. Salvation is in no one else; there’s no backup plan. Emptying a few trash cans and digging a garden in a scheme won’t transmit gospel truth by some form of spiritual osmosis. Faith comes through hearing (Rom. 10:17), so we proclaim Jesus’s sin-bearing sacrifice rather than offer a self-help program.
Good works such as caring for the poor are a powerful sign to nonbelievers (1 Pet. 2:12), but in the book of Acts it’s the Word of God that spreads and causes the explosive growth in the early church (e.g., Acts 6:7). Of course first-century believers were doing good works by feeding the poor, looking after widows, and helping the elderly. But these things were byproducts of a life lived for the glory of the gospel; they weren’t the gospel itself. The poor will only be saved if they hear the gospel word proclaimed to them in a clear and comprehensible manner. There’s no other way.
3. Because Otherwise We Will Give Up
If we don’t get the gospel right, we can forget any type of serious church planting work in schemes. We must know what we’re coming to do and the state of the people we’re coming to serve. We cannot allow ourselves to be surprised and discouraged by the depth of human depravity. People in the housing schemes don’t hide it as well as those in the suburbs.
Also, we cannot despair about whether there’s a solution to the problems people face. We need the full gospel, which tells us both the terrible truth about our sin and our glorious hope in Christ. If we alter, softsell, or pervert the gospel, Paul calls us accursed (Gal. 1:8), and we shouldn’t expect the favor of God on our work.
4. Because Real People Are Going to Hell
In Hebrews 9:27 we read: “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Likewise, when asked about a tower that fell and killed 18 people, Jesus himself called people to repent or else perish for their sins (Luke 13:5). That might not seem like a very pastoral response to a question about people who’d died tragically, but Jesus cared too much about the souls of his hearers to beat around the bush.
Biblically speaking, there’s something worse than poverty or low self-esteem: hell. It is real, eternal, and conscious. All people are naturally under sin and children of wrath (Rom. 3:9; Eph. 2:3). Coming from a difficult background doesn’t mitigate that reality. In an age when much of the prevailing Christian thought about the poor concerns loving them and boosting their self-esteem, hell can seem like a bridge too far. How often people come to the schemes with the idea that all people need is to be loved or, worse yet, to learn how to love themselves. That diagnosis is unloving, for it eradicates the reality of eternal judgment.
I fear most of the church’s evangelistic lethargy is due to the fact we don’t take the doctrine of hell seriously enough to care. The most loving thing we can do for the poor isn’t to help them with their electricity bill, help them find work, clean them up, give them a bed, or help with their drug habit. The most loving thing we can do is to proclaim the reality and seriousness of hell, no matter what they might think of us afterward. That’s a selfless act of love. Part of the truth about God simply won’t do.
5. Because of the Glory of God
The gospel is ultimately about the glory of God (notice in 2 Corinthians 4 Paul calls it “the gospel of the glory of Christ”). God chose to save sinners in a way that shows himself to be both just and forgiving (Rom. 3:26). He chose to redeem his people in a way that stirs eternal praise in their hearts (Rev. 5:12). He chose to accomplish this in a way that magnified his wisdom while nullifying and frustrating the so-called wisdom of the world in rebellion against him (1 Cor. 1:21). Do we presume to know better than God? Do we have a better, more glorifying gospel than the one God planned from all eternity and executed in time?
A man-centered gospel glorifies sinners. Without a message of judgment, God seems unjust and permissive, not glorious. Without a call to repentance and holiness, Jesus is proclaimed as a Savior who’s impotent to defeat sin in the lives of his people (contrast with 1 John 3:8). God wants to save sinners, but he won’t do it through any other means than the glorious gospel of his Son. He won’t share his glory, so half-gospels won’t do.
They Told Me I Was Going to Hell
Fourteen years ago a small band of young Christians turned up outside a community center on the streets of England and told me I was going to hell.
They then told me what I needed to do to avoid it. Hear the good news, receive the good news, repent, believe, and be baptized.
I didn’t want to hear it. But four years and lots of pain, anger, and some genuine repentance later, I was saved by the merciful grace of God. I write these words as a pastor today because those Christians (literally) took their life in their hands and gave it to me “straight up.” That’s what God asks of us. That’s our primary task if we want to reach and help people in need.
Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley’s Church in Hard Places: How the Local Church Brings Life to the Poor and Needy (Crossway, 2016).