Does serving our neighbor and blessing our community have a role in evangelism, or is it a time- and resource-wasting distraction?
To be clear, Jesus established the church’s mission in Acts 1:8: “You shall be my witnesses.” Witnesses have a message to tell. The focus of our ministry, therefore, is not what we do for the world, but what Jesus has done for it. To lose sight of that is to lose sight of the gospel itself.
Yet a compelling witness often requires tangible demonstrations of the power of what is being witnessed to. Jesus and the apostles gave “signs” of the gospel as a regular part of their preaching. These signs were more than awe-inspiring magic tricks; they were “miracles with a message.” In the same way, our humble spirit, our gentle conduct, and our extravagant generosity should all point to the redeeming, life-transforming power of the gospel, driving observers to ask, “Why?” The apostle Peter urged his readers to “adorn” the gospel by their conduct to such an extent that it drove observers to ask about its cause (1 Pet. 2:12-3:17).
In 2004, God convicted our church that we were not displaying the generosity of the gospel to our community. I was teaching through the book of Acts, and we came to Acts 8:6-8: “The crowds paid attention with one mind to what Philip said, as they heard and saw the signs he was performing . . . so there was much joy in that city.” So I asked our church if there was “much joy” in the city as a result of our presence there.
Then I read the story in Acts 9 about Tabitha, who had the toughest nickname of the New Testament, “Dorcas.” She had done so many good works and acts of charity that when she died a group of widows gathered at her bedside and wept. “If the Summit Church ‘died,’” I asked, “would needy people weep because we were gone?”
We believed the answer to both of these questions was “no.” If anything, our community may have been excited that we were gone because they would regain access to our tax-exempt property and get one less Easter inviter card cluttering their mailbox.
We resolved that with God’s help we would become a blessing to our city—-to demonstrate Christ’s love to them, to bring his healing to the places in our city that needed him most.
Shortly thereafter, God brought to our attention an underperforming public elementary school in the inner city. It was the worst-ranked school in our county and was on track to be shut down within two years.
Over the next several years we led several innovative projects for that school. Many of our people started tutoring children. Small groups adopted classrooms and teachers, housed refugees, and met physical needs of families in the school. One soon-to-be-married couple in our church asked that any gifts for their marriage be redirected to a family in the school whose house had been destroyed in a fire.
As that first year ended, the principal asked if we would pray for her kids during the end-of-year exams because the school would be evaluated chiefly by their scores. We gladly obliged.
By the fourth year of our involvement, the school had the highest percentage of kids pass their end-of-year exams of any school in the county. And the principal officially credited the church’s efforts with helping to improve the school’s academic performance.  At a subsequent teacher’s banquet, one of the teachers said, “I have always known you Christians believed you should love your neighbor, but I’ve never known what it looked like until now.”
In 2010 I was invited to speak at our city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. rally. It is a significant event in our city. It is televised, and all city and county government officials attend. They asked me simply to explain why we thought it was important to love our community.
Just before the program started, I stood backstage as nervous as Joel Osteen would be at Together for the Gospel. The county manager, sensing my anxiety, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “J. D., do you know why you’ve been asked to speak today?”
I said, “No, and if you could tell me I’d really appreciate it, because I’m super nervous.”
He said, “Everywhere in our city we find a need, we also find people from the Summit Church meeting that need. We couldn’t think of anyone to better embody the spirit of brotherly love in our city than you all at the Summit Church.”
In front of our entire city government, I explained that our church’s generosity was a response to the radical generosity of Christ toward us. Christ had done for us what we could not do for ourselves, so how could we not extend that to those in need? When I finished, the school board, mayor, and city council gave a standing ovation.
Substantiating the Preached Message
Don’t misunderstand: gospel words and gospel deeds do not always yield applause. Much of the time, in fact, they produce just the opposite. Jesus promised we would have trouble in this world for following him. Still, there is a simple lesson here: gospel-driven works substantiate the preached message. They make it visible and understandable. They create a thirst for it. Our generosity provides us with an opportunity to proclaim the gospel.
Our kindness to the people of our city is, of course, only a dim shadow of Jesus’ great kindness to us. But I believe it has helped people in our city understand more of what Jesus is like. It has helped create more hunger in Raleigh-Durham for the gospel.
The work of the local church is to proclaim the gospel and makes disciples. But the effective witness of Christians must contain both word and deed. Without word, there is no gospel. Without deed, we fail to confirm our testimony with our lives. As Francis Schaeffer famously said, the love on display in and through the church is Christ’s “final apologetic” to a skeptical world.
Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in the July-August issue of the 9Marks Journal, “Mercy Ministry in the Church.”
1. “Church Efforts Earn Family Status at Elementary School,” Biblical Recorder, vol. 175 no. 19 (12 September 2009), 7.