In the face of agonizing tragedy the church stepped up.
After monster tornadoes tore through Oklahoma, the people of the church demonstrated the simple and powerful love of Christ to those they never met. And may never see again. Yet the church served, without expecting anything in return.
Local churches offered their facilities to those who suddenly found themselves homeless. Church members collected truck loads of clothing, food and household goods for the stranded. These were acts of love, performed without sermonizing, without any expectation that the victims would later fill the pews or become “giving units.”
Other churches outside of the area jumped into action to assist those ravaged by the storms. Churches in Columbus, Ohio, collected batteries, tents, backpacks and baby supplies. Churches in New York sent vanloads of volunteers to clean debris from flattened neighborhoods. Churches in Indiana organized benefit concerts to raise funds for tornado relief.
These far-flung churches had no self-interests or hopes of gaining a return on their investment. They simply served. And loved.
And people noticed. An Oklahoma news reporter saw church volunteers move onto the scene after the tornadoes left. He told his listeners, “Wait for government aid and you’ll be here forever. The Baptist men will get it done tomorrow.”
That’s the church being the church.
CAN YOU SERVE WITHOUT SERMONIZING?
Sometimes, though, I wonder what keeps us from responding like that outside of extraordinary disasters. I was reminded of this inconsistency in recent weeks as we screened a preview of an upcoming documentary for church leaders and members. The film showed some Christians’ efforts to serve their local communities, to bring joy to the elderly, to bring love and dignity to homeless moms on skid row.
Every time we showed the clips, several church people expressed their doubts and dissatisfaction with the servants on the screen. “Where was the gospel?” “How do we know they heard the plan of salvation?” “What good does that do the church?” And my personal favorite: “You call that church? I didn’t hear any praise songs. I didn’t see any pews.”
For many churches, love and service have become conditional. Efforts to be “missional,” to reach out, to love your neighbor are only valid if they produce a return, if they reciprocate. Or if they’re wrapped in a sermon.
But Jesus made it quite clear. His second great commandment simply calls us to love those around us. No strings attached.
Sometimes the church has been visibly absent in times of real, ongoing need. A public school official in Joplin, Missouri noticed this absence after a massive tornado swept away much of his city and schools in 2011. At a meeting of community leaders to gain support for cooperation within the schools, Superintendent C.J Huff realized the pastors were missing. So he called a special meeting for the city’s faith leaders. After Huff acknowledged that the educational system has long banned religious teaching in public schools, a pastor stood up and said, “We can’t be the voice of God in the schools, but we can be the hands of God.”
That was a breakthrough for Joplin schools. Throngs of church members rallied to serve as volunteers in the schools. The schools rebounded from the disaster. The students soaked up the love. The dropout rate fell dramatically.
“The results have been profound,” Huff said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if every community in our nation behaved in that way?”
We can be the hands of God.