Two weeks ago I was in Nicaragua visiting churches involved in some unique ministries that both demonstrate and proclaim the gospel.
The group I was with, mostly pastors from U.S. churches affiliated with the Willow Creek Association, visited church ministries in Nicaragua connected with Compassion International.
Before this trip, I was familiar with Compassion International only as an agency that provided sponsorships for impoverished children around the world. On this trip I saw that these sponsorships weren't just random children, but they were children involved in child development programs at local churches in needy areas.
For example, a few of us visited a family in Ciudad de Sandorino, where a grandmother and grandfather were caring for their orphaned grandson. They didn't have electricity in their three-room house. They supported themselves by selling tortillas made, two or three at a time, on a small wood-burning stove.
The grandson, 10-year-old Axel, attended an after-school program at a nearby church, Joyas de Christo, where more than 300 children were fed, helped with homework, provided medical care, and taught the gospel.
They performed for us some of the songs and dances they had learned. We talked with the teachers and workers. We ate skewered chicken they had cooked there at the church.
The most striking image to me was seeing the modest computer lab where Axel and other children, whose homes would likely never be wired for electronics, were being taught computer skills. The foundational principle: the first steps out of poverty include education and hope. Joyas de Christo is providing both.
"Compassion is the new evangelism," said William Gutierrez, director of the Compassion office in Nicaragua.
By that he did not mean that ministries of compassion are replacing ministries of evangelism. He meant that whereas in previous generations, the most prominent form of evangelism was a crusade in a stadium, or an efficient summary of Four Spiritual Laws, here the most prominent form of evangelism is one that offers compassion as well as the message of the gospel.
In Ciudad de Sandorino, the gospel was being demonstrated as well as proclaimed. And that's a powerful combination.
But there might be more.
One of the reasons for this trip was because the Willow Creek Association and Compassion International are working together to pair North American churches with a sister church in Central America or elsewhere around the globe that are meeting the physical and spiritual needs of people like Axel and his family.
Currently 65 churches are in these cross-cultural relationships through WCA and Compassion, and the goal is to have an additional 40 church partnerships formed by the end of the year. These long-term relationships may teach both congregations something powerful about the gospel as it's lived in different cultures. And churches in both cultures see that they have something to receive AND something to give.
In the days ahead, Leadership journal will be highlighting some of the stories of this new level of engagement between local congregations from "here" and "there."
It's a glimpse of the new evangelism, even though it's as old as "love the Lord with all your heart … and love your neighbor as yourself."
Marshall Shelley is editor in chief of Leadership.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
Click here for reprint information on Leadership Journal.