Fifteen years ago, some Christians volunteered to help serve and prepare food for a New York City AIDS hospice with a clientele primarily of homosexual men. Since the hospice was involved in the gay rights movement, its administrators were nervous about letting church volunteers inside their doors. They made the expectations clear: you can come and serve, but don't proselytize.
Today, Christians still come and serve food in the hospice. But they also come to help with something else, something that would have been unthinkable 15 years ago: a worship service.
This service was started at the request of hospice residents, who over the years developed deeper and deeper friendships with the church folks who showed up every week to offer a loving presence. Now the name of Jesus is heard regularly in what was once the most secular of environments.
This story illustrates one of the stickier relationships in ministry: word and deed. While most Christian leaders will quickly say the two can't be separated, the question remains, especially with more and more churches focusing on justice ministry: how open can Christians be about their faith? In many situations, the "serving" is welcome but "proselytizing" is not. How do Christians bring the name of Jesus into works of compassion, mercy, and justice?
The love of Jesus in public schools
"We bring Jesus in through the relationships that we build," says Efrem Smith, pastor of Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
For years Sanctuary Covenant has ministered within the Minneapolis public schools, running a tutoring program to help children get reading and math skills up to grade level. Another initiative is called Hip Hop Academy, an after-school arts program for a district in which arts programs have been slashed. It teaches kids to enjoy hip-hop culture apart from its associations with gangs, drugs, alcohol, and abuse of women.
More recently, since Minneapolis teachers have experienced budget cuts and layoffs, Sanctuary Covenant has tried to bring encouragement through gestures of appreciation, such as gift cards or coffee and bagels in the teachers' lounge.
As the AIDS hospice once did, the public school system prohibits outright evangelism. But that doesn't mean that these ministries haven't borne fruit.
"We've seen teachers and families of our kids join our church and come to Christ," says Smith, "not because we went in and said, 'You need to accept Jesus,' but because we brought the love of Jesus to them."
So how are Sanctuary Covenant tutors told to approach their ministry? "We say, 'Go in there prayed up, and tutor that kid,'" says Smith. "'Help them in their reading and math skills, and trust the Holy Spirit. Ask God to use you as a tutor to extend his love and present his gospel.' We should not underestimate how God works through our integrity and character as we do the work, and we should also trust the Holy Spirit to do something on the hearts of those people so that they end up asking questions like 'How can I get to your church this Sunday?' or 'How can I learn more about God?'"
Adds Smith, "We can't guarantee everybody we encounter will become a Christian, but we can guarantee everybody we encounter experiences the love of Christ."
Disclosing why we do this
NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas, pursues justice ministries, among other places, in Vietnam, working in poverty alleviation and development through hospitals, orphanages, and education. It also offers business classes for corporations and vocational schools for kids.