As we read the Gospels, it is evident on every page that Jesus felt deep compassion for suffering people. He always sought to respond to both their physical and spiritual needs. This was made clear even in Isaiah's prophecy of his coming:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. (Isa. 61:1)
In Isaiah 58, we can see God’s heart with a unique clarity. God speaks with repudiation about religious acts that do not come from a heart that loves God above all things and neighbor as self.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (vv. 6–7)
Jesus preached repentance, provided a new level of interpretation of the Old Testament, and announced the good news of salvation. In doing so, he also preached care and attention to the needy, healed the sick, and provided food for the hungry (Luke 10:25–37; Mark 6:30–44; Mark 8:1–9; John 5:1–18; Matt. 8:1–4).
Jesus even said that those who do not perform these deeds will not inherit the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 25:35–46).
This essay does not attempt to compare the arguments that support a merely social or a merely theological vision of the gospel. Instead, it assumes that the global church has reached a certain general agreement about the two-dimensionality of the gospel. As Rene Padilla’s legacy demonstrated through the integral mission model, social action and evangelism are like “the two wings of an airplane.”
The gospel lacks depth if it is presented only in words and without evidence of God’s power at work in his church, transforming it and leading it to carry out deeds that demonstrate Christ’s love in tangible ways.
However, too often, I’ve seen our churches relegating compassion for the community to second place.
For decades our preachers and ministers have taught that churches exist exclusively to send souls to heaven, forgetting that the Scriptures affirm that in Christ, God reconciled all things to himself (Col. 1:20). This theological bias, alongside a general lack of passion for the gospel, has turned many churches into self-centered institutions that seek for little more than survival.
Following this logic, the vast majority of churches prioritize internal expenses, which are viewed as necessary to increase the comfort and growth of the church—the payment of salaries, rent, current expenses, etc. Churches with greater resources even prioritize spending on luxuries that most of the world’s population—and even many of their own congregants—do not even dream of, like air conditioning, large LCD screens, sophisticated sound systems, on-stage tablets, or a coffee lounge with leather couches.
In these churches, the logic that has deeply permeated their internal structure is that these expenses are a priority. As a result, only if there is a surplus will congregations consider allocating those resources to social causes or meeting the needs of the immediate community.
As a pastor in a rural area in Latin America, I have been exploring different church settings and contexts for more than two decades. I often find believers who are exhausted and fed up with the same insipid practices that their churches have fallen into, as well as institutional bureaucracies that, within the church itself, limit the spreading of the gospel.
In different churches and regions, I have come across stories in which initiatives that seek for the church to have a greater influence in its immediate community are stifled by the pressure exerted by denominational hierarchy or politics or the way in which the church has been operating since its formation.
While it is true that many of these church leaders are aware of the call to missions and social action demanded by the gospel, the sad truth is that most prefer to maintain the status quo and not stir the pot with practices that take the church out of its comfort zone.
So, who can catalyze transformation in our communities through the gospel?
I can testify that many times it is the church members, those who don’t necessarily have degrees in theological studies or enjoy the privileges of leadership. Common and lowly in heart people, who have managed to internalize the mission that Jesus Christ has entrusted to his church and who, without complexes or fears, are willing to obey the call and turn their own communities into mission fields.
I must say that, in the time that I have been working in the missionary field, in spite of the sorrows, I’ve also enjoyed seeing and being part of ministries that managed to catalyze effective change to become expressions of love and service for their communities.
Countless times, at the end of a conference or talk, women and men have come up to me, with tears in their eyes, saying, “What you are saying has always been in my heart. I have repeatedly told my pastors to give shelter to the homeless in the empty church buildings, and their answer is always ‘That’s not what the church building is for.’ So I decided to shelter them in my garage.”
In Nicaragua, a couple asked many times for their church’s support to organize a local mission to feed the elderly homeless, but the pastor’s response was: “First things first. We must first allocate our budget to church salaries and expenses. There are never enough resources for the poor.”
After receiving this response, they decided to leave that congregation and start what is now an amazing missionary church, where they feed children, the elderly, teenage women, and street people. The church also developed a system to produce its own resources.
If this couple had remained in that congregation where the resources were labeled even before their arrival, their call to missions would have died, or worse, as happens in thousands of churches, perhaps they would have repressed their vocation for fear of going against “God’s servant,” a title that in certain churches is used exclusively to denominational leaders and pastors.
In the Bible, we find many examples of how any follower of Christ can be led by God to initiate a small change, a spark that the Spirit of God can use and multiply for his glory. Think of the four who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus’ feet (Mark 2:1–12), or the young boy who offered the fish and the loaves for the miracle of multiplication (John 6:1–15).
In many churches, I have seen men and women rise up who no longer bare the weight of their calling for the helpless, who have the courage to obey God rather than men, and who, filled with the Holy Spirit, have built their church outside the church buildings and have been the hands of Jesus in the wounds of the most needy.
It seems to me that this paradigm and model—as old as the church itself— should inspire and guide churches to be the light of Christ within their communities. Perhaps the early church had the greatest impact in church history precisely because its members depended exclusively on the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit and did not have to struggle to preserve institutions or practices stablished by men.
In the church where I serve today, Comunidad Cristiana Shalom, located in rural Costa Rica, much of what is happening today has come forth from the initiative of hundreds of volunteers who live out the gospel. Many of us come from churches where we were told that the church’s business is only to share the gospel of salvation, not to serve the community. In many cases, longing for such interaction with the community was judged as a quest for “friendship with the world.”
The Lord called us to be a different church, where we do not see building up the temple as an end in itself. From the beginning, we sought to show Christ living in us through our service to others, and we made ourselves known to the community by picking up trash and cleaning rivers. Today we work with the elderly, and with abused and homeless people. The Lord was the one who united us, and today we are a mixed group formed by people who come from very diverse backgrounds, but who have in common the commitment to fulfill the Lord’s call to incarnate Christ in the community.
We church leaders must always have an open ear to listen to the missional passions of the congregants of the churches we serve. Sometimes we forget that, in many cases, it is the call that the Holy Spirit has placed in their hearts. We must listen to these voices and prayerfully open all the doors for the development and growth of all these ideas and opportunities to spread the gospel.
I’m afraid that if evangelical churches do not go out of their comfort zone to incarnate the gospel they preach, they will end up becoming mere monuments, as has already happened to the church in different contexts and moments in history. Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matt. 5:13).
May our role be to become channels for the transformation of communities through simple men and women who are empowered by the Holy Spirit.
If we do not, many will remain in their cathedrals of tasteless salt, while across the sidewalk you will find a follower of Christ tirelessly preaching the gospel using only a towel and a basin with water.
Roy Soto holds a bachelor’s degree in theology and is pastor of Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Shalom in Costa Rica.
Translation by Diego Portillo.