In his sermon a week ago today, Pastor Glenn Packiam was making what seemed to me to be the hard sell. The product was New Life Church's latest social justice venture, the Dream Centers of Colorado Springs.
DCCS is a free women’s health clinic on Montebello Drive founded by New Life, which is footing most of the bill. The clinic will provide all forms of primary care, from screenings for heart diseases to referrals for cervical exams.
"There might be this thought in the back of your mind or maybe somewhere deep inside your heart,” Packiam was saying. “Maybe somewhere in the back of your mind, you are thinking, 'Eh. Why are we doing this? That's sort of cute, but whatever happened to old-fashioned preaching? Shouldn't we just get everyone saved? ... What is our motivation? What drives us to think about, or care about, justice? To care about the plight of the poor and needy?”
These are good questions, and for the most part they echo the doubts from us in the secular world. Why would New Life open a health clinic for uninsured or underinsured women? Is it a recruiting tool? A chance to preach anti-abortion?
“Isn’t this just about evangelicals trying to launch a big PR campaign?" Packiam asked rhetorically. "I mean isn’t this kind of like Christians in America realized, ‘OK, we’ve earned a bad rap for being anti-abortion and anti-gay … man, the world thinks that we’re so harsh and mean.’ … Is that what this is? Is this about saving face?”
At its core there is a deeper motivation, says Packiam, and if you are interested in his explanation, you can watch the video of his 40-minute sermon at this link. I would recommend it, especially if you are thinking about forming an opinion on their actions or motives.
The takeaway is this: Helping the needy is Christ-like. And who can argue with that? Most of the time I hear secular criticism of the Christian church, it's someone saying the church ought to stay out of politics and focus on living out the teachings of their messiah, teachings that even those of us in the secular realm can appreciate and respect.
For someone who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, watching preening, smug televangelists give way to massive suburban churches that preached a watered-down, feel-good gospel of self-admiration, this migration from condemning culture to helping the poor has been a real eye-opener.
But it is the trend that we have seen over the past few years. As Dr. Scott Todd, with Compassion International, put it when talking with the Indy a couple months back, the Christian world is re-awakening to the plight of the needy.
He points to Rick Warren’s 2003 book, Purpose Driven Life. Hugely popular, it sold 30 million copies in four years.
And yet, Todd notes, the word “poverty” was not mentioned once in the book. The word “justice” was used only once in a casual reference, while “the poor” were mentioned twice.
Only a few years later, Warren has become fully engaged in the poverty crisis in Africa, he says. “Rick Warren has become a key evangelical leader in the space of concern for the poor. He is sending thousands of members of his church to Africa every year.”
And as New Life Pastor Matthew Ayers, the executive director of DCCS, says:
“I think that it has been a wake-up call to a lot of Christians, that there has been an imbalance in the terms of how we live our life. I think that people are realizing that we have become unbalanced. There is a movement all over the world of the church waking up to that reality.”
Evangelicals doing good works is an exciting development.
So when I first heard about New Life’s clinic, I called up a pastor friend of mine to find out what he thought.
He sounded skeptical.
"Oh yeah, dream centers. Those are all the rage," he told me.
All the rage? Apparently. Since 1993, dream centers have been popping up all over the country in the poorest urban areas. While he sounded hopeful that New Life’s center would be successful, he didn't sound as excited as I expected.
As he sees it: Sure, helping the needy get food and clothing is important, but not as important as attending to their religious needs. His point was that once a church begins to reach out to the poor, it can very easily forget its original mission.
Put bluntly: What is more important, providing a homeless woman with a pap exam, or saving her eternal soul? That might sound like an obvious question for someone who doesn't believe that there is an eternal soul to be saved, or at least not through Christ; but to an evangelical, that is a very real, immediate question. How much does the church throw itself into the mission of social justice, and how much does it reserve its energy and efforts for the eternal salvation?
According to Dr. Dominic Aquila, the president of New Geneva Seminary here in the Springs, "This is the constant internal squabble within the family of evangelicals."
He notes that social works have been a part of the evangelical community throughout its history, sometimes playing more of a role than at other times. One only needs to look at the role that they played in the early abolitionist efforts in the early-1800s in the British Empire and later in the U.S.
“It’s not well-known, for instance, that even coming out of the Reformation, even someone like John Calvin, they set up ministries in Geneva to minister to widows, orphans, and to provide for those who were destitute.
“When you consider things like the Salvation Army, the YMCA, the YWCA, all of those came out of movements that were directly related to Dwight L. Moody,” an American evangelical, he says. "What basically you have is from the fervor of evangelism for getting people saved, people also recognized that there were needs in the culture that would need to be addressed."
He goes on: “The tension point is that it is easier to do these good works … to clothe the poor, to feed those in need, because those are hands-on,” he says, comparing it to a carpenter looking back on a day’s work. “You can get a rush from it. But when you are working with someone who is struggling internally, the spiritual issue, that becomes more difficult to capture. It doesn’t get the press.”
History has demonstrated over and over, he says, that that the church begins to respond to the rush, and the theology begins to suffer.
“It moves over to the social side and the gospel part, where you are dealing with the internal part of an individual’s life, suffers,” he says.
First, there is the spiritual wave, he says, the conversions. “and then what follows behind it is this social component.”
You can see this in the First Great Awakening in the 1700s, and in the Second Great Awakening. “It starts out with people feeling bad about themselves, that they don’t have any purpose. Then they get converted, and once they get their lives in order, and their family lives in order, they start to see the needs that exist here in the world.”
And this, it can be argued, is where New Life finds itself, in the outward-looking phase.
In the early 20th century, the social gospel movement made the claim, Aquila continues, that the church primarily ought to bring the Kingdom of Heaven down to the Earth by helping the destitute. The problem for the fundamentalists, many of whom we’d call evangelicals today, was that while it was all fine and good to care for the needy, that the spiritual component was being lost.
“That was the essence of the debate then, and it is where the debate still is, even though the names of the players have changed,” he says.
In an ideal world, the church would be able to preach the gospel and do social works at the same time, but that is not always easy to maintain. He points out that OXFAM, Oxford Famine Relief, started out as “a balanced Christian organization, but now it is entirely a social organization. “
Think of the YMCA, the YWCA, he says. Or the Salvation Army. “The Salvation Army is almost entirely given over to the social arena, but it started out as a way to get drunks out of the gutters to shelters, and then share the gospel with them.”
But guess which part of the mission gets more press.
“Right now,” says Aquila, “if we are erring in the evangelical world, we are leaning too far toward the social gospel, towards the social justice side right now.”