Perhaps Chuck Colson of "Prison Fellowship" would be surprised to learn that some have questioned whether or not prison ministry is a legitimate form of evangelistic endeavor. The implications here carry forward into other forms of gospel advance with a social connection as well. Hopefully he would be pleased with our prison ministry efforts along with a brief defense here for ministering in the context of the realities of this present world. The Lord Jesus affirmed such when He talked about ministering to the "least of these" in prison. Even if one made the case that Jesus was speaking of Christians in prison for their faith, surely the Great Commission covers those in physical and spiritual prison at the same time as people to be loved and offered the gospel. In fact, a plain reading of the gospel accounts demonstrates that our Lord was concerned with the poor, the down and out, and/or the outcasts of society. He was bold in His witness to lepers, prostitutes, and publicans.
The question of to who should we minister may seem like an illegitimate question, but in reality, it is not in light of the culturally influenced thinking of our day. In my formative years of ministry, a pastor told me we needed to focus our outreach ministry on the wealthy individuals who belonged to the local country club because they were quality people. "We must have quality people for our church," he said. Of course, God makes no distinction between persons and no one may be referred to as a quality person. "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23)." The notion of focusing on such not only militates against the nature of the gospel and grace, but smacks of human pride and arrogance. One may even question the spiritual condition of one who would think in such a way.
Moreover, our Lord Himself declared that it was more difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (Matt. 19:4). That is not to say that rich people can't be saved. Relative to the vast majority of the world's population, most Americans who are truly born again could be characterized as rich (how arrogant we are to think we do without, but that's another blog). It is to say that while we should take the gospel to all human beings indiscriminately, our Lord did say that those who recognize their need are more apt to come from the outcast of society.
Hypothetically, if one had to choose between one or the other in terms of evangelistic focus in light of time and resources, it would be more biblical to go to the prison than to the country club. In most of our churches we tend to see the opposite in practice. And, what's worse, we actually have more than one choice. We can and should go to the prison and the country club with the gospel of Christ, but so often we seek the quality people if only at an unspoken level. It is legitimate to say that many in the evangelical world have never gone to the outcast of society or made the connection between social ministry and gospel advance. Far too many ignore the realities of the world in which God has placed us.
We should therefore urge our co-laborers to go where they've never gone before. We should understand that gospel advance is often connected to social ministry. We do not refer here to the old social gospel movement. However, we live in a real world with real people with real problems who need a real Savior. Should we be concerned with such? The Christian community should be concerned about the realities of the world for a number of reasons.
First, Jesus is concerned about the realities of the world. He demonstrated that fact in His earthly ministry. In a typical example, after Jesus taught, He healed a friend's mother. He then healed all that came to Him. On this particular occasion, Jesus ministered all night until day (Lk. 4:38-42). He demonstrated concern for suffering in the world. So too should we. No doubt hurricanes afford us an opportunity to minister in this fashion. Yet, there are similar opportunities in our own communities before us each and every day.
Second, while the Kingdom of God is something to be ultimately realized in the future, even now it is a present reality. The kingdom is the rule and reign of Christ in the hearts of believers and this world. If the kingdom is a present reality, Christians participate with God in the advancement of that kingdom on earth. That advancement, while including evangelism, includes the transformation of society from the inside out through the power of changed lives. Paul wrote in Col. 4:5-6: "Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time. Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man." Christians are called to subdue the created order for the glory of God. Moses wrote: "And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth" (Gen. 1:28).
Third, the gospel message includes a tangible, social thrust. Jesus said: "Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me" (Matt. 25:44-45).
Fourth, Christians are called to be salt and light in the earth (Matt. 5:13-16). Surely
these dynamics relate to sin and suffering in the world. No doubt being salt and light is connected to gospel advance, but, that gospel advance will often be connected to addressing social evil.
Fifth, the love that God demonstrated to His people is a love in action. Paul wrote in Rom. 5:8: "But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Christians desire to participate in the loving activity of God.
Sixth, the realities of the world are the result of sin entering into the world. The goal of the Christian life is to eradicate sin, not only at a personal level, but by way of extension, at a social and global level. This eradication not only includes the power of sin, but also the effects of sin at the social level. Paul wrote: "For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now (Rom. 8:19-22)." The Christian community has the responsibility of participating with God in His activity of eradicating sin at every level for His glory and their joy.
Let us minister in the prisons, in the aftermath of hurricanes, in the country club communities, and in the communities that are reserved for the outcasts of society. Let us give a cup of water or a bowl of soup in the Name of Christ, and let us give the gospel of grace that men, women, boys, and girls might be saved that our gracious God might be glorified. Let us not quibble about contexts of ministry but rather let us gossip the gospel everywhere we go, and let us boldly go where we have never gone before.
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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