In the world of ministry or Christian non-profit organizations, there is a tension that often comes up. It lies in the reality of trying to live two truths. Perhaps they could be simply stated like this:
1) People need Jesus.
2) People have other needs too.
A comment from a person on one extreme to someone on the other might sound something like this:
“All you care about is saving people’s souls! What about the suffering in this life? Don’t you see the people you are preaching to are hungry? Hungry people won’t hear the Gospel. You have to feed them first!"
Or from the other side:
“All you care about is filling people's stomachs! You have lost your first love; you are just doing social work under a Christian name.”
Thankfully, I find the answer in the life of Jesus Himself. I am more and more struck by His perfect example in living this tension:
Jesus gave bread to the more-than-five-thousand, because they were hungry, and He had compassion on them. But, when they came after the bread itself, He told them they really needed a different kind of bread—the Bread of Life. At the end of the day, they needed Him for their spiritual life more than bread for their physical life. (John 6)
When Jesus and the disillusioned Samaritan woman were talking about water, He Himself was thirsty and asked for a drink (a real physical need). But then, He offered her water that would quench the burning thirst dehydrating her soul—Living Water. She needed Him in order to be deeply satisfied to overflowing. (John 4:1-42)
When the paralyzed man came down through the roof, he wanted healing. But, Jesus knew He needed more than that. He needed His sins to be forgiven. He needed physical healing, yes; but, there was a deeper healing he needed even more. He needed Jesus to forgive his sins and restore His spiritual life and health. (Mark 2:1-8) (Thanks to Tim Keller for bringing this example to my attention.)
Because the reality is even if you have bread to eat every day…you will still be ravenous inside…and you will still die.
Even if you have all the water you could ever want for all your needs…you will still be looking for soul-satisfaction…and you will still die.
Even if you have good health and strength to the end of your days…they will still end.
And at that end, what ultimate good were your food, water, and health?
The tension between “Gospel-centered work” and “just social work” is a real one that we wrestle with every day as we strive to live out the love of Christ in a context of overwhelming poverty on every level—material, environmental, physical, educational, and spiritual. All of the needs are real and valid. We can neither ignore the immediate threat of hunger, nor the imminent threat of final spiritual death.
So, every day we do our best to follow the example of Jesus. As we are moved by compassion to reach out to people in love—as we pursue our passion for good education, for environmental restoration, and for effective community development (which, consequently, are a result of our Biblical worldview)—we also tell people,
“It’s not enough. You need Jesus even more than that.”
If I could just tell you personally...
I (Krischelle) am thankful to work in an organization that has brought the example of Jesus to life for me. It is as I have worked for Lemuel over the past 10+ years and wrestled with this tension that the examples from Jesus’ life took on fresh colors and deeper meaning for me. I am also thankful that God has chosen leaders for Lemuel that keep the focus where it should be. Manis and Judy both keep the ministry of Lemuel on track. Manis is constantly reminding us, “I didn’t start a ministry to become a social work organization.” And, “Always remember: we’re not here for our own glory. All the glory belongs to God alone.” These are frequently repeated, pretty-close-to-exact quotes. Judy in her role is also a centrifugal force keeping everyone orbiting around what is most important.
It is important for you to know this. Why? Because “Lemuel” is us. We can talk about “Lemuel” in a generic, organization-encompassing way. But, the reality is, “Lemuel” is made up of people. And knowing what those people are like is key to knowing how Lemuel will function.