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Tuesday, November 03, 2015
Wendy Wippel

Steve Sjogren is considered the father of “servant evangelism”, defined as “showing God’s love to strangers in practical ways without expecting anything thing in return.” He was actually a neighbor of mine when I lived in Cincinnati. Nice guy. A guy whose ministry is doing nice things for people. But is nice what God is really asking for? 

Servant evangelism focuses on doing nice things for people as a way of showing that God loves them. Sjogren and other proponents of servant evangelism base this model of evangelism on verses like Romans 2:4 (the goodness of God leads you to repentance) and Galatians 2:20, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people…”

Sjogren’s website, in fact, offers 94 suggestions for ways to do good to all people. Servant evangelism activities like passing out cold drinks on hot days, handing out hot chocolate on cold days, cleaning public bathrooms, mowing people's lawns.  His website declares that the efficacy of servant evangelism is proven by the fact that often the response of the beneficiaries, “Oh, that’s so nice!”

If you’ve been paying attention, you have noticed that servant evangelism has pretty much completely replaced traditional evangelism in the church as a whole, as Christians, cowed into submission by the P.C. police, worry more about offending their neighbors than watching them trod complacently down the road to hell.  Actually, as a neighbor of Steve Sjogrens, I actually participated in some of his servant evangelism campaigns with my home church in Cincinnati—passing out cokes at stoplights on Saturday afternoons and donuts during the morning commute. Even cleaning the bathrooms at the community ball fields. People thought we were really nice. The funny thing is, I don’t remember anybody passing from death into life because they got a free coke.  Ditto on getting to do your business in a cleaner toilet. I don’t remember any substantive conversations about the forgiveness and redemption found in Christ that we provoked by any carbonated beverages either.

But here’s the thing. One of my pet peeves in the church is people (albeit well-meaning) coming up with a new improved method for something that the Scriptures gave us a procedure for already. And the scriptures already gave us a work instruction for how to share the gospel as well as one for verifying ourselves as legitimate ambassadors of the Most High.  

Those who practice servant evangelism will call it “sharing the gospel of Christ through meeting practical needs.”  The scriptures, however, tell us that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”

Meaning real faith, saving faith, comes only through the message of the gospel.

Those who practice servant evangelism also ostensibly believe that Christians doing nice things for people give us street cred as representatives of Christ. But again, Scripture gives us a procedure already: John 13:34-35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Truth be told, many churches that are pretty good at bringing people in aren’t actually that great at keeping them.  And one of the biggest reasons people give for leaving a church is the propensity for cliques and turf wars within the church.  People are looking for a community and a sense of belonging, and often the church can be a very stressful and lonely place to be.  And from my experience, many of the people who don’t go to church will tell you, if asked, that they don’t go anymore because of being hurt by a church in the past.

Which is sort of inevitable, I realize, because after all, we are all still sinners. And I am personally sure that the reason that the writers of the gospels felt a need to tell us, over and over, to forgive one another is because we were going to, as members of a church, have LOTS of reasons to do so.

So can you find a church that really loves one another?

I did. Once.  A college church that was intentional about reproducing the church described in Acts 2. In my Bible, subtitled, A Vital Church Grows:

"And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common,and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart,praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved."

This church, on campus at The Ohio State University, strived to live this out. It was far from a perfect church because it was made up of a lot of imperfect people. Young people, actually, without a whole lot of sense in retrospect.  But we tried.  We had church on Sundays and Bible study midweek. We did witnessing formally on Tuesday night, but as a way of life the rest of the week. When Ohio State had spring break, we got on a bus and went to another college not on spring break, and witnessed 10 hours a day there.  We lived together in the campus area and did have communal meals with a communion service on Sunday nights as well.

It wasn’t about being seeker-friendly or having rock-concert worthy worship or great youth programs.  In fact, one of my more distinct memories of that time is an incident during a breaking of bread service, in one of the men’s houses, is one of the kids—a three-year-old girl, each of her hands clasped as we formed a communal circle—leaning over and taking a drink out of a fish tank that the guys had sitting on the floor. (And the fish was a piranha. I’m not making this up). Apparently she was thirsty.

So like I said, it was far from perfect. But we really did love each other. I don’t miss the people I met in my classes or in my dorm at all. But I would give just about anything for one day back in that fellowship; 30 or 40 people crammed into one small living room, singing songs that came straight from scripture and breaking bread together, all of us with a shared passion and purpose that (for the most part) transcended our petty church grievances.

So I know it’s possible. With God all things are possible. And in this church, without all the whiz-bang children’s programs and praise bands and seeker-friendly sermons, the Lord added daily to those being saved, because they were attracted by a community that loved each other.

So churches that really love each other are not only possible, they’re imperative.

Which brings me to a girl I’ll call Julie.

Julie was a beautiful girl with a beautiful voice that got involved in a church because of their youth praise band program. Kind of Bohemian and non-conformist, she didn’t dress the part of the typical southern church goer, and didn’t exactly act the part either.  So eventually, despite her active participation in the church youth group, she was dismissed from the praise band, and that was the last that church saw of her.

I saw her about a month ago in a restaurant, about 300 pounds and pregnant. And all I could think about was the verse in James (2:13): Mercy triumphs over judgement. And I Timothy 1:5, “the goal of our instruction is love.”

I have to wonder how just a little bit of love, instead of judgement, might have made a difference in Julie’s life.

Steve Sjogren has explained his preference for servant evangelism over New Testament evangelism like this: "We don’t push the Jesus stuff too hard at first.. we tell them we are showing God’s love in a practical way because the word God is more palatable (than the name of Jesus)."

Interesting, since the Bible tells us that there is no other name under heaven through which mankind can be saved. Nevertheless, most of the evangelical world has adopted this approach, and the emergent church has expanded servant evangelism to mean just feeding the poor without any spiritual input intended for the future.

I have an idea. How about we just do it the way the Bible said to?  There’s a novel idea!

Radical, I know.

And I know that some would say (i.e. the current pope) that Jesus himself practiced servant evangelism.

Well, Ok. He did. Twice, as a matter of fact. He fed the masses (since concession stands hadn’t really been invented yet.)

They still killed him.

What’s that old maxim about the church? It’s the only army that kills it’s own wounded?

That needs to change.

About Wendy Wippel

Last week: The Late, Not so Great, Dam of Davidic Denial

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