I loved that movie with Mandy Moore about a terminally ill preacher’s daughter who tutored a rebellious peer. Both lives (and many other lives) are changed as they learn to see outside their own problems. It takes loving each other to gain that perspective.
Periodically our church hosts a Project Homeless Connect event. Nothing heroic or unusual here, but pretty cool nonetheless. The church simply provides the place and partners with a specialized ministry to the homeless that can help us organize an expo of resources for them. We have everything from clean underwear and dry socks to the state documents they will need to get a job. They are “connected” to the immediate resources they need for health (medical and dental). They receive gifts for their encouragement (free haircuts from top-end stylists) and necessities such as backpacks and tents, along with group home options, employment information, etc.
As a pastor I, of course, love to see the needy filled (we also have a hot meal on site) and clothed, especially when I don’t have to run it. But that is not the best part. You see, every homeless person is paired up with someone from our congregation. There are literally hundreds of church people who walk with those who may be a bit intimidated (the resources can seem overwhelming) or embarrassed (many are recently homeless for the first time). As a pastor, that walk is the most important part of the distribution process. Resources without relationship are just stuff. Receiving without being respected, listened to, and laughed with just results in more to lug around.
Often, we forget that the key to generosity is not what we give, but the personal engagement we have. I heard about a beggar who stopped Leo Tolstoy on a bitterly cold night and asked him for a little money. Tolstoy’s heart was moved with compassion as he searched his pockets in vain to come up with even a single coin. He said, “I am so sorry, my brother, but I can’t find anything to give you.” The beggar replied, “But you have given me a great deal—you called me ‘brother’!”
And that last thought leads us to the “best part.”
We evangelicals are all about conversion. But most of the time when we use that word, we mean helping others to believe in Christ like we do. As a pastor, I’m first interested in another kind of conversion for my congregation and myself: the one where we become more like Christ.
As Matthew writes his account of the feeding of the 5,000, he notes the attitude of Jesus: “He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14). And then, remembers Matthew, Jesus turns to his disciples and says to them, “you give them something to eat” (verse 16).
The great challenge of any Christian leader, and the great goal of any Christian, is the conversion of Christians. Before we estimate how much non-Christians need Christ to cure their sin, we need to estimate how much we need Christ for the cure of our selfishness. A prerequisite for sharing Christ should be Christians actually resembling the One they are trying to share.
Acting in socially redeeming ways, helping people in need, conforms us to the image of the One we follow. And since the point is always how good God is, and not how much good we can do, our transformation into the likeness of Christ will bring more attention to Christ than to us.
Conversion is on a “first come, then serve” basis.
Dr. Joel C. Hunter is senior pastor of Northland—A Church Distributed in Longwood, Florida.