L. Gregory Jones & Benjamin McNutt: Encountering Christ in the stranger

Christian service isn’t an extension of the church’s mission but is at its core.

Too often we Christians tend to think of the church’s service efforts as outreach (emphasis on “out”) -- the extra activities we do in addition to being regular, everyday Christians who worship the triune God in communities of discipleship.

Thankfully the New Testament reminds us that the early church believed provision for the widow and the orphan, the sick and the poor, was not simply an extension of the church’s mission but at its core.

Friends in the faith remind us as well. During a meeting in Cote d’Ivoire with his senior leadership team, United Methodist Bishop Benjamin Boni noted that that the most important forms of evangelistic ministry in their country were schools and health clinics.

Addressing the laity and clergy in the room, he said: “Almost all of us became Christians, were introduced to Jesus, through schools and clinics. That is why education and health are so central to our work. The needs for students to learn and people to get health care are very great -- and they are an amazing way for people to discover Jesus.”

For Bishop Boni, these institutions, founded and sustained by Christians, were the visible signs of what it means to be a Christian community that worships a risen Lord.

At their best Christian institutions address deep human need; organize people’s time, talent, effort and passion in sustainable ways toward a common end; and witness to what it means to be a human being made in the image of God.

At earlier points in American history, Christians were at the forefront of movements to start new institutions -- especially in education, health and nutrition. They were crucial to sustaining Christian congregations and providing visible Christian witness.

But in recent years we not only have started fewer such institutions, older ones have drifted from their ecclesial roots and are increasingly secular.

The situation is enough to make Christians wonder whether we still believe that institutions are crucial to introducing people to Jesus, sustaining congregations and addressing crucial human need.

We do if we’ve read John Calvin closely enough. The Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson helps us see why. She says, “[Calvin] writes very beautifully about the notion that any encounter with another human being is an encounter with an image of God…‘What is God asking of me in my encounter with him or her?’…He says that the beauty of the image should override everything and leave you with only the will to embrace that person and help them to the fullest extent of one’s means.”

For Calvin, service is at the core of the Christian faith because every encounter with another human being is an encounter with someone beloved by God. Christian institutions create the conditions for this kind of human interaction, where Christ is at the center of our encounter with and service to the stranger. To give them up would be to give up what it means to be a Christian.

Calvin’s greatest theological achievement was a two-part tome. Funny, isn’t it, that he titled it the “Institutes of the Christian Religion”?

Editor’s note: This post is a contribution to Conversations by Leadership Journal, from Christianity Today, which convenes leading ministry thinkers together and engages them in honest dialogue about issues in the church that concern you.