“If Jesus came to earth today, he would be spending his time on the streets, helping the poor and the marginalized, not in churches.” I encounter such sentiments frequently on social media.
This ties in with other attitudes in modern Western society. A recent survey found that significantly more Canadians think evangelical Christians are detrimental to society than think evangelical Christians are beneficial to society. In television dramas and comedies, devout Christians are usually portrayed as self-righteous, judgmental hypocrites, and pastors usually turn out to be serial killers, sexual abusers, and greedy fraudsters. (While these are fictional stories, they reflect what television producers think is true about Christians.)
Would Jesus really avoid modern churches? It is a false dichotomy. Jesus spent a lot of time being with and helping lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, the disabled, the demon-possessed, and other marginalized people. But the Gospels show that He went to the synagogue every Sabbath (Luke 4:16: “On the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom”), and He journeyed to the temple in Jerusalem to participate in major religious festivals.
When I look back at the churches I have attended regularly (about a dozen or so) over my lifetime, this is the reality:
• Several were strongly involved with halfway houses helping drug addicts and alcoholics get clean.
• Some have outreach programs to people in prison, bringing worship services, one-on-one friendship, and even meals.
• Several ran Divorce Care programs to help divorced people recover from the trauma.
• Several are involved with local public schools, offering everything from breakfasts for hungry children to after-school programs and volunteers to help run school events.
• At least one church supports an outreach to prostitutes, which offers friendship, basic necessities, and a residential program to help prostitutes get off the street.
• One ran a major program offering food, clothes, counseling, friendship, and even cars to single mothers. Other churches had similar but smaller programs.
• Several support outreaches to street youth.
• Most contribute heavily to food banks. The churches in one town banded together to guarantee that the local food bank would never run out of food.
• One church ran a “bread” program delivering donated bread to dozens of families and charities every week.
• Several sponsored refugee families to come to Canada. They provided travel money, financial support for at least a year, food, clothes, friendship, and help in finding accommodation, education, and jobs.
• Some offered English as a second language training to recent immigrants.
• At least two had attached congregations for ethnic groups who worshiped in another language. At the same time, the churches also encouraged interaction between the congregations.
• At least one helped build a Habitat for Humanity house for a needy family, and others have supported this organization in other ways.
• Most contributed dozens and even hundreds of shoeboxes full of basic necessities and Christmas gifts to children around the world every year.
• Most provided Christmas hampers of food and gifts to needy families in their neighborhood.
• All contributed (money and volunteer help) to flood victims, overseas orphanages, famine victims, war refugees, and a host of other needs.
• Some opened their church buildings as temporary shelters for the homeless and for those displaced by natural disasters.
• Most hosted AA programs, counseling programs, and other community social efforts.
• Most ran soccer camps, summer kids’ programs, clubs, and youth groups attended by children whose families did not attend the church as well as children whose families did.
• And, of course, every church had a “care fund” which provided food, rent money, and other support to needy individuals and families, both those in the church and those outside it.
These were just ordinary churches, and none would have claimed that they were doing anything remarkable. All would have admitted that they could have done more.
As well, although this is rarely mentioned in news coverage, many local and many major international charities were founded, supported, and run by Christians. Many are still run by Christians. On an individual basis, many churchgoers volunteer at Christian and mainstream charities. Many go out of their way to be good neighbors and befriend people who need friends. And, besides what they give to their churches, churchgoers apparently contribute to mainstream, “secular” charities at a higher rate than non-churchgoers.
Church is not a distraction or an alternative to caring for the poor and marginalized. It often provides the motivation and the organization to do so. What would Jesus be doing if He were to come to earth today? Likely what churches are doing (only more perfectly, of course).