It is perhaps the most famous quote from Mother Teresa that we are called to be faithful, not successful. Maybe we should be evaluating churches by their faithfulness, rather than their success by secular standards (eg. attendance, membership, and other “numbers”). What would happen if we evaluated the mission of our churches by looking primarily if not solely at their faithfulness and obedience to Jesus Christ?
In Luke 7:22, Jesus validates his own ministry. “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” There are many passages where the qualities of Jesus’ ministry are listed. They all mention similar things: healing, liberation, justice, inclusion, acceptance, forgiveness, feeding, non-violence, peace, and generosity figure prominently.
In evaluating a church’s mission, should we not use criteria like those Jesus used? What would this mean? Invoking Luke 7:22 as an example, it would mean asking the following kinds of questions about our church:
1) Do the blind receive their sight here?
Jesus is not establishing a chain of optometry clinics. Certainly he literally restored the sight of blind people; and such healings do occur in the church even today. However, our understanding of “blindness” can’t end there. Jesus did not limit blindness to the literal ocular dysfunction. There are other more common forms of blindness. Jesus recognized this when he castigated some of his opponents for their “blindness” (Matthew 15:14; 23:16-26; John 9:39-41). He meant a lack of moral and spiritual perception creating violence and injustice. If we cannot see clearly we make a mess. Like driving in a thick fog or wielding an axe while blindfolded. How are we helping people “see” in the sense of their becoming aware of the truth about God, creation, and people?
Specifically, is our educational ministry helping people see better, farther, and from a higher perspective? Are we opening minds to new vistas, new awareness, new connections and relationships? Are we gaining appreciation of what is out there in terms of the breadth of Christian knowledge, practice, and experience? Are we even welcoming links with those of other faiths? Ae we learning to see God’s saving Presence in all things, the whole creation?
2) Do the lame walk?
Again the literal is only one way to think of this. One may be “lame” in other ways than the orthopedic. We may also include here the inability to move, grow, develop, or interact with others on an equal, confident footing. Even more broadly we could see this as referring us to the powerless, marginalized, constricted people in society. These are specifically the people Jesus tended to associate with.
How, in our ministry, are we giving power to the powerless? How are we enabling people to change and grow? How are we promoting spiritual movement and progress? Do we give people the tools to move beyond fear and crippling negativity? Do we help them out of their emotional paralyses, their addictions, their stifling and destructive relationships?
3) Are lepers cleansed?
We are not off the hook because few of us have ever even seen someone suffering from Hansen’s Disease, or similar skin ailments. This reference calls on us to welcome others who are outcast, excluded, or social pariahs. The church needs to make a point of including people with other unacceptable diseases or conditions rendering them cut off from their families or communities.
How well do we minister to unpopular people, like: undocumented immigrants, convicts and other prisoners, the HIV-positive, the poor, minorities, members of “suspect” groups (like Muslims), etc.? How welcoming and inclusive are we of members of the GLBT community?
4) Do the deaf hear?
Learning to listen is an important quality. Beyond the literally auditory, even those of us who can hear might be challenged as listeners.
How well do we relate to the concerns of others? Can we put ourselves in the shoes even of people with whom we disagree or who hate us? Can we understand the fear, pain, and anger of others? Where are we providing forums for sharing, interaction, conversation, and exchange? How are we welcoming and seeking to understand others? Are we listening to the cries of the poor and oppressed? Do we hear the cry of the abused Earth?
5) Are the dead raised?
We know that it is not necessary to physically die in order to experience the power of death. Death’s influence pervades our whole existence. It is the source of our fear and of many of the diseases and disorders listed above. It creates the myth of scarcity upon which our political economy is partially based. Empire feeds on our fear of death.
In our ministry, do we leave people shackled in the power and fear of death? Or do we give assistance in helping folks work through the stages of grief? Do we practice resurrection by planning for a beautiful future? Do we reject the sour fruits of a culture that fears and flees death: hoarding, killing, stealing, etc.?
More pointedly, do we reject and work against the culture of violence and death? Are we learning to live non-violently (Matthew 5:38-48)?
6) Do we bring good news to the poor?
Here is one we can all take quite literally. Of course, good news must really be good, not just the warmed-over, spiritualized propaganda of the reigning economic orthodoxy. Good news has to do with Jesus Christ… not just what he said, but what he actively did to lift up and liberate people. For one thing, I am becoming aware of how important feeding figured in Jesus’ ministry. How are we feeding hungry people? How are we clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46)?
Jesus preached Jubilee (Luke 4:19). Jubilee was a radical resetting of the economy in which all debts were cancelled, the land itself was given a rest, and property was returned to an original just distribution (Leviticus 25). We recognize that poverty is often the product of policies designed to concentrate and entrench economic and political power in the hands of a few. What are we who follow Jesus doing to correct this injustice? How are we providing for people victimized by an oppressive system that breeds inequality?
7) Are we going back into the world and telling others what we experience?
Jesus instructs his evaluators to “go and tell John what you have seen and heard.” The work of the church in following Jesus is not a secret. Rather, it is to be shared with the whole world (Matthew 5:13-16; 28:18-20). One of the reasons why Presbyterians are so allergic to evangelism might be that we have so little to testify to. How well can our churches answer questions 1 through 6? Can we invite people to our church without embarrassment about how poorly we are following Jesus and how consumed and paralyzed we are with trivialities? Can we introduce our neighbors to blind people who have received their sight, lame people who now walk, cleansed lepers, deaf people who now hear, raised corpses, and poor people who have received the good news?
Here is a faithful model for a church “mission study.” Have the church evaluate its ministry by telling where and how it is doing these things. Have them set goals to do them better. Have them set out intentionally to equip themselves to accomplish these tasks, including a plan to spread the news of the miracles that are happening.