In recent weeks, an event entitled “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” coinciding with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, was advertised in my town: “Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, an environmental justice movement is gathering strength to protect the planet and all life on it. Join us for dinner, a movie, music and a cause!”
More Than Food and Fellowship
Dinner and a cause. When it comes to my movement, the church, is this the invitation I’m holding out to my friends and neighbors? Sometimes it feels like it. “Come to our soup potluck! Help us assemble care packages for the homeless!” Yet the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith asserts that the mission of the church to society involves so much more than offering food, fun, and fellowship. The very first sentence of the article addressing this issue reminds us of the last command Jesus left His followers, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe [My] commandments.”
First and foremost, the Good News about Jesus Christ must be at the center of the church’s dealings with the world. Although we may only have time to respond to some situations by offering a bite of food or a welcoming smile, verbal proclamation of the Gospel ought to be our habit as members of the church. If we break down racial barriers, feed the hungry, and shelter the homeless in our communities, but do not proclaim the facts of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, we do not understand our mission – our stewardship, as the confession states. If we reconcile men to each other, but do not show men how to be reconciled to God, we have utterly failed.
Meeting Man’s Needs
So what about the community picnics and the nursing home visits? The Confession doesn’t stop with asserting the centrality of the Gospel:
“The church is interested not only in the spiritual welfare of men but in their total wellbeing. Jesus Himself fed the hungry, healed the sick, and had compassion on the poor. The church should likewise minister to those who are in physical or social need and to those who are physically or emotionally ill. The church should witness against racial discrimination, economic injustice, and all forms of human slavery and moral degradation.”
Our mission is more than food and fellowship, but it is certainly no less than these things. In fact, Jesus said that He will pass judgment based on how we responded to the strangers, the poor, and the needy around us. If we loudly clamor the words of Scripture while turning a blind eye to the physical and emotional needs in our communities, we have equally failed in our mission. “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Many of us will be tempted to criticize liberal Christianity for neglecting the preaching of sound doctrine in its interactions with the world. But if your church proclaims orthodox theology, is it also a place where the homeless can find food and shelter? Is it a community that reaches out to the mentally ill and the prisoners and opposes racism and injustice? Granted, Scripture places primary emphasis on caring for those within the church, yet meeting the needs of our fellow believers should be the first step, not the last, in our social awareness.
Motivated by the Gospel
The title of the environmental justice event in my town, “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” derives from a paragraph of Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered during the March on Washington in 1963.
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
Inspiring words. Heroic words. Yet my professors and peers who revere Dr. King for his social achievements fail to grasp the most defining characteristic of his life, the one that motivated everything else he stood for: Martin Luther King Jr. was an unabashed Christian, and he saw his civil rights activism as one part of the mission of the church.
As we the church proclaim the gospel of Christ and demonstrate the compassion of Christ to our communities, can we take a cue from Dr. King’s speech and grasp the “fierce urgency of now”? Through us, Jesus offers the world much more than dinner, music, and a cause. And now more than ever is the time for the message of the church to boldly resound in the world, by word and action. As the Confession reminds us, Jesus left his followers with a charge to take His work of reconciliation to the whole world and placed in our hands “the stewardship of the Gospel.” Will you, believer, make this mission your own?
|Seth Lehman loves God, his bride, and cities, in that order. He and his wife, Heather, live in Bloomington, Indiana, where they frequent the coffee shops, sell at farmers’ markets, and seek to share God’s love with their friends and neighbors. Seth is a graduate student studying mathematics and working as a tutor at Indiana University, and he enjoys gardening, playing piano, and reading in his spare time.
 “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Time to Choose”. City of Bloomington Volunteer Network. Jan. 15, 2017. Accessed Feb. 22, 2017.
 “Mennonite Confession of Faith, 1963”. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Accessed Feb. 22, 2017. c.f. Matthew 28:18-20.
 The Holy Bible, ESV. Matthew 25:31-46. Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2008.
 The Holy Bible, ESV. James 2:17. Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2008.
 King, Jr., Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream”. American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches. Accessed Feb. 22, 2017.
 “Mennonite Confession of Faith, 1963”. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Accessed Feb. 22, 2017.