Social Ministry—How It Affects People
STARTING with only five barley loaves and two small fishes, Jesus Christ miraculously fed over 5,000 men, women, and children about the time of the Passover (March-April) in 32 C.E. (Matthew 14:14-21; John 6:1-13) Recognizing the tremendous potential Jesus held, the people wanted to make him their king. Possibly they felt that he would deliver them from the Roman yoke and improve their lot in life. What was Jesus’ response?
Instead of submitting to the popular demand, Jesus “withdrew again into the mountain all alone.” (John 6:15) But the crowd did not give up easily. They came to him again the next day. Detecting their ulterior motive, Jesus said to them: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate from the loaves and were satisfied.” Then he added: “Work, not for the food that perishes, but for the food that remains for life everlasting.”—John 6:25-27.
What can we learn from this account? Among other things, it clearly shows that with material benefits it is relatively easy to attract people. However, building genuine appreciation for spiritual things—things of lasting value—is an entirely different matter. Today, the tendency to look at things from a purely materialistic point of view is even greater.
Strong Appeal of Social Ministry
In the eyes of the people of the developing countries, the advanced Western nations represent all the opportunities and material benefits that one could want—opportunities that are unavailable in their own country. The prosperity is envied, the life-style emulated. The opportunity for higher education is set in front of virtually every student as a passport to advancement and success. Against such a background it is not hard to understand why the social programs of the foreign churches have had such a strong appeal in these countries. But what are the results?
In the Orient, for example, the willingness of the people to do just about anything the churches require in order to qualify for the gifts or handouts has given rise to the contemptuous label “rice Christians.” The saddest part, of course, is that when such relief or support stops, so does the interest of the people. Many of the rice Christians simply vanish from the scene. Thus, among the Cantonese, there is a popular saying that translates into something like this: “God loves the world, but the world loves powdered milk.”
Although most church groups no longer operate relief programs, except perhaps during times of disaster, what happened in the past has left its mark. To many Orientals, churches are synonymous with charitable organizations, and the only reason to go to church is to get, not to give. They see no need to make any personal sacrifice for the church. This attitude is shown, for example, in their reluctance to contribute for Bible literature because, in their minds, something produced by a church should be free.
Using the church as a means to an end is most readily seen in the field of education. In many developing countries, to gain a Western-style education is viewed as a sure way to fame and success. According to one source, at the time of India’s gaining independence from Britain, 85 percent of that nation’s members of parliament had attended “Christian schools.” And, according to Confucian ideals, in the Far East, to be well educated is one of the highest goals in life. Naturally, many look to the church schools, which generally use Western methods and standards, as a means for self-advancement. And, hoping to get their children into one of the church-run schools and perhaps overseas later, many Oriental parents who normally follow the traditional religions happily go to church themselves and urge their children to do the same.
What Is the Fruitage?
Compared with the churches back home, the mission churches are usually well attended. Many people are thus introduced to church teachings and to some concept of Christianity. But has this exposure helped them to understand the Bible and its message? Has it really made them Christians, that is, followers of Jesus Christ?
Take, for instance, Kuo Tung, the young man mentioned earlier. When asked whether he now believed in God after having attended church for some time, he replied: “No. Proof that God exists was never discussed.” In fact, he admitted that he was not sure if any of his friends believed in a personal God, even though they had been attending church with him. They went along merely for the opportunity to learn English, he said.
Another young man came home for vacation from college in the United States. When one of Jehovah’s Witnesses called on him, he asked if the Witnesses hold their meetings in English. Why? “So I can keep up with my English,” he said. When he was told that the meetings were held in the local language so that all could benefit spiritually, the young man said he would go where English meetings were held twice a week.
Even those who have become church members and have been baptized show little change in their outlook. Many of them still cling to their former beliefs or practices, often with the approval, if not also the blessing, of their church. In China, for example, Roman Catholics are allowed to continue their ancestor worship, although this is forbidden elsewhere. Plaques beseeching the blessing of the door god are often seen around doorways of “Christian” homes. And in Okinawa, animal depictions of native gods are put on roof corners to protect the family.
What about those who have benefited from the church programs? In their newfound financial and material security, it is not uncommon to hear them say that the answer to today’s problems is to rely on oneself. The result is that many of them have either totally separated themselves from any church involvement or, at best, kept themselves at a respectable distance.
Missionaries of the churches have had many fine opportunities to instruct the people in what the Bible teaches. But rather than teaching them to follow Jesus’ admonition to “keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you,” they have placed the emphasis on the “other things.” (Matthew 6:33) Through their social programs, they have done much to help people physically, medically, and educationally, but the benefits are primarily of a temporal kind. Without providing a spiritual outlook, frequently such programs only become an incentive to strive for more temporal, or worldly, advantages.
The churches set out to preach the gospel. But what has resulted, in many instances, is the promotion of the Western, materialistic way of life. Yes, they have gained many converts. But as we have seen, many of these have turned out to be more worldly and materially inclined than ever. In Jesus’ day, he said of religious leaders: “You traverse sea and dry land to make one proselyte, and when he becomes one you make him a subject for Gehenna twice as much so as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15) In this sense, Christendom’s effort in preaching the gospel through social means has backfired. It has fallen far short of the great commission given by Jesus Christ: “Go therefore and make disciples of people of all the nations, . . . teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded you.”—Matthew 28:19, 20.