From governments to businesses to social clubs, people around the world have organized into groups for centuries to pull their resources together in an attempt to alleviate poverty and suffering. The question is, which institutions are best equipped to promote human flourishing? In a world marred by sin and brokenness, where should we place our hope?
THE CREATION OF GOD’S PEOPLE
In the book of Exodus, God’s presence manifests itself in the tabernacle - a place on earth where God dwelled among the Israelites. As one writer puts it, the tabernacle was “a glimpse of the kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of this world. It was a taste of the Garden of Eden that went with them from place to place.”
Things changed when Jesus entered the scene, perfectly embodying God’s presence on Earth. After he lives a sinless life, is crucified, and resurrected, Christ says that God will now dwell (or tabernacle) within believers themselves. He tells his disciples that after he leaves, the Father “will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17). This is a powerful truth with enormous weight - the Holy Spirit - God Himself - lives within each and every Christian! The God that made all of Creation and holds the universe together now permanently resides in the hearts of all whom acknowledge Him as Lord and Savior.
In speaking on the result of the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Bill Gorman of Christ Community Church Kansas City writes:
“The kind of character that results when the Holy Spirit arises in us is marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Communities saturated with people marked by these kinds of character traits cannot help but flourish. The local church as God designed it is the hope of the world.”
Jesus doesn’t simply leave the Holy Spirit to indwell individual Christians as they learn to navigate the world alone. Rather, Jesus gives both the Holy Spirit, and the community of faith, called the church, to care for one another and represent his kingdom here one earth. The mark of God’s people is their love for God, each other, and their neighbors.
THE WITNESS OF THE EARLY CHURCH
In Matthew 5, we see Jesus tell his followers they are to be two things: “salt” and “light.” As salt preserves the food we eat and enhances its flavor, Christians are to preserve what is good and right in the world as well as enhance it by pursuing peace and justice. “In the same way,” Christian, you are to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (5:16).
Men, women, and children in the church of Acts, indwelled by the Holy Spirit, took this charge to heart. In fact, “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need” (Acts 4:33-35). While Christians have a special obligation to other Christ-followers that are hurting, they are also to “do good to all people” as the opportunity arises (Galatians 6:10).
Even in incredibly difficult circumstances, early Christians laid down their lives to demonstrate this Christlike love. In Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society, Byzantine scholar Rev. Demetrios J. Constantelos describes the extent to which these believers served others:
“[I]n the early Christian societies of both the Greek East and the Latin West, philanthropia [love for mankind] assumed an integrated and far-reaching meaning, its application directed to the humblest and the poorest. Philanthropia extended to the underprivileged, as it proclaimed freedom, equality, and brotherhood, transcending sex, race, and national boundaries. Thus it was not limited to equals, allies, or relatives, or to citizens and civilized men, as was most often the case in other ancient societies.” (p. 203)
In 361 AD, Roman Emperor Julian, a powerful leader hostile to the Christian movement, commented on the unmistakable charity of those who followed Jesus. “It is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.
THE 21ST CENTURY CHURCH
The same Holy Spirit that hovered over the waters in Genesis 1 and indwelt the apostles empowers each and every believer today. The beliefs Christians hold are to shape every aspect of their lives – how they treat others, where their money should go, what type of work they should pursue. These beliefs inform how they see themselves, God, and those around them. Charles Spurgeon describes the role of the Church well in an 1863 sermon titled “The Church Is the World’s Hope”:
“Why does He not send an express chariot to take them at once to heaven? There is no necessity for saints being on earth that I know of, except for the good of their fellow men...Why do we stay here, then, at all, but that we may be salt in the midst of putrefaction—light in the midst of darkness—life in the midst of death? The Church is the world’s hope... we must not marvel, being here for this very purpose, if Christ does throw us, like a handful of salt, just where the putrefaction is the worst; or if He should cast us, as He has often done with His saints before, where our influence is most needed.”
The Church is called to deliver holistic care to the poor and the marginalized by meeting economic, social, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. No other institution on earth is equipped to provide this kind of support - and even those outside the faith can’t help but concede this is true. Matthew Parris, a contributor to the London Times, wrote a 2008 piece titled, “As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God.” He elaborates on the spirit Christian humanitarians bring with them to villages across the continent:
“Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in African life. They stood tall.”
There is no doubt that the Church has missed the mark on demonstrating how we are the hope of the world throughout human history. At times, the institution has been hijacked to exploit and oppress the very ones she has been called to serve. Because the Church remains comprised of broken people, we will often fail to act and love like we should. However, the head of the Church - Jesus Himself - will not let her fall. He continues to love her, shape her, and lead her to bring God’s kingdom and restoration down to a world that “has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22).
I am the lead data and research analyst with The For the City Network and joined the team in February 2018. I help volunteers, pastors, nonprofit leaders, and business professionals better understand the characteristics and dynamics of their communities so that they can more effectively pursue human flourishing together. I earned my master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Texas - Austin and continue to live in North Austin.