The Good Samaritan story begins with a question by an expert in religious law – likely a leader in a church – about the first and greatest commandment. In response to his follow-up question, Jesus defines the man’s “neighbor” not as someone who goes to his church, but a random stranger. The first person to pass by the beaten robbery victim was a pastor, presumably hastening off to take care of his responsibilities at the church. The second person to step over the wounded, suffering man was a church staff member – likely also heading back to work.
When church leaders in the story failed to take responsibility for helping someone clearly in dire need, a non-believing Samaritan (someone church leaders in those days disliked and avoided) stepped in to show compassion.
Jesus could have used anyone as an example in that story of what not to do. Why did He choose a pastor and a church worker?
He could have chosen anyone as an example of what to do. Why did He choose a person reviled by the religious establishment?
It appears Jesus crafted the Good Samaritan story to speak directly to His questioner – a church leader. Jesus appeared to be cautioning churches against simply taking care of their own and not showing compassion to those around them.
For the past few weeks, we’ve been discussing objections many church leaders use for not engaging more in serving their communities. We covered the common Perception that action and evangelism is an either/or decision. Next we showed how a church’s Purpose is to Transform and Release rather than Attract and Retain. Today we’ll delve into Priority – the emphasis churches place on taking care of their own versus those outside the church…
The Priority Paradox
Galations 6:10 tells us “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” That verse clearly says to take care of our Christian brothers first. However, at first glance the Good Samaritan parable seems to say the opposite – stop to take care of others on the way to church. So does the warning Jesus issued to church leaders who took money they could have used to help their aging and ailing parents and instead gave it to their church.
How do we reconcile Paul’s command to take care of fellow church members first with Jesus’ repeated cautions that He “desires compassion” (even for those outside the Church) “more than sacrifice” (e.g. obligations inside the church)?
One point of reconciliation is the overwhelming emphasis of Jesus and Paul on relationships versus religion – people versus principles. Caring for ALL people (Christians and non-Christians alike) is far more important than caring for responsibilities within the church. In that case, shouldn’t church leaders and members today be more focused and aggressive in pursuit of the church’s Biblical “customer” – the hurting and lost in their communities?
How Churches Set Priorities
How a church defines itself and its “customer” establishes its priorities…
The mere concept that the potential exists for church leaders to “cater” to members (to keep them from leaving) implicitly defines those pastors and staff as the church (“insiders”) and members as “outsiders” (i.e. “customers”). However, we all believe deep down what so many pastors often say (yet too infrequently live out) – that members ARE the church (“insiders”). Members can’t be both the definition of Church and also its “customer”. Someone else has to be the “customer” – those who churches should invest the bulk of their time, energy and money to pursue and retain. By that standard, Jesus, His disciples and the early church clearly saw the poor, hungry and lost as their target “customers”.
A church that has defined the wrong “customer” will quickly lose sight of the need to show compassion to those outside the church. In other words, if church leaders prioritize institution building over disciple building, they run the risk of becoming the pastor and church worker in the Good Samaritan parable. It’s a slippery slope. Those in churches that don’t see the hopeless and helpless as their “customer” can unwittingly develop the tunnel vision it takes to do the unthinkable – step over them on their way to do “church chores”.
In the Good Samaritan parable, you have a recipe for disaster – a church that has as its highest priority caring for its own while at the same time seen by outsiders as condemning anyone who isn’t one of its own. Doesn’t that fairly accurately portray the current state of the church in America? How many homosexuals feel welcome by the Church and would dare venture into one?
Jesus accuses the church of that double-standard by specifically inserting a hated Samaritan as the “good guy” in the story – and church workers as the ones who kept walking on the other side of the road. The moral is that if people who churches considered “heathens” had the decency to stop and help, shouldn’t the church do the same? Moreover, the Good Samaritan did all that for someone who labeled him a “heathen”, turning the other cheek.
Jesus told that parable as instruction for not just the first century church, but for the church today. Pastors and church workers should prioritize compassion toward all “neighbors” (even those who want nothing to do with church) above responsibilities within the church – to stop and help rather than pass by and miss the opportunity to be Jesus to them. Churches should serve the community where they are planted, reaching out to even its most alienated “neighbors” as Jesus did – using loving acts of service to demonstrate His love and then telling them who He is.
And that is what the Church did for 1900 years – and it experienced exponential growth. It’s no coincidence that the growth of the Church in America has slowed to a crawl now that churches no longer reside on the front lines of compassion. Most non-Christians no longer believe churches care so they don’t care what we have to say. Our commentaries on society sound to them like condemnation and our preaching sounds like proselytizing. They fall on deaf ears.
How to Reset Your Priorities
- Realize that the secret to church revitalization is not a program or a process – it’s your priorities!!
- Redefine and truly treat members as the “church” – not meaning less investment in them but different investments in them. Rather than worrying about whether they’ll come back next Sunday, prepare and equip them to BE the church to “customers” who have felt ignored by churches for far too long.
- Take care of fellow believers as the top priority but commit greater church resources to meeting the material and spiritual needs of the community and world. A rule of thumb is to care for churchgoers when they’re in need and challenge them to care for others when they’re not.
- Understand that caring for one another within the church first presumes but does not supplant the Great Commission or second half of the Great Commandment. In other words, let us love each other in the church but make sure that love bleeds out into the streets so it truly will attract our “neighbors” around us.
- Measure church health by the number of churchgoers living a Prayer-Care-Share lifestyle – not stopping at compassion but maximizing Kingdom impact by openly sharing their love for the Lord