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home arrow stories, articles, insights arrow stories & blogs arrow Only A Full Gospel will Save Bolivian Children
Only A Full Gospel will Save Bolivian Children
Written by soulster   
Friday, 28 September 2007

Here's a feisty one!A couple of days ago I was invited to go to Harvest ‘07, a Greg Laurie evangelistic campaign in Madison Square Garden with Mercy Me and Jeremy Camp. I don’t usually go to those things since I’m not exactly their target audience, but a friend had a couple of tickets and I thought, “hey, why not?”

I met my friend and two people he was bringing on the Path train from NJ into NYC. One of these was Kimberley Setzer, Director of Communications for Nios Con Valor, a non-profit working with street kids, prostitutes, orphans, and HIV+ mothers and children in Bolivia. As the poorest country in South America, Bolivia’s indigenous majority has suffered years of economic hardship and oppression. They are hungry for the power they have long been denied, and why little is being done to address the astounding social problems created by poverty and corruption, a civil war is brewing over who will decide Bolivia’s future and reap the benefits of its recently nationalized natural gas resources.

In this context, Kimberly and others like her are launching brave projects to care for the casualties of Bolivia’s struggling civilization. This is the practice of pure religion, according to James: to care for orphan’s and widows in their time of need. As Kimberly talked about riots, hanging out with glue-sniffing (huffing) boys at the bus terminal, kids disappearing after police and social services raids, and the rejection of HIV+ moms and babies by almost everyone, I couldn’t help but think that she and her mission are the real Jesus deal.

Our conversation was cut off as the bands started playing. Jeremy Camp and Mercy Me both play a poppy worship style music, the later much more pop and worship-oriented. The lack of jumping around and going crazy in the audience either signified that it wasn’t the kind of music to get New Yorkers excited or that everyone knew they were in a church service and should raise their hands rather than get down.

When Greg Laurie delivered the message, he began with stories and jokes about how stressed out New Yorkers are. Then he told us that Jesus wants to take care of our stress, but that our sin prevents us from getting his help. He announced that Jesus died to remove our sins so we can have the relaxing assurance of heaven and get God’s help for our hectic lives. Several hundred people came forward at the “altar call” and prayed a version of the Sinner’s Prayer, after which they received a free New Testament and a guarantee that they could now go to heaven.

Back on the train on the way home Kimberly and I talked more. She told me that people just aren’t very interested in the kind of work she’s doing. Many look at these marginal people as beyond hope, especially if they carry the “death sentence” of HIV. Even if people are interested, there’s just not that much money out there. Most American Christians give 2% of their income or less to the church or any kind of charity and 98% of the total of American giving goes to maintain churches and programs that serve ourselves. This leaves only a small high-giving minority to fund the advancement of the Kingdom (like the businessman whose considering funding one of their projects — you go dude!). Sure people are tired of giving to the always-hungry institutions of the church that might spend the cask in questionable ways, but who could criticize the worthiness or immediacy of Kimberly’s work?

Their stop was coming up on the train, so we said goodbye and parted ways. On the walk home from the train station Kimberly’s words haunted me. I couldn’t help but feel that the shortage of help for worthy causes begins in messages like Greg’s. If it’s all about you getting a get-out-of-hell free card and free assistance with the busyness you’ve created in pursuit of more for praying a simple prayer, it’s not hard to see why helping Bolivians isn’t much on your radar. Really, it reduces the Gospel to a salvation sweepstakes where anyone can get the prise for filling out a card and getting on God’s mail list. Who wouldn’t want that? But no wonder there is such a disconnect between being a Christian and join the mission of Jesus — the original definition of discipleship.

It’s awfully hard to criticize someone who seems so successful. Greg’s church is way bigger than any I’ve worked with. He’s had massive campaigns, huge numbers of responses, been on TV, published books, etc. I’m tempted to dismiss my discomfort with his message with statements like “at least so many people are coming to Jesus.” But are they?

The Jesus of the Bible never really used a formula like Greg’s. His message was “the Kingdom of God is coming” and salvation from sins was a result of that. The implication was that joining the Kingdom and accepting the King was the point, and that one result would be the salvation from our dysfunction personal and corporate. When the Bible does talk about Jesus saving people from their sins (see Mt 1:21; John 8:21-59), it speaks mostly in communal terms. In context, salvation meant rescue from how the people had screwed up themselves and each other through idolatry and injustice. It did mean rescue from the temporal and eternal consequences of our behavior, but it also meant wholesale engagement in the righteousness of God expressed as his mission to redeem and save the world from the mess we’ve created. It’s not that Greg isn’t preaching the gospel or telling people about Jesus. The problem is, he’s only telling them part of the story and selling a one-sided Jesus. A full Gospel begins with what God is doing with the human race at large and only then reduces to personal implications. Biblically, these implications are much more than a consumeristic “product” of the benefits of belief or a gospel of moralism.

Saying to ourselves that this can be added later “once people are in church” isn’t true or real. Weeds grow as easily in soil as does the full Gospel, but whether it is a weed or the Gospel depends on the seed itself. A weaker gospel is a vaccine for a stronger one, preventing our sin-self to be infected with harder and deeper truth. Jesus and Paul knew this and both warned about seeds that only contained part of the truth.

Beyond scripture, we should question whether this is working. While 60% of church members describe themselves as leaders and claim to be involved, 4 out of 5 are really followers waiting for someone else to do it or tell them what to do. We’re underestimating the power of our selfishness when we think that we can sell a personal upside of the Gospel at first, and add the expensive downside of Christian responsibility later. Want proof? Several studies have found that the longer someone goes to church, the less they engage our hurting world and the more they are involved in service for the churched [see this and Robert Banks, Redeeming the Routines, Brigdepoint, 1997]. Practically speaking, our presentation of a gospel that is personal first and mostly about dealing with sin prepares people for membership in a personally enriching moral organization, but not radical mission.

The point is this: The only thing that will save Bolivian street children is a full Gospel for us in America. Only when we elevate the call of Jesus to follow, not to simply accept what he offers, will we be willing to leverage our great wealth and power for the benefit of “the least of these”. Some of those saved from death, starvation, drug abuse, and cycles of violence will see in this a Gospel worth having. Beyond selling a moralism to those who think they must be immoral to survive, we will call them to rise up subversively against the powers that have struck them down and overturn everything that stands in opposition to the Reality of God.

By the way, a good start would be to practice regular and generous giving to groups like Nios Con Valor.

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