My first response to that question is to seek out and share more stories about how lives are being changed and, yes, saved, because of the work we have done. We are seeking more of these types of stories from those who work in the field and can tell us about how and where the word of God is being planted and bearing fruit through the work we are doing with Imagine No Malaria.
My second response is to push back against the divide between the good news and good works. The book of James reminds us they are like two sides of the same coin, that we can’t have faith without works. Matthew 25 reminds us that our faithful response is to care for the least of these. The good news Jesus preached was about more than simply eternal salvation – it was about release for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind. It was both now and later. Salvation is already and not yet. When we share food and shelter and health with those who do not have them, we are sharing the gospel… we are showing them that God loves them, that we love them, and that we love because we were first loved. We begin the relationship that plants seeds and waters sprouts and eventually bears fruit.
One reality of our missionary work over the last 160 years in Africa is that we have often built churches and clinics and schools side-by-side. We have not necessarily made strict separations between good works and good news… they are one and the same. We are focused on saving lives in all sorts of ways – through a relationship with Jesus, through literacy, through health, through empowerment, through justice, through hope, through the scriptures, through systematic change.
Today, I came across this blog post from a young man who I believe helps to put into words what has been on the tip of my tongue… when we heal the sick and empower the poor and are in relationship with those who are struggling – we aren’t just sharing the gospel, we are living it, we are making it known, and others will see.
I encourage you to read Greg’s story here, but the highlights for me and for our work:
…What is more important is to communicate the message of our faith, the Gospel (hint: it’s about more than just being a sinner).
But unfortunately, we haven’t been taught how to communicate the Gospel. We’ve been taught how to lead Bible studies and have fellowship, how to run prayer meetings, and draw the bridge diagram.
But we haven’t learned to communicate the Gospel.
Why do I say this? Because the Gospel is not only communicated through words, but also how we live our lives. And when I was faced with the opportunity to live according to the Gospel, I felt obligated to abandon it on the street, on my way to being a good Bible study leader…
…So that’s why I quit being a Bible study leader. Not because it’s the wrong thing to be, but because it kept me too busy to do the right thing. Because while I participated dutifully in Christian activities, a homeless man sat outside in the cold and ate popcorn. Because Shane Claiborne reminded me that Jesus would have quit being a Bible study leader too, to sit alongside that man, if for no other reason than to ask him his name and eat popcorn together.
And because Eboo Patel taught me that you don’t have to do that alone. Even if you’re the only Christian eating popcorn with a homeless man while your fellow believers sing songs and socialize upstairs, if you invite them, there are Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Jains, and Buddhists who will join you. And the funny thing is that authentic dialogue begins to happen in these sorts of situations – you build relationships and you share stories, simply because you all agree that no one should have to eat popcorn alone in the cold.
And even though you might not observe the conversion experience your evangelism training taught you to expect, your actions have communicated something deeper than your words, and your stories have taken on fuller meaning. And there’s a good chance that you’ve convinced them all of something about the Gospel.
Our work on the ground is often done in partnership with other faith communities who share our concern for saving lives. In a story written in 2010 about our work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sheikh Usseni Faray talked about the importance of local congregations standing together in this work:
Government can only start things once and they stop. But us, we are the community representing the people, and we preach and work with the people all the time. So if they keep the church people involved, I think it will be a lasting program and many people will benefit.
We do these good works because we are people of faith and because Jesus sends us out to heal the sick and preach the gospel. That gospel is shared through our actions, through every dollar we raise, through every net that is hung in a home, through every relationship built, and every life that is given a reason to hope. Sometimes we are speaking and singing and praising the name of Jesus. Sometimes we are simply present. And sometimes that is enough.
Photo: (top) in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. (right) A United Methodist church choir welcomes visitors to Kamina, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A delegation of United Methodist church leaders and public health workers visited Kamina in observance of World Malaria Day. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.