“You may be all the Gospel your neighbor will ever read.”
— Saint Francis of Assisi
As a certified theater nerd, I spent a lot of my college days pinning up flyers advertising our department’s shows. Invariably, after a show was over, people would say, “When was that? I didn’t hear anything about it.”
I would want to tear my hair out. We put up a gazillion flyers! It was in the campus paper! It was in the city paper!
What really stung is that whenever the student planning board managed to hire as famous a band as we could afford for a concert, everyone knew about that.
I learned an in important life lesson here: People don’t see what they aren’t looking for. If they aren’t looking for what’s happening in the campus theater, they will not see any number of flyers or newspaper articles about it.
This isn’t evil, of course; it’s just human nature. And it doesn’t only apply to entertainment.
I can tell my anti-Christian friends about a fellow Third Order Franciscan—a police detective and ordained deacon—who spends his weekends administering Narcan to the homeless. (And I do.)
I can tell them about a church in a blighted Philadelphia neighborhood that grows hundreds of pounds of free, fresh fruits and vegetables for the hungry each year. (I do that, too.)
When people scream, “Tax the churches!” because they are angry about Roe being overturned, I can say, “including those two local parishes that are being fined by their city for feeding the hungry?” When they say, “Churches should keep their noses out of politics!”, I can ask, “Should Martin Luther King, Jr. have done that?”
None of it will matter. If people aren’t looking for God’s love at work in the churches, they won’t see it, no matter how often we draw their attention to it.
The only way to change the world’s mind about the Gospel is to remember, as Saint Francis said, that each of us may be all of it their neighbor will ever read. Only people they see every day, inviting them to imagine a different kind of world with a different kind of Lord, can influence what people see by changing what they look for.
Saint Francis also told us to “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” When we have a critical mass of Christians who are willing to do that, people will stop looking only for political oppression in the churches. Only by being Jesus’ “city on a Hill,” willing to witness by our deeds to the love of God, can the people of God “let (our) light shine before others, that they may see (our) good deeds and glorify (our) Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14,16). Because a city on a hill “cannot be hidden,” even from a world that isn’t looking for it.
Only through our continuous “doing of the Word” (see James 1:22)—our quiet perseverance in reaching out to the hurting, offering shelter and hospitality to the lost, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked—can we lead people to begin to imagine a church that puts the Reign of God where it belongs: “among us.” (Luke 17:21). Only then can we supplant the passive entertainment of the mega-churches with a collaborative faith in which everyone has a role to play.
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