The worldwide Christian church is called to participate in social ministry in the ways of charity and justice work. In Matthew 25, Jesus stated that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” Throughout Jesus’ ministry, there were many stories of him healing and spending time with those who were outcasted or looked down upon in society whether it was people with leprosy, tax collectors or beggars. I’m not here to talk about the importance of social ministry or why the church should participate in it though. I believe that how the church participates in social ministry is perhaps just as important as the actual actions it entails.
This past semester and summer I spent my time at a nonprofit that commits to doing relational work with Denver’s unhoused teens and young adults. Despite being a Christian organization, they do not focus upon proselytizing. Why is this? Surely saving souls should be the main work of the church and Christians, right? Perhaps, but maybe a good question to ask alongside of that one is this; does proselytizing prevent the church from investing further into social ministry?
Many of my unhoused friends have experienced trauma from the church or people who profess to be followers of Christ. They have been told that they are not welcome in certain church communities, been blamed for the situation they are in because of sin and received many other implicit or explicit messages. If social ministry and the offering of resources is only given if directly connected to converting people to Christianity, many people who may want and need help may choose not to accept it. The idea that ‘we will only love you if…’ can quite easily sink in. Church trauma can run deep and even if a certain church or individual has not harmed someone in that capacity, that connection to Christianity is still present.
People who are living under the oppressive thumb of injustice need people who are able to stand up for justice in their lives, but can our hearts fully be open to people who do not want anything to do with Christianity? Are we truly living into the spirit of charity and justice if we only allow ourselves to do so if we can convert someone? I am not saying that we should not share our faith with those who have been outcasted by society, but I do believe we need to reflect on if we are willing to serve others even if those we are serving do not think and look like us.
Proselytizing in social ministry is not harmful, but it can be if it leads to a lack of empathy or lack of giving/receiving of support to and for those who are not Christian and do not want to have anything to do with Christianity. If social ministry is indeed a way to spread Christianity, then time, energy and resources should be placed first to meet the direct physical needs of those who are being served and build a trust necessary to share one’s faith.