Southern Baptist Disaster Relief is the third-largest disaster relief organization in the United States of America. Normally people don't crow about the bronze medal, but consider who comes in ahead of us: The American Red Cross (ARC) and The Salvation Army (TSA). Disaster relief items get top billing for those two groups, while for Southern Baptists it is decidedly secondary to the propagation of New Testament churches. Still, can you imagine ARC or TSA being on the receiving end of the tongue-wagging, finger-pointing lectures that Southern Baptist conservatives receive about not caring for hurting people, all while we're dishing out upwards of 90% of the meals that ARC feeds people in disaster situations? I don't think so.Poverty Assistance
Yesterday, while I was at the dedication of a new disaster relief unit, teams from FBC Farmersville were making repairs to the houses of two impoverished families in our community. Of course, this will slip entirely under the public radar (OK, except for this blog post). The government had no role in it, so it will not appear in their statistics. We did not alert the media to come take pictures of us being generous. In a very "Matthew 6" kind of way, we quietly and simply went about doing good.
I do see changes in the way that Southern Baptist churches assist the poor—changes reflective of overall shifts in our ecclesiological paradigm. Once upon a time with regard to missions, benevolence, etc., our paradigm was more-or-less to invite people to pay for someone else to do it. Now, although we still collect money, individual church members desire to be more involved hands-on: thus, the kind of event we had on Saturday.
Polls have indicated that conservative evangelicals are among the most generous people on earth. Southern Baptists fit into that category for these purposes. But, because Congress didn't get to vote on things like our ministry on Saturday and because nobody's political coalition got to take credit for it, people chastise Southern Baptists as though this kind of ministry were not going on every week across the nation.The Eternal Gospel
Of course, I'll grant that the Southern Baptist apparatus emphasizes evangelism over the meeting of physical needs. That's exactly how things ought to be, and I will not apologize for it. If a person is going to Hell, it matters not whether he goes from a neat little Habitat house or a slumlord tenament. Southern Baptists perform a lot of ministry to physical needs, but such ministry is subservient to our efforts to share the gospel.
Ben Cole has observed on his blog:
If Southern Baptists would commit to issues of social justice with the same rallying cry that founded the Cooperative Program for the task of world missions — namely that we can do more together than we can apart — we might find the good and pleasant blessing promised of God when brothers dwell together in unity.
I'm glad that Ben has a heart for helping people. We all benefit from that spirit. But Southern Baptists are already committed to appropriate issues of social justice. I don't know that our approach has been any less effective than LBJ's forty-year-and-counting War on Poverty and whatever else the government is doing to address "issues of social justice." The image of Southern Baptists as disengaged from the plight of hurting people is simply unfounded, unsubstantiated liberal stereotyping (i.e. liberals are the origin of it, whoever may be repeating it). And one can understand the need for the stereotype, because if liberals cannot convince themselves that they are the more-enlightened, more-compassionate among us, then what do they have left?
I'm all in favor of us doing more. Let's become #1 in Disaster Relief. Let our churches be even more involved in ministering to physical needs. But frankly, I agree with Nathan Finn that our greatest need for improvement is in the area of sharing the eternal gospel, not the social gospel. I'll guarantee you that a good number of the people working on houses for us yesterday have never personally presented the gospel of Jesus Christ to anyone. But we're working on that.
Now I'll be accused of "triumphalism." :-)