In local outreach and community ministry, we prioritize demonstrating the gospel in deed and proclaiming the gospel in word. Our initiatives and projects are designed to demonstrate God’s love as a crucial part of the message, but they are also designed to build relationships with people who are far from God so he can draw them to himself.
Local outreach is not our public relations project. It’s not our way of creating goodwill in the community or forging partnerships with the city, though of course we want both of those things! At the core, local outreach is about taking the gospel to the people God commanded us to go to (everyone) who live in places we don’t (homeless shelters, prisons, etc.). If we leave the proclamation up to another ministry, we’ve gutted our ministry of God’s power for transformation in our city and opened ourselves to doing more harm than good.
If we avoid proclamation, we’re leaving it up to people to infer the gospel from our actions. That’s just not how the Bible teaches us that people will believe in God. Paul says in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (ESV). Big, bold deeds of love and service certainly cause people to ask questions about God, but they don’t provide answers. The answers to those questions are only found in the Word of God.
Focusing solely on good deeds also leads us dangerously close to what Jesus warned against in Matthew 6:1. He tells us to “beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” Proclaiming the gospel with words guards us against this pitfall, because there’s no way people can hear that message and give us the credit instead of God.
Deed-centric ministry runs the risk of communicating (even unintentionally) that God primarily cares that people have more stuff, not that they have a relationship with him. Materialism isn’t limited to rich people, and many service programs simply produce very poor materialists. God may use the pain of homelessness or prison to call a person to himself, and we should never obscure God by helping them to overcome their earthly problem without also pointing to the eternal solution.