Four Diagnostic Questions for the American Church

If anything is clear in the book of James, it’s that he really wants to make sure his audience understands the gospel. The gospel isn’t merely an inward transformation, it’s an outward proclamation, meant to shine through in word, but also in deed. For James, a believer whose life isn’t changed in day-to-day actions isn’t a believer at all.

This transformation is shown in our generosity of spirit toward others—whether that’s accepting those who are different, receiving those with troubled pasts, or sharing resources with those who don’t have them. Reading James, I’m struck that if he were to show up in our churches today, he’d probably have just as much fire in his bones as he did in the first century. I imagine James asking us four scathing questions, all of them revolving around our interactions with the “least of these.”

1. In what ways are we personally involved with the poor?

There’s a haunting parable in Matthew 25, where Jesus personally identifies with those who are poor, hungry, sick, and imprisoned. “The way you cared for these people,” Jesus says, “is the way you cared for me.” And the reverse is also, frighteningly, true: If we ignore the poor, hungry, sick, and imprisoned among us, we’re not just ignoring the down and out. We’re ignoring Jesus himself.

If Matthew 25 happened tonight and Jesus returned, what would we hear from him? Would we know without a doubt that we clothed and fed those who had need around us? Would he say to us, “You saw me in the least of these and loved me well”? Or would he say, “You scorned me and treated me like a nuisance”?

2. How many of our ministries are focused on those who can’t pay us back?

A lot of ministries focus on bringing people into the church, then encouraging those people to contribute financially to keep the ministry going. And while those ministries can be good and are certainly necessary to some extent, what about those who have no means to return what has been given to them?

Are we going into the prisons, caring for the single parents, planting churches in desolate areas as well as affluent ones? Our ministries shouldn’t be driven by financial bottom lines. If we can’t identify one—or, hopefully, many—ministries that cost us more money than they bring in, we’re not doing ministry Jesus’ way.

3. How quickly do we identify and reach out to disconnected people in the church?

There’s something powerful in showing love to someone the world says isn’t worthy of love. The church should be this place more than anywhere else. But is that truly our experience? Are we quick to find the lone one in our seats and invite them in? Or do we pass them by? Rebecca McLaughlin likes to say that “an alone person in church is an emergency.” I wonder what our worship gatherings would look like if we took that seriously.

4. How quickly do we embrace people of questionable circumstances?

If someone doesn’t fit our profile or pedigree, do we keep our distance? Or do we invite them into our small group, our home?

Think about the woman at the well in John 4. Jesus had every reason to move on from her—the rest of society certainly had—yet he approached her and showed compassion to her, and the encounter changed her life. He could have made assumptions about her based on her past. He could have kept his distance just to be sure. But that’s not how he did it. He saw her history and he moved toward her anyway.

Christianity is supposed to be good news—not good news for the winners, or good news for the rich. But good news for everyone. Does it feel that way in the church?

What needs to change in your church so it does?