While on one hand I do understand that (evangelical churches naturally feel that evangelism is important...and I agree). On the other hand I think that simply meeting these physical and material needs IS evangelism.
Matthew 25: 31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (emphasis mine)Meeting needs of clothing, healthcare, hygiene, and transportation for "the least of these" is important ministry first and foremost, but it is also a type of evangelism because it involves sharing the love of Christ. Maybe not in words, but in actions. The importance of these actions, that result from an inner life of faith and love to Christ, are mentioned throughout the New Testament, e.g., love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31), evidence of discipleship is love for one another (John 13:35). And while I am a big fan of verbal evangelism as well, I am very much opposed to much of the Christian "bait and switch" that goes on in many churches. You know the big, free community event that is advertised as a community cook-out or a free clothing drive, then when people come they are given a Jesus hard-sell and pressured to come to Christ. All they were coming for was a hamburger or new-to-them school clothes for their kids and now they feel confused, embarrassed, and beholden...as well as duped.
There is a time and place for tough conversations and discussions of personal faith issues in a evangelical faith community certainly. I personally believe that relational evangelism with friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family is the place for those discussions as I am not a big fan of "cold call" or street evangelism for many reasons that I won't go into here. However, I think we also sometimes minimize the work of the Holy Spirit through simple acts of kindness and love to others. Just helping someone get a painful cavity filled for free is a huge ministry and I think Jesus is very much glorified by that. Looking a homeless man in the eye and saying his name without judgment as you serve him a meal is loving Jesus. Sometimes that is enough. For now.
I was reminded of these things this weekend. We have a Spanish and ESL teacher, Natalie, in our church who worked with a lot of children of migrant workers in summer school. She started talking with Robert about these kids and a group from church ended up taking a group and teaching them how to play disc golf. Through our association we have access to a block party trailer that contains bouncy castles, a popcorn machine, a snow cone machine, and other goodies. We decided to get that and host a block party for the migrant worker families.
Migrant workers in the US are certainly among "the least of these" according to the general population. Many migrant workers live below the poverty level, but because of the transient nature of their work, they are often ineligible to take advantage of programs to help those in poverty like food stamps, welfare, and Medicaid, even though they pay taxes and social security. Although approximately 77% of migrant workers are Mexican born, they are here legally, but remain the subject of racial profiling, prejudice, and suspicion. You can read more about them here, here, and here. Due to the impetus of Natalie our church set on a mission to celebrate and esteem them so we threw them a party.
We had a good group of kids of all ages, but mostly teenagers, attend. I was kind of surprised and a bit disappointed that none of their parents came until I found out why...they were all at work. Migrant workers often work 7 days a week and don't have a lot of workers' rights like 8 hour days, weekends off, or workman's compensation for injury. While I talked with a lot of different kids, I spent the most time talking to Frank/Francisco, a charming and well-spoken 14-year-old 8th grader whose favorite subject is math. He told me how they all live in south Texas near the Mexico border from December-June and then return to Wisconsin every June so the parents can work at farms and the local Del Monte plant down the road from my house. He has his Texas school and his Wisconsin school and the two schools coordinate his education. He is two grade levels ahead in math and the schools are collaborating to keep him caught up with each other. He has two sets of friends: Texas friends and Wisconsin friends, in addition to the cousins, siblings, and friends who migrant between the two. He has been a migrant kid since he was two years old and it's the only life he's ever known.
So we had a party. These people aren't prospects for our church because they live in a Wisconsin community 15 miles away from our church 6 months of the year and the other 6 months they are in Texas. Unlike VBS or big church community events, we didn't have them fill out contact cards so we can count them in any numbers or encourage them to attend our church. We just simply spent time with them, fed them, ate with them, played with them, talked with them, and had a good time.
Nothing in return.
I'm pretty confident that Jesus was there in our midst and that He had a good time too.