At some point, many of us go through a “second conversion,” one where we begin to understand the good news of Jesus isn’t solely about what happens to us in the next world, but also about what we allow God to do through us in this world.
It may begin with an evangelistic zeal, a conviction the primary goal of “what we allow God to do through us in this world” is to bring as many people as possible with us into the next world—which is essentially, of course, not much different than believing the gospel is primarily about the afterlife.
Our second conversion also could lead us into a deeper discipleship, a striving to be more like Jesus. For some of us, a new understanding of the good news is that we can participate in the kingdom of God, revealed to us in the life of Jesus, right here. We begin to realize “on earth as it is in heaven” can actually happen on the soil beneath our feet.
Of course, the good news about the Good News is that it is all of this, and more.
Second conversions and food pantries
Congregations go through second conversions as well. They often are accompanied by necessary, but predictable, changes in behavior. When a church’s rethinking of the gospel leads them into a deeper belief about realizing the kingdom of God on this earth, about loving the “least of these” and lifting up the poor, most long-time observers can tell you what almost invariably comes next: The opening of a food pantry. It’s the Christian T-Shirt of the social justice stream within Christianity.
To be sure, opening a food pantry is more helpful—and arguably a greater witness to the work of Jesus within a congregation—than wearing the message of Jesus on your garments. But both often are done with about as much thoughtfulness as the other. That is to say, not that much. And they also both can come with a certain amount of regret in later years.
Food pantries are hard. They require planning, space, enthusiasm and a significant volunteer base to do well. (Unless you are a church that expects your pastor to run the thing, in which case you have some deeper issues than the difficulty of running a food pantry.) If I had to guess, I’d say at least three-fourths of all food pantries begun by churches close within a year. If your church currently runs one, and I were to ask you, with every eye closed and every head bowed, if you secretly want it to shut down, would you raise your hand?
I see that hand.
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I see that one.
This isn’t an invective against food pantries. They can be powerful tools to alleviate hunger in underserved communities, creating vital connections between churches and their neighbors. (Full disclosure: A component of the work of the organization I am a part of is helping churches establish and improve their food pantry.) But before beginning one, a church should pray, asking, “Is this wise?”
For many of us who grew up in Texas Baptist churches, our first conversion was followed with a model of discipleship that challenged us to “find out where God is at work and join him there.” Ironically, the further I have moved from conservative, evangelical approaches to the Christian faith, the more I have realized these words from Henry Blackaby represent the heart of God and God’s work in the world. It is a challenge that churches would be wise to consider when they go through their second conversions.
Do you want to feed hungry people? Good. You are seeking God’s kingdom where you are. But what if God already is feeding hungry people somewhere in your neighborhood and the best thing you can do is to join God there?
Join God—already at work
There are food banks and food pantries all over our state, begging for volunteers to join them in their operations. Join God there.
Providers of summer and after-school meals are looking for sites to operate their programs. Say “yes” and join God there.
For some, this may be the most blasphemous thing I could say, but God is leveraging programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Aid Program and WIC to feed hungry families. Leading your neighbors to these sources of food is a way of finding where God is at work and taking people there.
Often, “finding where God is at work and joining him there” isn’t quite as glamorous as handing out free boxes of mac and cheese. (Although, sometimes, that is exactly what God may be calling you to do.) Sometimes, though, it can be less of a burden on your church, freeing you from handing out food, but nudging you closer to swinging your doors wide open and inviting your neighbors to join you at the table.
Craig Nash is a child hunger outreach specialist and the No Kid Hungry regional coordinator for the Texas Hunger Initiative, based in Baylor University’s Diana Garland School of Social Work.