Often the effort to combine words and deed leans more and more toward deeds.
In New York City this past July, our Jews for Jesus evangelistic outreach team handed out bottles of water and cups of coffee, as well evangelistic literature, to engage people in gospel conversations. The bottled water and coffee cups were labeled “Jews for NYC” and “Brews for Jesus,” respectively. It was a fun way to connect with people on the streets. Some people simply received the beverages and moved on while others stopped to talk. (See more photos here)
Similarly, for a number of years we’ve been giving out cups of hot chocolate to New Yorkers who gather to watch the floats being assembled the night before the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. . . and to Angelenos at the break of dawn as they line up for the Rose Bowl Parade on January 1. The trend has spread to many of our branches, though I think we first experimented with it decades ago with a table near Rockefeller Center with a sign that read “Juice from Jesus.” I think we gave out grape juice.
Why do we do this? I started thinking about it anew when I received an email from Karol Joseph, chaplain for this year’s New York summer outreach. Asking me to prepare messages for our chapel services while I was there, she explained that the focus of the chapel teaching would be the Kingdom of God. She shared, “Our hope is that as we seek to proclaim kingdom truths, in both word and deed, God will use us as His ambassadors to seek and save those who are lost.” That sounds pretty good and Scripture tells believers in Jesus that we are to live out His love—but I have to confess something. I get a little uncomfortable when we start discussing deeds of kindness in the same breath as gospel proclamation.
The problem comes when proclamation in word and deed ends up being all deed and no word. To keep our approach really balanced, we need to examine ourselves honestly. We need to check for any feelings or attitudes that might interfere with our willingness to share with others the truths of sin, salvation and the Savior. Deeds of kindness are far more likely to be received gladly than words of truth about Jesus and our need for Him. We all prefer appreciation to rejection and it takes a conscious and constant choice to prevent that preference from subtly directing our decisions.
We also need to guard against assumptions. Many gladly go on short term mission trips that emphasize deeds of kindness such as building a school or digging wells. No doubt it’s hard work and requires a sacrificial gift of time. The assumption is that our building and digging will lead to a hearing for the gospel and I’m sure in some situations it has done so. But often that doesn’t take place at all. I heard of a Jewish ministry whose strategy was to offer to clean the homes of Jewish people in the hopes that this would open a door to witness. It didn’t. In the end there were plenty of Jewish people with clean homes but unchanged hearts.
In their recent book, Mission Drift: The unspoken crisis facing leaders, charities and churches, authors Peter Greer and Chris Horts document numerous examples of organizations and ministries that lost their way and their essential mission because of the pressures to compromise their message. Often the effort to combine words and deeds leans more and more toward deeds until speaking the words of the gospel becomes a chapter in the history of that Christian organization.
Now I don’t think for one minute that by giving away water and coffee—or even helping to clean up Riverside Park—Jews for Jesus is in danger of drifting from our mission of making the messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to our Jewish people worldwide. Not at all! Nor do I imagine anyone becoming a follower of Jesus simply because they received a cup of coffee with “Brews for Jesus” on the side from a Jews for Jesus staff member or volunteer. In fact there has been much misunderstanding of Jesus’ admonition about “giving a cup of cold water in His name.” Many assume it’s talking about reaching unbelievers for Christ. But examine the passage closely: “For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Mark 9:41, emphasis added; also see Matthew 10:42.) Jesus is saying that people show how they regard Him by how they treat His followers. In this passage, we are the ones who are supposed to be getting the cold water.
I remember one hot day standing outside the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem. I was sharing the Gospel in song as part of the Jews for Jesus music team, the Liberated Wailing Wall. We were facing quite a bit of opposition, feeling the heat in more ways than one. Suddenly a couple of people stepped out of the crowd and gave us a bag filled with cold drinks. It was an amazing gesture that meant so much to us. That is what Jesus was talking about and those wonderful people surely have been and will be rewarded by the Lord for their act of kindness to us that day.
Going back to my earlier question, why do Jews for Jesus give out water or hot chocolate on the streets? It’s not a new strategy or an alternative to gospel literature or to initiating gospel conversations. It’s not either/or. Those of us who are followers of Jesus want to show His love, and something as small as giving another person a drink is a good way to demonstrate kindness in His name, be the recipients believers or unbelievers.
So by all means, let’s give out cold water, but let us never do so in place of offering the living water. Giving out water can easily lead to a conversation like the one Yeshua had with the woman at the well, so pray that we’ll have many opportunities to point out: “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:13b-14).
Remember, the Kingdom of God is only truly advanced when the message of the gospel is proclaimed. And though it may not always be perceived as such, sharing the Good News of the Kingdom—the salvation message found through faith in the crucified and risen Savior, Jesus Christ—is the greatest kindness of all.