INTRODUCTION: It is noted that the church and society are inseparably interrelated as the church is one of the structures of any given society. The church as a religious organization in the society has a major role in serving the community where she belongs. Therefore if the church fails to influence the society which she belongs to then she has lost her position.
Today much emphasis is placed on the role of the church as a transformation and change agent. However, this is not a new concept or understanding of the role of the church. Throughout the ages, in spite of other ecclesiologies, the church has been involved in the life of humankind, in making of nationhood, building of culture, structuring of society with its functions and institutions and in shaping the form and quality of political systems.
The Church of Jesus Christ has normally understood the transformation of society to be an essential part of its mission task.While the focal point of missions has been to communicate the Good News of Christ, to call men and women to repentance and faith, and to baptise them into the church, it has also involved a process of teaching them to ‘observe all things’ that Jesus commanded. Christians have assumed that this obedience would lead to the transformation of their physical, social and spiritual lives. Sometimes this has been well done, sometimes poorly done. But missionaries have always implicitly assumed that the reception and the living out of the gospel would begin to transform both individual and community life.And more often than not, specific steps were taken and institutions were established to aid this process. While we recognise today that the missionaries often envisioned a model of the transformed community that looked suspiciously like the ones they knew in their own cultures, there is no doubt that this transforming dimension was an essential aspect of mission.
The Christian church right from its inception was involved in the transformation of society. Our attempt is not to provide a history of Christian mission per se but to show that the church has always had a concept of transformation and change in its mission and ministry, especially as it relates to the poor and the needy. There is a deeper resurgence of this quest for the role of the church in bringing about transformation and change in the world by focusing on the mission of the church. Reggie McNeal states that the rise of the missional church is the single biggest development in Christianity since the Reformation (2009:xiii). He points out that this is not doing church-as-usual. Going missional requires three shifts: (1) from internal to external in terms of ministry focus, (2) from programme development to people development in terms of core activity and (3) from church-based to kingdom-based in terms of leadership agenda (McNeal 2009:xiv). Speaking about the missional renaissance, McNeal asserts that this is changing the way the people of God think about God and the world, about what God is up to in the world and what part the people of God plays in it.
The main definition of the church in this and other contexts has been said to be the assembly of believers in Jesus Christ who are meant to be salt and light in the society.
It is noted that the church once serving the society. So what is happening now?
There are several areas where the church has been serving the society. These among others are in the areas of Education, health sector, politics, socials such as provision of jobs and vocational training, and so on.
In the area of education, the church can still serve better by providing quality education in all spheres. In the area of health, the church can serve better by ensuring that medical facilities are provided especially in the primary health care which is the basic that every person needs in any given community. Politically, though we believe that the church also plays some sorts of politics directly or indirectly, but how do we play such politics in the way that the community or the society could borrow a leaf from us. The question here is that, are we far better? The truth is that the church is expected to model the community in a better way of doing politics and in administration.
The early church
Jesus and the apostles functioned within the society in which they were found. Hence, the socioeconomic and political factors of the day were to greatly influence the teachings of Jesus and his disciples. In taking sides with the poor, Jesus attacked the Pharisees and Sadducees for their self-indulgence and greed (Matt 23:25-33). They were known for their oppression and exploitation of the poor peasants. Jesus’ preaching about the ‘Kingdom’ made it abundantly clear that God took seriously the concerns of the poor and needy: the poor would be blessed in the realisation that the ‘Kingdom of God’ was theirs (Lk 6:20-26); even tax collectors and harlots would gain entry before those who appeared to be religious and respectable (Matt 21:31-32), and the rich and saturated would become acquainted with want and hunger. The arrival of the ‘Kingdom’ contained the seeds of economic revolution and social reversal. With all these we, however, do not find a ‘pattern’ of a fully orbed programme to transform society in the life of the early church. This, however, radically changed when the church moved out beyond the borders of the Graeco-Roman frontiers.
Christianity began by preaching and practising the ‘gospel of love and charity’ which included almsgiving and care for widows, orphans, slaves, travellers, the sick, the imprisoned and the poor (Von Harnack 1967:147-198). Driven by the love of Jesus, believers went out and expressed their love for the neighbour. The early disciples showed true mercy and compassion. Peter, who had no silver or gold on his person, gave a crippled beggar what he did have: the gift of health (Acts 3:6). Tabitha (Dorcas) is cited as an early disciple ‘full of good works and acts of charity’ (Acts 9:36).
Generally speaking, the New Testament sees the ministry of mercy not only as an individual obligation, but also as a corporate endeavour of the church, to be carried out by the church itself. ‘So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith’ (Gal 6:10). Thus members of the first Christian congregation ‘sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need’ (Acts 2:45). The early Christians in Jerusalem were organised on determinedly egalitarian lines, practising community ownership of property. Women played as prominent a role as men did. Slaves and freed men and women shared equally with the freeborn. Within the group, at least in the early decades, there was a conscious rejection of the status-conscious norms of society, a rejection summarised in the admonition that within the community of the baptised there was ‘neither Jew nor Greek … slave nor free … male nor female’ (Gal 3:28; cf. Jas 2:2-12).
As the church spread through the Roman Empire, its ministries of mercy underwent considerable development. Social relief became a monopoly of the church in Rome and Alexandria, where it was manifested in distributions to the poor and in the establishment and upkeep of hospitals, orphanages and homes for the aged. By the 4th century the church was also bringing relief to people whom inflation had plunged into distress.
IDENTIFICATION OF AREAS OF SOCIETY TRANSFORMATION
One major issue that the church needs to address in order to better serve the society is to identify the connection between Christ we preach and our responsibility to the society He died for. The question here is that are we doing it the exact way Christ would have wanted us to do it?
- We need to identify that in order to do it right and in a better way, the church needs to put her house in order as the kingdom that has divided against herself would not be able to achieve any better thing outside her territory – United we stand and divided we fall. Here, reference is to be made to the situation of the early church just immediately after the Pentecost in Acts 2: 42f when the church was in a communion and one fellowship which made the church to have great impact and influence within the community of establishment. We agreed that we need to get ourselves better right first before we can be able to sell our products outside in a way that could withstand the need of the community we serve.
- We need to identify that the community we serve in different areas does not have the same need all over even though there may be general needs as well. The church should be more sensitive to the immediate needs of her community where she belongs.
- The people we are to serve are also needed to be identified. All kinds of people are to be served irrespective of their political, religious, social, ethnic affiliation. It is high time the church should go beyond ethnic and religion if she must serve her community better.
- It needs also to be identified that our church fathers need to change in their leadership style especially in the area of service to the church which will in turn help the church to serve her community better. It is to be noted that our call to leadership is nothing but to serve the people selflessly.
HOW CAN THE CHURCH SERVE BETTER?
- The first thing is to identify the areas where the church has not done enough and which needs our immediate attention. In Acts 6, we read that the ministry of the Apostles was lacking in some areas and which needed immediate attention. The church should have come to the understanding that everybody is called to serve – lay or clergy, young or old, male or female.
- The church needs to explore our method of discipleship through catechism and this should be done from the cradle and we should not think of the opposite since we believe that politician, clergy, bishops and all areas of leadership start from somewhere. So the church through her leaders especially both clergy and bishops should take the teaching of catechism with passion.
- The issue of TRUTH, JUSTICE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS for all is a major thing which we should identify that could help the church to serve her community better. The church should always be an advocate of this all the time and in all areas especially when considering the situation we find ourselves in this part of our society. The church should rise like Amos of his day.
- We also reiterated the need to make our evangelistic drive to be holistic. For instance, we should endeavour to build our welfarism up. This should have a good place in our church budgeting. The poor and the needy in our community should be identified and cared for. The church should understand that the need of the widows is double – economic and cultural. The church must always rise to assist the widows in these areas not just providing financial need. It must also to be noted that the church should build capacity. When the youth and the needy even within the church are assisted, they will now in future help the church to serve the community better.
- Necessary orientation should be made available at all times in the church on the goings on in the society. Orientation by teaching should be made possible. This will sensitize the church to be always aware of her noble responsibility towards her community.
- The issue of herdsmen and other religious and political attacks were to be made our concern and taken seriously. The church should keep on praying, not keeping quiet and also to help the victims where applicable.
In this talk, we have shown that the Christian church has always been involved in the transformation of society, especially as it took sides with the poor and oppressed. At times it seemed to have lost this focus, but somehow, throughout the ages, it has managed to sustain this mission responsibility. Today, more than ever, given the increasing poverty, violence and injustices in the world, the Christian church is called upon to embrace, engage and continue with its task of being an agent for transformation and change. It has to fulfil the gospel imperative of making the world a better place for all to live with justice, peace and harmony.
in all aforementioned, in order to make this realizable, the church should strictly wear and project her primary outlook of her calling as salt and light of the world. Without this she would not be able to serve her community at all talkless of doing it better. The church in this present day Nigeria should be made aware that our services to the society should be selfless without string attached because it is part of our missionary responsibility.