Google or Bing the words "tug of war rope breaks injuries" and you will get to some crazy and even gruesome stuff — injuries caused both by people wrapping the rope around their hands or arms and also caused by the rope breaking. Of course, there are some advertisers claiming to provide ropes for injury free tug-of-war contests as well as references to medical people criticizing tug-of-war as a dangerous, unnecessary, and accident-prone exercise.

So, why do we find ourselves so frequently engaging in tug-of-war debates in Jesus' family of faith? You know what I'm talking about, those "either-or" debates about things that are good, helpful, and spiritually encouraging?

Over the last few weeks, from at least five totally unrelated people, from the web and in private discussion, the subject of mission trips versus service trips has come up. Two different people, one online and one in person, asked a question similar to the following: "I had a minister tell me that service trips were okay, but 'preaching the gospel' trips were much more important. What do you think?"

So do I join the tug-of-war? And if I join the tug-of-war, who is going to get injured when the goal is to win an argument over two good things and someone gets caught in the rope on the losing end? And if I join the tug-of-war, aren't I pitting myself as a rival of the group who is on the other end of the rope whether my side wins, loses, or we draw?

Sorry, I can't get on either end of this rope! I can't tilt the balance one way or the other. I believe these two must go together, not be pitted against one another. Calling folks to obey God without demonstrating the compassion of God is falling very short of who Jesus was and what Jesus calls us to be. Being compassionate without sharing Jesus, the moving force behind our compassion, is not going to offer people a lasting solution to their deepest problems. Let me illustrate this with two perspectives we gain from Matthew's Gospel.

Example 1: How Jesus' ministry is Described

Matthew twice emphasizes that Jesus' ministry involved both ends of our rope:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people (Matthew 4:23 TNIV).

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness (Matthew 9:35).

For Jesus, it was not "either/or," but "both/and"! Read the stories of Jesus in the Gospels. He performed miracles, he cast out demons, he cared tenderly for people, he touched the untouchable, he welcomed sinners, and he did so because he loved people. There wasn't a hook in his motives. He wasn't being nice to manipulate them to some point. He was displaying God's love to them. At the same time, Jesus spoke openly about the need for repentance, about obeying the will of God, and following him as Lord. He practiced what he preached and preached what he practiced!

There is simply no way to separate both of these two crucial parts of Jesus' ministry: there is no tug-of-war and there is no "either/or"! When the heart of who we are and what we do is to love God and love our neighbor, then we are going to share the truth of God and we are going to demonstrate the compassion of God. If we don't, someone is going to get hurt when the rope breaks or one side or the other wins the argument!

Example 2: Experiencing Immanuel

Matthew's Gospel calls Jesus' followers to experience Immanuel, God with us. He emphasizes that this happens in at least four ways:

  1. Through the story of Jesus' time on earth (Matthew 1:23).
  2. Through radical and authentic community (Matthew 18:1-20, esp. vs. 20).
  3. Through sacrificial service to those in need (Matthew 25:31-46, esp. vs. 40).
  4. Why is it so easy for us to get into these?
  5. Through crossing cultures to form Christ in others (Matthew 28:18-20).

Jesus is our ultimate expression of Immanuel. Jesus prepares his followers for his physical absence by emphasizing that they will experience his presence, serve him, and have him go with them as they do both — demonstrate God's compassion and communicate God's message.

Rather than trying to get everyone polarized over mission trips versus service trips, evangelizing versus serving, proclaiming the Gospel or practicing social justice, why don't we put down our rope? I may be simplistic, but shouldn't we be about BOTH caring for others as Jesus did AND sharing with others what Jesus did and how we should respond to him?

The following questions are for your personal reflection or discussion in a group setting or house church. I would also love to get your feedback to the article or the questions on my blog:
The Phil Files

Why do you think it is so easy for us to get into these religious tug-of-wars instead of caring and sharing with those outside our spiritual family?

What is missing on a service trip in Jesus' name when folks don't look for opportunities to share the story of Jesus?

What is missing in a mission trip if folks preach and teach in Jesus' name, but don't serve others as Jesus did or treat others along the way as Jesus did?

  • Which is harder for you, sharing the story of Jesus or caring for those in need?
  • Why is one harder than the other?
  • What can you do to grow in both areas, but especially in the area of weakness?
  • What can we all do to ensure that our efforts in mission trips and in daily life include both caring and sharing?