Ira North passed away in 1984. When he came to be the preacher for the Madison (TN) Church of Christ in 1952 they had 400 members. During his 30 years there they grew to more than 5,000, easily the largest Church of Christ in North America. With his trademark red coat and big smile, he not only preached to his local congregation but also to millions more through the Amazing Grace Bible Class that was televised across the nation.
The April, 1977 issue of Nashville! Magazine featured North on the cover and identified him as “Nashville’s Most Powerful Preacher.” What set Ira North apart from the crowd of his day – and thus the Madison Church of Christ – was their belief that by serving and loving their community they might have more opportunities to share the Gospel. The Madison church focused it’s attention on benevolent ministries such as summer camps, meals on wheels, ‘Saturday Samaritans’, a furniture warehouse, sewing and clothing rooms.
“Beautiful, mysterious, wonderful and glorious things happen to the church of Christ in our day and age that gets involved up to its neck in a great program for the poor, the lowly and the downtrodden … It seems the more we give ourselves and our money and our hearts to help the poor, the lowly, the homeless… the more the good Lord blesses us with new people, new resources, new financial strength and a depth of love for our Lord and for our fellow man.” ~Ira North
As you might guess, North was vilified by some as promoting a “Social Gospel”, with more emphasis on the social than the gospel. Even so, his immense influence among churches of Christ probably laid the path for today’s emphasis on social justice in our tribe.
When we talk about loving others, we often recognize that Jesus identified this as the second greatest commandment. It seems odd that some in the churches of Christ in the 1950s felt this was inappropriate activity for a church. Their idea was that a church was to be aimed at the spiritual needs of men and women. They also had an idea that the church treasury was to be used in only a few very specific and narrow ways. While I disagree with those conclusions, I do admire that there was a deep concern that money given to the church not be misused.
Although there are a few congregations still hanging on to those principles, most have the freedom to utilize all of their talent, time, and money to reach out to the poor and hurting in the communities that surround them. Looking at our own lives today we ask an important question. Are we just acknowledging that serving others is good and right? Or are we loving our neighbor as Jesus commanded? Is this a really big part of our work as a church, or is this something we glance at now and again. There isn’t much justice in social justice if in their freedom to extend the love of Christ churches are looking the other way.
I’m thankful for pioneers like Ira North and others who would not look away.
Thanks for reading, John
Kindle book by Ira North