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Key #2: A Kingdom View of the Poor.
“Line up!” shouted the man who climbed out of the Ford Econoline 350 box truck. “Stand back! Stand de vuelta!” Clowns, balloons, and face painting helped attract people from the nearby pueblos. The dry wind swept up the grey dirt as the crowd of people from Cuidad Juarez, and the surrounding Mexican border squatter villages, gathered to receive clothes, food, and other donated items. Obediently, the people stood in line and waited for the man to open to back of the truck. I have no doubt the man and the others with him had kind intentions, however my heart sunk as I watched these people reduced to pitiable passive recipients of American excesses.
The truckload of donations was part of an outreach ministry of a church on the El Paso side of the Rio Grande. It was the summer of 1990. We were in Juarez for six weeks with our Field Ministry Internship student teams of Youth With A Mission‘s Student Mobilization Centre. On this hot July afternoon, we were assisting the American group that came to plant a church. We were asked to conduct simple health examinations, primary health care, in a makeshift medical clinic. This personal contact also gave us opportunity to ask if we can pray for the children and their families.
However, the oversized sound system and overzealous worship leaders made it difficult to pray, let alone conduct any thorough examinations in the clinic. The loud and raucous singing and music was giving me a headache.
I stepped out of the clinic to observe the open air meeting. The music continued as young American evangelists, many with clown outfits, went into the audience to pray for the sick.
Please understand, I am a firm believer in prayer and God’s power to heal.
But this disturbed me.
A small Mexican child, obviously frightened by the clowns laying their hands on him, was crying and reaching out toward his mother. Others were surrounding “Mom” and praying for her. The noise and confusion even had me anxious to leave. I wondered what this child and family would think of Jesus after this traumatic day.
This brings us to the second key to ministry among the poor.
Christian ministries will always reflect their leadership’s view of the poor, their understanding of the nature of poverty. That view may be less biblical and more the prevailing view of the surrounding culture.
What is your view of the poor?
The way we approach our ministry to the poor communicates value, either positively or negatively. No matter how many dollars or valuables we donate, our posture and attitude in what we do and say communicates far more than what we give.
When Christians reach out to the poor, we too often unintentionally communicate what we think of their value.
This is what the poor “hear”:
“We are complete, you are not.”
Simply put, the goal of our outreach to the poor should be to avoid communicating that lie. Our goal should be to identify with the poor in our mutual recovery of identity in relation to God’s creative design and purpose.
How do we do that?
In order to communicate value to the poor, we must first communicate value to the volunteer serving alongside us in ministry to the poor.
This is why we emphasize “Calling” in our university student ministries and outreaches. If our outreach emphasizes the discovery of vocation in the life of the volunteer, the Christian participant in ministry to the poor, then we will effectively communicate the value of the design and purpose of God to the community in which we minister.
Then we will fulfill the commission to preach the good news to the poor.
Our aim is the same as that of Jesus’ public ministry:
“And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, ‘THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.’” (Luke 4: 17-19)
Our goal is to ‘set free’ the poor from their destructive relationships so they may enjoy Shalom, a Hebrew term for peace, completeness, and welfare. All of us are called by God to an abundant life of healthy kingdom relationships.
The way we reach this goal must begin with the right posture, the right attitude. We must begin by demonstrating a servant heart, the nature of our servant King Jesus.
In our outreach to the Poor we must represent a kingdom community, demonstrating the biblical story and representing God’s identity and purpose in our relationships.
Our outreach should portray the kingdom of God, which represents the character of God in all the various expressions of his callings.
God is healer, communicator, builder, author, creator, artist, counselor, teacher, etc. Therefore, these vocations are representing God’s character in community.
Outreach is best when we represent the kingdom of God in a community of servants. We represent the character of God and the holistic and interrelated spheres of His ministry.
Ministry to the Poor requires a view of the poor and a vision of the kingdom of God.
In this series, I am referring to the book: God of the Empty-Handed: Poverty, Power, and the Kingdom of God, by Christian, Jayakumar.
Why is it sixty-two percent of the churches in Madison, including ten congregations with one thousand or more weekly attenders, identified no missionaries serving on mission fields? (Jericho 1997:7) Perhaps the lack of significant cross-cultural engagement is the result of an insufficient biblical model of the church. Perhaps the weakness of the “modern” church is the preoccupation with growth and size as a measure of success. Many say that “bigger is better”, but this has no biblical foundation.
The church is a complex system, “a living organism.” The church is called to bear fruit. Jesus taught us the “mustard seed” principle, which like complexity theory “illuminates the long-range significance of small actions.” When individual decision is made the foundation of church identity, the fruit that is borne is a culture of individualism. Individual choice and personal need becomes ultimate, rather than the unswerving purpose of God to share his mercy with every person in every culture. To begin to overcome this culture of individualism, one must first deny self and then lead a community of believers to do the same. Only then will the church fulfill her mission.
With no epistemological base on which to build, the secularist in Madison grasps for a utopian future in which tolerance is the ideal. This ideal, however, is inconsistently applied to those with fundamental Christian beliefs.
Since September 11, 2001, the UW has created opportunities for dialog with the world of Islam. The vision and history of Mohammed contains the implication of violent Islamic expansionism; non-Moslem territories are Dar Ul-Harb, or the “Sea of War.” From the Maghreb to Pakistan, the jihad, properly translated as “struggle,” for a new world order is underway. How should the Church in Madison respond? Several families in Madison, some of whom are Christians, befriend and/or host Muslim students who come to the UW or seek to learn English at the Wesli school. Christian mission has always been the expression of the gospel across cultural barriers, including hospitality to strangers. The opportunity for such gospel witness in Madison is significant, since over 4000 international students attend the UW.
The secularized Madisonian may fail to recognize the conflict within a pluralist culture is more than modern, economic, political, or ideological. William Taylor writes, “We cannot seek harmony by revitalizing the truth claims of religions. We (must) commit to be agents of reconciliation.” As agents of reconciliation, we must see that we are in the midst of a spiritual war with amazing biblical promise:
“In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria (modern day Iraq). The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.” (Isa. 19:23)
Rather than react to the forces of secularism and pluralism, the Church in Madison has opportunity to proactively respond by loving our neighbors in the public arena of the university community.
Secularism and pluralism present a problem for the notion of progress. The Wisconsin State motto is “Forward,” calling all subjects of the state toward progress, including the university. But how can a society move forward without acknowledging its own history and knowing the core beliefs that produced it. If the core of belief is supplanted by the state itself, it will soon fail to produce the “good” it purports to do. In his book, “The Spiritual Situation in Our Technical Society”, Paul Tillich writes “education without a determining center is impossible. The nation became the ideological center that demanded absolute devotion, though itself was above criticism.” (Tillich 1988:17)
Once the state became the central defining institution, all religious influence was sequestered into the private arena, hidden behind stained glass windows. Os Guinness writes, “Secularization is the process by which religious ideas, institutions, and interpretations have lost their social significance.” How shall Jesus followers in Madison respond? Do they stir up their confidence in Jesus’ victory by redoubling their spiritual exercises, attending to religious duties, and gathering in religious settings? Or should they instead return to the God of their fathers who interpreted the words of the Lord for a public arena?
In that public arena, we no longer find the predominant values of a society informed by Biblical principle. Madison is home to many religious groups with very different values. Pluralism is what exists when there are “a competing number of worldviews available to its members, but no worldview is dominant.”
With no roots or absolutes, people in Madison represent “all religions and no religion;” they are “seeking for a sense of roots, an affirmation that there is something bigger than the existence we know-something of ultimate value.” In his book, “The Soul of The American University,” which traces the history of the secularization of American universities, George Marsden calls for academics of religious faith, including those in Madison, to re-think the connections between their faith and their scholarly endeavors.
Madison is progressive, leaning forward into a vision of the future with little reference to Biblical values. Without that Biblical reference and religious values, what should we expect to be the result of that progressive vision?
Marsden’s challenge is to re-think, and re-interpret a progressive vision of the future by reviewing the vision of those who have gone before us.
Some Christians may move from one church to another seeking to meet spiritual needs, however others remain faithful in their church communities with hope. Some Christians have abandoned the modern church form, seeking a more biblical form, a purer formation of Christian community. I want to suggest that the way forward is not to abandon the existing church formation entirely. In this time of radical cultural shift, perhaps the way forward is to seek ways to re-form church by taking a humble posture to re-imagine, to re-new, and to re-create. Reenergizing this church will be closely linked to hope. “Embracing change is dangerous,” Tim Keel of Jacob’s Well writes, “but so is inaction.” Rather than completely abandon church and “organized religion,” as some have done, I propose a reforming posture of “organizing religion,” as Brian McLaren writes, by encouraging the formation of small communities “celebrating virtue and training people to practice it.”
In my next post, I will begin to outline those “postures” that Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger have identified in their book “Emerging Churches.”