“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Jesus (Acts 1:8)1
It was about 17 years ago that my wife and I left the staff of an inner-city ministry in Chicago and moved back to my hometown of Indianapolis. I had been hired by a suburban megachurch to serve as the Minister of Urban Outreach. And this wasn’t just any church. This had been the first megachurch in Indiana. And it had been the first one within my tradition of the Restoration Movement, serving as the flagship, admired from near and far. The church had set the standard for foreign missions giving 50% of the budget to outreach and had led the way in church planting, having caught the vision long before it was on the radar screen of most suburban churches. And now they were committed to being engaged in ministry to the city. The senior minister, who was approaching retirement, had served in that role for 45 years and was considered the elder statesman of our movement. A man of quiet strength and a great teacher who that year had been recognized by a local publication as “The Most Influential Clergyman in Indiana,” ahead of what they called more media-savvy pastors.
For me it was a thrilling time. My wife and I were committed to continuing to live in an impoverished community. I would do the reverse commute, heading out to the suburbs on most days and back into the inner city in the evening. I was going to have many opportunities to teach and even an occasional turn in the pulpit. I was excited to share with others about our specific call; to a ministry among the poor and a ministry of racial reconciliation. And I was charged with leading the church’s effort to establish a “significant presence in the inner city.” We had visions of unleashing an army of Christians willing to leave the four walls of their church, bringing with them their time, talent, and treasure. And we believed the best strategy was to come alongside churches and Christian ministries already working in the city, to learn from them and establish lasting and mutually beneficial partnerships.
As I look back on that time I don’t think I was a particularly naïve person. I had a secular career after college and then God led me to seminary. I had been working in urban ministry for a number of years. But it didn’t take long for me to get slapped in the face with the realization of how daunting the task before me was. On my second weekend at the church I was asked to teach the largest Sunday School class. There were approximately 100 people there, mostly middle-age folks or older, some of whom had been with the church back when it moved to the suburbs from the city in the 1970s. There was a scattering of current and former elders along with deacons and other leaders.
I decided to start with a little experiment that I had once heard about another pastor doing. I started by asking the group to give me one or two word statements in answer to the question, What are the major themes in the Bible? I really wanted to see how many other things would be mentioned before somebody said something about caring for the poor. I started writing their responses on the board. I got about 15 answers before things started to slow down and 31 before they seemed to stop completely. When I stepped back to look at what I had written I saw the words: love, grace, forgiveness, evangelism, Spirit, Jesus, atonement, the Father, sin, Heaven, Hell, the law, obedience. The fruit of the Spirit was there. Redemption and judgment were in there. It didn’t happen until the end, but a couple of people managed to get money and idolatry on the board.
But to my shock and surprise I didn’t see anything about the poor, or any of the subcategories like the widow, the orphan, and the alien. The next hour became an exercise in trying to point out that they had missed the second most prominent theme in the entire Bible without sounding like I was scolding them. I was wise enough to know that that wouldn’t be a good way for a young minister to introduce himself to the leaders of the church.
I would walk that line for the next seven years, and not always effectively. I had some in the church affirm what they believed to be the prophetic voice in me while others expressed their displeasure at my arrogance and lack of respect. At one point, in response to an article that I had written about our spending priorities, I had an elder jam his finger into my chest and tell me, “Don’t judge my house or my car. Judge my heart.” He seemed to miss the part of the article where I talked about the biblical notion that the main way you can see what is in a person’s heart is to see how he spends his money.
Well, the church struggled to replace the outgoing senior minister and floundered for many years without strong leadership. Membership became something of a revolving door with 50% of the church membership turning over in just three years. We managed to start a wonderful after-school sports ministry in partnership with some caring inner-city churches. And despite my best effort, eventually the initial excitement surrounding our urban ministry effort wore off. I was asked to fill some needed roles at the church including becoming the primary preacher in contemporary worship (with topics chosen by the elders). Urban ministry was afforded less and less of my time and the church’s attention.
So it was no surprise that during a difficult budget year the elders decided to reduce the staff. Four ministers were let go. I was one of them, as my position was officially eliminated. Two years later, after a new senior minister was hired, the church cut off financial support to many ministries in the city, including the program that it had birthed.
Looking back at the time I felt like my ministry had been a complete failure. When asked I expressed very little hope that the American church, dominated by suburban megachurches and their leaders, would ever get serious about God’s mandate to care for the “least of these.” I myself did not heed advice that I often gave to others about not underestimating what God can do and not dreaming too small. While we continued to live in our community and work with our neighbors, I left full-time ministry, took a job working construction, and started preparing to go to law school.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Bar. Just before starting school I was contacted by the board of the ministry that I had helped start. They asked me to consider stepping in as executive director, a position for which I was not really qualified. But after praying about it for many weeks, I agreed to assume the position on an interim basis, deferring my matriculation to school for a year. That was six years ago, and I am still there but no longer the director. We merged with a larger, healthier ministry and began to operate at four different locations.
And in the oddest twist of God’s providence I now spend a considerable amount of my time teaching and training at our partner churches, made up mostly of suburban megachurches. But where I once felt despair, I am beginning to see hope. Where I became discouraged, I am now uplifted. I have begun to sense a real hunger in these churches for a form of Christianity that is less focused on self and more focused on others.
These churches are led by relatively young ministers or by more mature men that have come to the ministry from other vocations. They preach and attempt to model a gospel that is much more comprehensive than the one I grew up hearing about. They dedicate time to issues of justice, mercy, and caring for the poor. In one of our partner churches I was asked to come and teach a six-week introduction to poverty class called Poverty 101. Over 700 people attended the class including the senior minister and a majority of the staff. In the spring I will be teaching that class at another church for the third time. This year our ministry is partnering with an entire presbytery of the PCA to provide teaching and training for mercy ministries.
And these days I see many churches are focused on getting their congregations out the door to serve. Many are catching on to a trend of canceling weekend services in favor of a “Weekend of Service.” Our ministry has been asked to help find service projects for as many as 1000 people at a time. That is not an easy task, but it is a wonderful problem to have. My favorite t-shirt last year was one that declared, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the church has left the building.”
Beyond being willing to forego a weekend offering (not an insignificant sum), these churches are increasing their budgets in the area of local missions. Here in Indy a few churches are partnering to focus on one of the poorest communities, each church committing $100K per year to the effort. And while they are increasing their giving, they are reducing the number of places that the money goes, in order to engage the church and individual members of the congregation more intentionally. These churches are putting their money behind their words.
And I have been pleased to see that it is not a movement characterized by a paternalistic approach. These churches don’t enter impoverished neighborhoods with the attitude that they are experts sent to save the people there. There is a great recognition that God is already there and that faithful saints and servants are doing his work. They are submitting themselves to the Spirit and asking God, “Where would you have us serve?” and “With whom would you have us partner?”
I honestly believe that what we are seeing in these churches is a movement of the Holy Spirit like the one foretold in Acts 1:8. I consider this verse something of an addendum to the Great Commission. Our Lord told us to go and, as we go, to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And in Acts he tells us where to go: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. The American church has focused pretty well on three of those places. We have taught our congregations how to share the gospel using The Four Spiritual Laws tracts, and trained them in Evangelism Explosion and any number of other programs so that they would be equipped to share the gospel with their neighbors (Jerusalem). We have ignited a church planting movement that focuses on establishing an evangelical witness to growing communities throughout the country, but it is rarely cross-cultural (Judea). And we have a long and rich history of sending missionaries throughout the world. We have missions agencies that help us strategize and focus on the unreached people groups so that everyone can hear the gospel (the ends of the earth).
But what we haven’t done well is focus on Samaria. To the audience hearing the words of Jesus, Samaria was the area nearby where the people were different, hated, and feared at the same time. Our Lord understood that this was an area to which the New Testament church would not really want to go. He understood that the Jews’ hatred and fear of Samaria needed to be dealt with. He knew that the prejudice was likely to carry over to the church. And so time and time again he poked the Jews with stories and actions designed to remind them of the humanity of the Samaritans and his Father’s love for them. Luke tells the stories of the Good Samaritan (10:25–37) and the Samaritan leper (17:11–19). And John tells the story of the Samaritan woman at the well (4:1–42). And if we look at the history of the New Testament church, we see that the lesson didn’t take very well and had to be taught again. In Acts 10 we see the Holy Spirit dealing with Peter in what is called his second conversion, where he utters the words, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (10:34–35). That was from the undisputed leader of the New Testament church.
Samaria, to the American church today, is the area nearby where people are different racially, economically, and socially. It is our inner cities. It is our immigrant communities, urban, suburban, and rural.
To travel to Samaria today means crossing the county, the city, the neighborhood, or even the street. It means crossing boundaries that are more cultural, traditional, and economic than geographic. It means journeying over lines that are rarely traversed. It means tackling some of our biggest sins and biggest issues, overcoming fear, prejudice, and social pressure. And the words of our Lord make it clear that we do not have a choice. To quote Ray Bakke:
The whole gospel is for the whole world. One does not have the right to do an end run around the nearby socially displaced peoples to go to the ends of the earth in the name of Jesus. Humanly speaking, to evangelize people you hate is an incredibly radical act. To offer the good news of forgiveness by God and reconciliation with God and with each other will pave the way for other social services.2
So what is “good news to the poor”? I believe it is the fact that the Evangelical church is undergoing something of a revival, and in this revival it is being reminded of its mandate to care for the poor. And we are growing in our understanding of what it means to walk alongside the poor, to share the good news, to share our blessings, and to share our lives. I believe that the only hope, the only real hope, in making a difference in the lives of the poor is found in the Holy Spirit working through the Body of Christ to bring the gospel message of Jesus Christ to all. Making a difference in the lives of the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, and the alien is about the transformative power of God’s Spirit demonstrated when the church lives out its mandate to care by leaving the four walls and heading out into the world.
And as I have spent the last twenty years with one foot in the world of the poor and the other in the church I find what is happening to be very exciting. But the coolest part for me is that leaving the building and heading out into the world is the only hope for the church as well. Taking the gospel message of Jesus Christ outside the walls and to the hurting people in the world around us is about saving us too.
The church today, particularly the Evangelical church, has a problem. We have a problem. We have been so caught up in the world—in a materialist culture, in a self-serving society, in a struggle for political power—that we have become irrelevant to most of society. It is hard today to tell who is a believer and who isn’t. Our God, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Lord has a special place in his heart for the poor and oppressed. And if we are not out doing his work among them, then we fail to be the counter-cultural agents of change that he wants us to be.
Alexander Berdyaev says:
There is no longer any room in the world for a merely external form of Christianity, based upon custom. The world is entering upon a period of catastrophe and crisis when we are being forced to take sides, and in which a higher and more intense spiritual life will be demanded of Christians.3
But if the church pursues this higher and more intense spiritual life, which includes caring for those that the world would rather forget, then we “will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor” (Isaiah 61:3). The hope expressed in Isaiah 58 is the same hope the church can have today:
To share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. (58:7–12)
Tim Streett is the Assistant Director of Shepherd Community Center, a faith-based, non-profit organization established with the mission of breaking the cycle of poverty on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis. Read Tim’s bio at http://www.shepherdcommunity.org.