who’s got next?

The audio from yesterday’s worldview symposium, “Who’s Got Next?” is available at http://grts.cornerstone.edu/resources/tpoints.

Jim Grier peppered his talk on epistemology with his usual provocative thoughts about preaching and ministry.  The one that caught a lot of attention, and seemed right, is that within the next ten years many of us who believe in the exclusivity of Jesus Christ are going to be persecuted by our pluralistic culture.  Jim warned us that most of the people in our churches aren’t prepared to suffer, so things might get ugly.  Joel Osteen may not be the one to lead us into the future.

After my talk on the theological issues confronting the church (inclusive soteriology, optimistic anthropology, and “humble” epistemology), Joe Stowell gave a powerful address on the exclusivity of Jesus and the gospel.  He helpfully stressed that even if the culture dismisses our beliefs as overly judgmental and divisive, they will be receptive to the good works that we do before them (Matt. 5:16).  He supported this with examples from the early church, who, though persecuted for their exclusive faith by the pluralistic Romans, also earned their respect by caring for their poor and raising the children left to die by exposure.  It reminded me of a quote from Julian the Apostate, who complained in the middle of the 4th century that the Christians cared more for the pagan poor than the pagans did.  

It also made me think:  what are the ways that the church can do good works today–what are the forgotten needs or people that we can care for and so show the love of Christ?  The opportunities may vary by location, but it seems like a terrific opening for the gospel–and worth doing on its own right, because we love people.

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  1. I thought Stowell’s comment on it starting at your work and in your neighborhoods was interesting. I think we sometimes spend too much time creating “Programs” instead of challenging each other to simply open our eyes to our own backyard.

    Great conference! All three of you left me with a lot to think about.

  2. I wish I could have attended, but living in California makes it impossible. As a church here, we have been struggling with how to become a congregation that not only proclaims the gospel in word, but also in works. Quite frankly, we are failing. We have only a tiny number within our congregation who are interested in getting involved in serving others. I hope we are the exception, but I fear that a large number of churches in the U.S. are or would face similar resistance if they implemented service ministries.

    I do believe that the Church will need to emphasize serving and caring ministries in the future to successfully proclaim the gospel. We have to show them God’s love if we are going to gain an opportunity to tell them of God’s love.

  3. “It also made me think: what are the ways that the church can do good works today–what are the forgotten needs or people that we can care for and so show the love of Christ?”

    That’s a great question. I think that too often in the church we trap ourselves in a box when it comes to service. We have a few token things we turn to (i.e. mission trip to Mexico, serve a few times a year at the local homeless shelter, visit shut-ins, etc… I’m sure it varies by church), and once we’ve done those things we think our work is complete.

    I’m not saying we should stop doing any of those projects – most of them are probably worthwhile. But I wonder if in doing the same things over and over if we stop thinking about other needs we should address and stop thinking creatively about how we can serve the world?

  4. I am more and more grateful that the church is finally waking up to their calling to sacrificially serve and love the poor. I wonder, however, if churches really understand how much time, energy and resources it really takes to make a redemptive difference among the poor. Poverty is a complex animal with a variety of causes which often are interrelated to each other. If churches really desire to do good works among the poor along side of proclaiming good news, they better be prepared to “put their money where their mouth is.” However, I am not optimistic on this point. Many evangelical churches have invested so much of their resources and energy into brick and mortar and quirky Christmas programs that helping the poor becomes an add-on to their budget (usually a second offering after the Lord’s supper), which doesn’t seem very Biblical to me. In the O.T., Israel’s tithe every third year went to help the Levites and the poor. In the N.T., Paul’s passion (I’d even say obsession) besides preaching the gospel was taking care of the poor believers in Jerusalem that had been devastated by a famine. His chapters on giving in II Corinthians are that context, not some capital campaign fund that will help a church relocate on a busy intersection near new housing, real estate, and shopping center developments.

    As for ways that churches can do good works among the poor? It all depends upon what its goals are. Are they short-term bandaids or long-term solutions? Several churches distribute food to the poor through second harvest gleaners or Angel Food ministries. However, is there a way to leverage the food program to help people get out of poverty? For this to happen, churches will have to learn to do budget counseling, understand the local social service networks that are available, employment assistance, and especially learn how to develop long-term, loving relationships.

    How about adopting the local public school, which some inner-city churches are doing? Providing tutors and mentors (especially men) is so essential for the development of boys who come from single parent families without a father in the home.

    One of my long-term goals with our urban students is to see a few of our redeemed “thugs” eventually go back to the corners where they were hustling and dealing drugs armed with the gospel and entrepreneurship. They can show to the ‘hoodies a better way (and legal) to make money and that their raw entrepreneurial skills can be used for good. They can proclaim the gospel of Christ and how He transformed every area of their lives.

    I could go on and on with different ideas, some of which we’ve done, some that we’ve seen done, and some that we have dreamed about. But I’ve said enough for now…..

  5. Thanks, Joel. Your real world experience suggests how difficult this is, or at least the level of commitment that is required. And isn’t that the point? If it was easy, who would care? It’s got to be difficult to prove our commitment and gain positive attention for the gospel. (And of course, if our entire goal is to gain attention for the gospel then we are simply using the poor for our ulterior ends–so I mean that attention to the gospel will be a welcome byproduct of our loving people).

    I wonder what this commitment would mean for me. I live in a rural subdivision, 10 minutes from work and 5 minutes from church. I don’t have many, if any, natural connections to poor people. Am I wrong for not having these connections? Should I intentionally make some? And if I do, isn’t there a bit of condescension implied in that contrived relationship? I.e., I’m the rich rural guy making friends with the poor so I can help you. There is a new book, called “Dead Aid,” which criticizes the wealthy west for taking just this approach to the poor in Africa.

    Can you help us, Joel? Any suggestions?

  6. Great Question!

    One practical thing that can be encouraged is more preaching from the pulpit on the transforming effect the gospel is supposed to be having on our lives, including our attitude to the poor, widows, fatherless, et. all. One person I have heard doing this well is Tim Keller in New York.

    With a changed attitude, I would love to see our day to day lives transformed by how we approach the poor. One idea my wife challenged me with was to purchase a number of McDonald’s gift cards. As I am leaving a store or shopping area where there are individuals begging for money/food, park the car, get out and walk over, bless them with a high calorie meal, and just try to love them as people made in God’s image. I have found this to greatly challenge how I see and approach the poor in our community.

    One other idea: I would like to see the church’s approach to abortion-activism change. Instead of pouring millions of dollars annually into anti-abortion campaigns, what if we got into the necessary areas in our local settings with this money, offering to pregnant mothers considering abortion to front the cost of carrying the child to term and putting him/her up for adoption? What if we sought out Christian doctors who might be willing to work “pro-bono” or at least for reduced fees in such cases?

    Of course, there are always problems and bumps that need to be worked out, and there are people far more capable than myself to do so, but these seem like preliminary answers to your question. What do you think?

  7. Mike,

    It seems like Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis (John Piper’s church)has attempted just what you are asking about. It seems like they had several members make an intentional move into the inner city where the church is located in order to reach into the world of the inner city poor. It just may be that part of our problem lies in the fact that we love our subburban life and have sacrificed the cities to have it. (I include myself here.) I am not sure how to proceed except that the solution is probably fairly radical in regard to the lifestyle I have come to enjoy.

    JOEL do you know anything about what Bethlem Baptist is doing there in Minneapolis?

  8. I discussed this with a seminary student today, and we agreed that given my calling as husband and father in this stage of my life, I would need to find something that my whole family could do together. Joel, are there any opportunities like this in GR, say with your group, or is this even the wrong question to ask?

    Layman:

    I’m not ready to concede yet that it is a sin to live in the suburbs. Even Rob Bell now lives on Reeds Lake.

    Justin:

    Are you saying that you are using McDonald’s redemptively? That is either brilliant or disgusting, so I’m going with the former.

  9. We need to come to grips with the reality that much of the suburban church has subconsciously worked hard for a good long time to create boundaries that insulate and isolate themselves from the problems that exist in urban settings.

    For example, In 1954 when the school desegregation act was passed ‘white flight’ was born with an entire highway system emerging that all but sealed the fate of those left behind in the cities without a strong infrastructure. Churches followed suit and ‘new houses of worship’ became the norm.

    And just as Joel pointed out ‘brick and mortar’ became the investment of choice in these settings.

    Over time ‘out of sight , out of mind’ took affect and the church could finally live without tension in ‘suburban peace’.

    We even complimented the divide by creating a gospel that eliminated what we conveniently termed as ‘social justice’ so that we could become good evangelicals saving souls while leaving the care of the poor to the mainline church or the government or nobody.

    from my blog…

    ‘And 54 years following the Brown versus Board Supreme Court ruling of 1954 schools still appear segregated in my city. We simply built expressways and bedroom communities and new structures called “evangelical churches”. And Sunday remains the most segregated hour of the week.

    It would seem to me that Christians should have resisted this white flight. And, of course, it is always more complex…and always will be… unless we become more intentional. Can suburban churches stop talking about meeting “my needs”,” my success”, “my life” just long enough to hear the whimper of a drowning world? As Bono said, “Jesus can you take the time to throw a drowning man a line, Peace on Earth”–which was directed, of course, to the “haves” who “horde”.

    “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”–the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King

    To become part of the solution we need to take responsibility for our participation in creating the problems. Until we come to grips with out collective sin I fear we will be putting band-aids on severed arteries.

    Don’t lose heart Joel.

  10. Dr. Wittmer,

    You said:

    “I’m not ready to concede yet that it is a sin to live in the suburbs. Even Rob Bell now lives on Reeds Lake. ”

    So can I safely say that you’ve gone on record admitting that Rob Bell is your yard-stick for determining what is sin or not?🙂

  11. Mike, Laymen speaks, and others……This is a long response so bear with me…….

    There are pockets of poor people in the vicinity of wherever you live. For example, although Sherilyn and I spent twelve years living among the urban poor that we served, at this point we live in suburban Rockford to help take care of Sherilyn’s ailing mother. Within a mile of our house is a trailer park with many poor people there. The poor are not just in urban communities. In fact, because of the migration of white yuppies into urban communities, many of the poor cannot afford to live in our cities because rent has skyrocketed in these communities and now live in the suburbs in certain apartment complexes. This is called gentrification. If everyone was compelled to move to the inner-city, even more of the poor would eventually be displaced! Now back to the question about helping the poor….

    There are several ways to go about helping the poor. First, do research in your community. Find out where they live. Talk to public schools and social service agencies. They know where they are and what’s going on in their lives. And even though they may be hidden from the public, they are there. For example, recently I spoke at a church in Lowell and a teacher confided to me that two students from the elementary school had recently become homeless. They as a church were trying to figure out what they could do to help this single mom and her children (the dad left the family, leaving the family to fend for themselves).

    I’d be curious about your church, Mike and their contacts with the poor in the southern Rockford area. They might even have contacts with those from North Kent Service Center (which has a faith-based orientation), Rockford’s primary non-profit that helps the poor. If not, use your influence to help them see the importance of helping the poor in their backyard. Also, your church has a wonderful relationship with City View church. I’m sure pastor Jeff Helbert (a student finishing at GRTS) could help develop the partnership between the two churches where several of your people including yourself could share their skills with people in their neighborhood.

    With our ministry, I would love for you to come down and teach Christian Worldview to some of our more spiritually mature older teens/young adults. They still have some of the platonic thinking that has immersed Christian culture, despite our attempts to reverse it.

    You are right to have concerns about our tendency to be condescending towards the poor (as if we know the answers to all their problems). Often we see the poor and only see their needs. I think it is just as important to see what assets, skills, gifts, etc…that the poor have and allow them to reciprocate back to us as well. For example, several of the guys I mentor have better football and basketball gifts then myself. I have asked them to help teach my son these sports and they jump at the chance to help me with something. In that way, I have affirmed God’s image rather than dehumanizing them. Another situation happened at our church when we had a International Dinner during missions conference. Several of my students and their parents jumped at the chance to make soul food to go along side of the many other dishes from all over the world. They were poor but they donated their time and some of their money to make it happen. As much as possible in the relationship that we develop with the poor, we try to make it as reciprocal as possible.

    As for Bethlehem Baptist, I am very familiar with some of their ministry among the poor, however, I do know that Piper regularly preaches how essential it is to love the poor. Here is a sample of one of his sermons, taken from Isaiah 58, which declares that Piety should produce a passion for social justice and practical mercy. http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/sermons/bydate/2002/107_Bethlehem_Break_Forth_Like_the_Dawn/

    Darryl, you provide some history of White Flight, which caused some of the the neighborhood/class separation in the first place. I find it amusing that when all these churches followed their people out to suburbs, that now 40 years later the poor (including some within minority groups) are in their backyard again. They realize that their church moving again is out of the question. Thus, I have consulted with suburban churches who act like deer caught in headlights because they don’t know how to handle unchurched kids from these backgrounds that are actually coming to their outreach and weekly events.

    Hope these answers answered your questions…….

  12. Mike,

    I see you deleted my ‘amen.’ Perhaps you didn’t understand, but I was simply saying ‘amen’ to you last two paragraphs on this post. We can’t be deleting ‘amen.’ It only says that I agree… do I hear an amen?

    randy

  13. “I am more and more grateful that the church is finally waking up to their calling to sacrificially serve and love the poor.”

    I am not keen on generalizations. With regards to helping the poor, I believe that over the many centuries, the church has made a difference and impact. I also believe that the Great Commission includes more than just the poor.

    Matthew 6:2 Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.

  14. By the way, helping the poor does not have to be through a church sanctioned or non-profit ministry. Active involvement in lives goes farther than a $5 bill.

  15. Joel:

    Thanks for your wise and godly counsel. These are exciting times to be a Christian!

  16. Yooper,

    You are right to observe that the church has helped the poor over the centuries. But I will have to say that during the 20th century, there was a great reversal that took place within evangelical/fundamental type churches. Many of these churches became fearful of a social gospel that liberalism was espousing, and embraced a traditional dispensational hermenuetic combined with platonic thinking that would publicly announce “why polish the brass on the Titanic (make things better here on earth) when we should be about saving souls for heaven?” In 1992, my home church in Indiana that discipled me throughout my teen and college years dropped my missionary support and my membership because they thought I had embraced “the social gospel,” which is ironic because we have and continue to have a bold (but relational) evangelistic thrust.

    However, having spent almost 20 years serving the urban poor, I have seen a gradual change and an openness by Churches, especially the conservative evangelical/fundamental ones. In the early 90’s when I would speak in their churches about our ministry to the poor, there was outright suspicion (like my home church). Nowdays, when I speak in these churches, there is more of an enthusiastic response and they see the 2000 verses throughout the entire Bible that calls God’s people to respond to the plight of the poor.

    I don’t think that Matthew 6 is the only passage in the Bible that addresses giving or doing good works in public. I find I Peter very relevant to our situation here in the U.S. Rightly or wrongly, evangelical Christians are being publicly slandered. Peter challenges these Christian exiles to publicly “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day that he visits us.” The motivation for doing good in his verse is that pagans would glorify God. The motivation for doing good from the Pharisees in Matthew 6 was that people would praise them, not God.

    I agree with you comment about individuals being able to help the poor and the importance of active involvement rather than $5. However, I have yet to have done a crisis intervention to help a person who was about to become homeless or lose their heat in their house that only costs $5. On average, it takes somewhere between $1,000 to $3,000 and about 40-60 hrs over about a three month period to stabilize them (a permanent fix rather than a temporary one) so that this crisis won’t happen again.

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