Friday, January 17, 2014


 Every once in awhile I see an article or hear someone speaking about all the money the government spends on the poor, citing statistics that make it seem there couldn't possibly be any poor left in this country.  I read comments suggesting that compared to the undeveloped world there is no real poverty in America. One of the most consistent comments seems to be that if we added up all that the government spends on the poor we could give each person or family (in the poverty group) a really great income every year.  The end effect of this seems to be that we do too much, that we don't need to do anymore.  Other conclusions seem to be that the poor have no business complaining, that they in fact are non-producers and are living off of the rest of us.

    I wonder of course how it is that in my life and ministry I have been poor, been in the homes of the poor, and see people still suffering from poverty.  The reality on the ground mixed with the observations of statistics seems to be incongruent.

    Let me state that I am not afraid of statistics, I have no desire to waste any money or time if there is actually no need.  I certainly don't want to defend governmental waste or incompetence, or to advocate any continuation of strategies that aren't effective in helping to change people's lives.  I hope that my desire is to tell the truth, to believe the truth, and to act on it.  It is also my desire to be obedient to Jesus, to truly love people, to minister to them in effective ways so that they come to love Jesus, follow him, and have their lives changed.

    I have lived in Africa and I have seen poverty in some of its worst forms.  I have come to realize that poverty has different forms and effects around the world.  I know that being hungry, being at risk from unclean water, being at risk from freezing to death, being at risk from dangerous living conditions, having little or no access to medical care, being at risk from exploitation sexually, economically, and environmentally are real and hard measurements for poverty.  Whatever opportunities and progress may be within walking distance of the poor, those hard measurements are still real and will end their lives too soon.

Proverbs 17: 5 says, "Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker; he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished."

     This is my concern with those who seem to use statistics to deny the reality of poverty in this country.  It is a mocking of the poor.  To despise the poor because seemingly so much is spent on their behalf and to then blame them for our national difficulties I take as mocking of the poor.

    Some of those who cite these statistics seem to miss the obvious, while stating we spend all this on the poor and then simultaneously deny we have poor people is to lose the connection between the reason for the spending.  If we have little poverty compared to the undeveloped world it is because we have spent this money.  Wouldn't it be a scandal if the 49 million or so folks considered under the poverty line actually had to live such destitute lives as many in the undeveloped world do, while living in this blessed land of economic properity and opportunity?

    The overall cost of poverty programs also has this constant reality; delivery of such services to the poor doesn't directly go to them but to the vast cadres of middle class workers who deliver those services.  This is always frustrating but just as we can't send astronauts into orbit without a delivery system so we cannot even get checks to elderly Social Security recipients without a Social Security Administration.  Another reality is that though there might be an "average" of how much money is spent for poor people there are plenty of those below that "average" which create the statistic.  Not all states give the same amount for the relief of the poor and not all costs of living (or surviving) are the same across the country.

    A vast amount of our poor populaton happen to be children.  Whatever the fraities of their parents many children in this country suffer from poverty.   If we mock them because so much seems to be allocated for them by way of food stamps, school lunches, section eight housing, medicaid, Head Start, etc.,  and yet they still don't seem to rise above their situation, we might not be taking into account that not all of those children receive those benefits and would be in much worse shape if those services weren't provided.

   It is always intersting to hear people making comments that if the church were just doing its job then the government wouldn't have to be spending all this money.  Well, I certainly applaud any effort to get God's people to be faithful and obedient and to love the poor as Jesus wants us to do.  I think such comments reflect some ignorance of the proper Biblical role of government to protect the rights of the poor, to coerce the wealthy to share their surplus with the needy (scary thought that not harvesting the corners of your field was a kind of tax to help the poor).

    I agree that if more churches were being obedient to God many poor people would no longer be poor, or be a burden to anyone but their own brothers and sisters.   Of course churches would have to start evangelizing among the poor and plant churches among them, which they don't like to do because poor people can't seem to pay the bills for the church like the middle class can.  Even then churches would have to start practicing love to their own members through acts of mercy, and they might have to realize sacrificial giving from their members to be effective at that mercy.

    There are a lot of reasons for poverty, and certainly if we had better marriages, more of them, and less divorce or abandonment of children then we would have less poverty.  If we had less drug abuse, and alcoholism, less explotative pay day lending, better schools, more job availability for low skill workers, etc. we would have less poverty.  All of these are compelling reasons for me to support preaching the Gospel to the poor, and demanding just laws to protect them so it doesn't get worse.

   Yet, we have poverty, and I personally think it is cruel to deny it exists because it means God's people settle for doing less, we shift the blame to the least among us, and we therefore refuse to help Jesus (Matthew 25) and we mock the Maker.  As for me, I don't want to face the implications of that.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


   If I could pick the kind of man I would want to come and be a church planter in the inner city, how would I describe him, what would he be like?  My wife and I often say if we had been assessed before we began to plant a church in Chattanooga many years ago we probably would have been rejected.  There were so many issues in our lives, so much baggage from our backgrounds in growing up in the projects of Newark, NJ, and a lot of immaturity.  I hope we can say with all integrity that God used us anyway, in spite of our weakness and even our sinfulness.
    I pose this question not because I think there are any perfect people, and nor do I think the "perfect" would necessarily apply for this kind of calling or assignment from God.  I pose it to articulate the challenge of what kind of character, gifts, and skills could make someone more effective.  Having gone through it I believe we would still have to admit that God can make a jackass talk, and make the stones praise him if no one else will.
1.  A man desperate for God, who seeks to be close to Jesus, who loves Christ and is forever mindful of his dependency on the power of the Holy Spirit, the washing of the blood, the finality of the cross, and the power and hope of the empty tomb.
2.  A man of humility, who is able to learn from those who are already in his community; who listens to them, who receives them into his home, his time, and his friendship.  A man who can be trusted as a friend.
3.  A man who loves his city, who sees its promise and its delight, who yearns for its success.  A man who can see the potential in grit, toughness, and the people who come from a hardscrabble past.
4.  A man who understands grace, and what it can do for someone who seemed to have no chance at all.  A man who believes not just in second chances but in seventy times seven of them.  A gracious man who gives grace especially to those who seem to offer no benefit to him, or who oppose him.
5.  A man who spends time with the poor, who loves them, who speaks to them with respect, who thinks, prays, and studies how he can help them without hurting them.  A man who delivers mercy to them, who leverages their own resources with them, who engages them in ministry alongside him.
6.  A man who loves boys and girls, who delights in the children of the community, who understands and knows they can have faith, and is willing to stay in ministry with them as they grow up.
7.  A man who is angry all the time; at injustice, at poverty, at racism, at ignorance, at violence.  A man who prays against evil, seeks to right wrongs, stands up for the helpless and weak, but does it with wisdom, faith, and an ability to not lose his love for persons.
8.  A man who challenges those with money and resources to be radical in their faith, to not live for themselves but for him who died for them and gave himself for them.  A man who prophetically calls on the rich to be rich in good works, sacrificial in their giving for ministry to the poor.  A man who loves rich people without sucking up to them and refuses to manipulate them for his own enrichment.
9.  A man who is innovative,  entrepreneurial, energetic in his networking to create social and economic solutions to the poverty that surrounds him.  A man who can see economic and vocational solutions without surrendering himself to the idolatry of materialism.
10.  A man with a wife who is with him in the mission.  A wife whose face reflects the reality of his love for her as they pursue their joint calling.  A man who wins the battle to balance his passion for ministry with a passion for her, who is present for his children, and engages them in the ideological struggle of justice without bitterness.
11.  A man who humbles himself to learn cross cultural skills and pursues relationships across racial, ethnic, and linguistic boundaries.  A man who listens to the voice of the people, refuses to be their messiah but points them to the real One, who seeks their advancement and does not use them for his, who feels their cause, their hurt, their hopes, and celebrates with them in their joys.
12.  A man who loves the Church of Jesus Christ, who will not abandon it for seemingly quick or pragmatic solutions. Who is willing to endure ambiguity in the twilight of waiting for movement and growth; in the newly converted, from the congregation, help from outside, or change in the city.  A man who has joy in the worship of God's people, and sees it as the fountain of hope for those engaged in the struggle of life and justice.

Friday, January 3, 2014


   As I was ruminating on cross-cultural ministry I began to articulate several reasons why it is not more assertively pursued by church leaders.  I will not claim that the reasons I give are comprehensive.  These are some  problems or obstacles that I have noticed.

1.  RACISM - It would be naive to think that this is still not a problem.  It would also be in error to think this is the only reason or always the reason for the avoidance of inter-racial and inter-cultural ministry.  Many folks do not pursue reconciliation between races and cultures for other reasons, some of which I will soon articulate.  However, racism still exists in our hearts and minds and affects our decisions.

     Racism is a sin, and it is the sin of (racial)pride and thus becomes idolatry.  It is the dehumanization of others by despising the image of God in people and this becomes the sin of hate, (thus murder), and the failure to love.  Some folks are racist and know themselves to be so and speak and act with hatred.  Others are racist and don't know it, but speak and act with a sense of racial superiority and entitlement and often fail to realize how hurtful their words and actions might be.  Recently I have read comments from some white Christians with the implication that black people were happier or in some way better off in slavery.  This said alongside the complaint that they voted for Obama and thus they are causing trouble for the whole nation.  It seems to me that this is racial arrogance, that one can declare slavery better for another group while glorying in one's own heritage of fighting for our nation's freedom, laying claim to all the slogans of the Revolution as if feeling the oppression from the British king.  I don't confine racism to any one race of people although racism tied to power is far more dangerous.  All of it is equally stupid and disgusting.

2.  CULTURAL AFFINITY OR ETHNOCENTRISM - there is a reason people don't jump ethnic lines to go some to other ethnic church. They feel comfortable with what they know, there family and friends are still in their home church, they understand the language, if not linguistics they get the cultural language.  The music is usually in their "heart language." This is true for most every ethnic group when it comes to religion.

      I often tell white pastors that black folks in this country were forced to create a unique cultural kind of worship service since they were shut out of white churches.  Without going into a commentary on ethnomusicology let me just say that most black folks who come from the traditional or even contemporary black church find most white churches to be utterly boring.  Most black folks don't like stilted or even Celtic music styles, they don't get into lectures that pose as sermons, they don't appreciate a worship that seems to stifle emotions and is almost martial in approach.  While many black believers have been blessed by coming into a deeper ministry of the Word, when they come from congregations that neglected Biblical teaching and pursued simple emotionalism or prosperity preaching, there is no doubt that black religious experience in America has been rich with depth and feeling; and often relevant to their social condition.

    So why should any minority come to a majority race worship where their concerns are either neglected or even despised?  Why should they make the effort, and why should anyone do that which is uncomfortable in crossing cultures?  I think there are several sound and good reasons, but they are not always apparent.

    It is difficult for any ethnic or cultural group that feels oppressed or marginalized by the majority to be confronted with an invitation to join the majority religious culture with the requirement to give up all of their own cultural identity.

3.  SPEED OF GROWTH AND CONVERSION - This was a sociological reality that Dr. Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner articulated with a concept known as the Homogeneous Unit Principle.   Conversions seem to come faster when you reach people in their own cultural context using their own cultural affinities.  Leadership, language, music, and methods that are familiar, safe, (and might even seem heroic in  opposing assimilation), help to bring about conversions within an ethnic group at a faster rate than if it is attempted going across ethnic or cultural barriers.  If we are going to plant churches and win people to Jesus why shouldn't we do what is faster and frankly more palatable?  What is of course shameful is to use this apparently truthful sociological analysis as an excuse to continue with our own racist proclivities.  One of the things church growth students have also realized is that is not simply homogeneous affinity that helps churches grow but something called "cultural congruity."  When a given culture thinks it is a high value to be cross cultural, than those kind of churches grow quickly as well.  When churches think they have a right to step over one racial group near their church to reach their preferred demographic target they may think they have a "missional" mentality, but it still looks racist to others.

4.  THE LACK OF A COMPELLING BIBLICAL VISION - When Christians are not confronted with the Biblical teaching of justice, mercy, reconciliation, (or concepts of what social righteousness ought to look like in the Kingdom of God) then it is no surprise that we continue in the isolation, self-satisfaction, and cultural stagnation of our separation.  If we don't recapture the passion of the Apostle Paul to "by all means win some" and are not willing to pay the price of "being a slave to all men" then we will not achieve reconciliation.  If the majority race population isn't willing to be servant to the minority population, and pursue them in their own cultural forms, then all the minority will hear and see is assimilation (and thus disintegration) and not love.

     If Christians aren't caught up in the passion of Jesus that we be "one" they will continue to be many, and not demonstrate the power of the Gospel to build us together as living stones.  If minority population believers cannot trust God to preserve them, and guard their dignity, and give them complete fulfillment in who God created them to be as they worship with the majority population, then their fears will deprive them of a fuller unity in Christ.  Without that unity we lose the strength and care we would have for one another, not just as individuals, but as people groups and thus we leave the marginalized at risk of further injustice.

    It is the Word that ought to trump everything, but I continue to see people who claim it as their authority simply interpret it through a cultural and racial lens, and it usually has to do with ego and power, or the illusion thereof.

5.  THE LACK OF CROSS CULTURAL SKILLS - These of course come from learning and experience and intention.  Most minorities learn such skills in order to survive while living in a majority context.  Missionaries learn these skills intentionally in order to serve the people group to which they are called.  We speak here of learning cultural cues, language, the history, glory, hopes, and fears of a people group.  We speak here of "friend making" across racial or cultural lines. In a country that is filling up with minority groups for the majority Christian population not to pursue these skills by intention reveals a lack of concern or love.  Might I also suggest it reveals a lack of common sense nor a will to survive by failing to accommodate to reality.

6.  THE LACK OF LEADERSHIP - Pastors, College Presidents, Seminary Presidents, Mission organizations, Sessions, and leaders at all levels are the ones who need to cast a compelling Biblical vision and to lay out a plan by which cross cultural ministry should and can take place.  Leadership, when done well, enables people to make sacrifices for a greater goal; it does not simply pander to their fears or comfort.

    Leadership sees the future and is able to integrate the past into a progressive plan that preserves Biblical principle and values while engaging new opportunities.  Good leadership looks around their institution and sees what he or she doesn't have and who or what is missing. Good leadership will pursue the recruiting, the training, giving of scholarships, the inclusion, the raising to partnership levels of leadership, the proactive pursuit of door opening for gifted minority individuals.  In cross cultural ministry we are forced to love our neighbors as ourselves and as John Calvin said there is no such thing as loving your neighbor without sacrifice.  Everybody gives up something to gain something more in ministries of reconciliation.

7.  BENIGN GEOGRAPHICAL SEPARATION -   There are people who cannot readily participate in cross cultural ministry because they live in a place where there is just "them"  Sometimes of course this is not really true because they have refused to see the Indian reservation or the trailer park or the migrant camp not too far away.  Yet, we know there are those folks who are not going to start a bus ministry that goes two hundred miles.  If you live in a place where no one is different from you, and you didn't go there to get away from the rest of us, well then please pray for the rest of the church of Jesus Christ.  Pray that we would stop running away from our future, which is to be with all these other kind of folks around the throne of heaven, where all our fears of losing, or desires to win against others, or to be self-authenticated will finally be eradicated, expiated, and propitiated from and for us by the blood of the Lamb who was slain.