There are several compelling issues to prompt a discussion about pursuing church planting among the poor, at least for me. One is simply the issue of missions and the call upon Jesus (and consequently us) to preach the Gospel to the poor; are all the poor saved? Another issue for church planting is the issue of justice and the consequent issues of reconciliation, economic and material opportunity, and deliverance from injustice. Theology has results, and if the theology is bad it produces ideas and patterns that hurt people. So, another issue in all of church planting is whether or not the people being gathered are being discipled under Biblical teaching, and is it sound Biblical theology, or not?
Have you got "good religion?" To put it bluntly, we need more urban missionaries to bring a better Gospel than a lot of people have carried into the cities already. Certainly this sounds presumptuous, but we believe what we believe out of conscience, and it is observable that there has been a lot of "bad religion" which now seeks to defend its territory. All should enter such ministry with humility, a willingness to learn from others who are there, to learn how to be servants, but we cannot acquiesce to the conditions that exist. More of the same will not do.
There are dangers for any people receiving missionaries, and there are of course other dangers for them to have no missionary at all. Our goal in planting churches among the poor is to have those evangelists (indigenous or not) be people of integrity, people of good theology, people of sound cultural intelligence. Missionaries who lack these things can cause damage to folk. We would like to start with the assumption that they are spiritual people who know God, and whose lives reflect Christ.
Ministry among and to the poor needs to have some standard as to whether or not it is effective, helpful, glorying to God, and life changing for the poor. There are many ministries to and for the poor in the United States. A good many of them might be classified as "sustaining" people in their condition while giving them some religious faith and hope but with no strategy to change the condition of folk. Worse still are some that "do" for the poor without changing people hearts or economic conditions. Obviously if someone is hungry and they are given a meal at the moment of their hunger it can help keep them going, so with any particular kind of relief given to them. There is a place for that, but it should be either as a starting place or at sustaining places in the relationship along a slope of growth and improvement for the person receiving the help. If there is no "upward slope", then that ministry is not really helpful or effective; it is not life changing.
There are too many "ministries" with no strategy for relationship, no strategy for the growth of people, families, or communities. So, I would offer a few questions to help anyone in their evaluation of an urban ministry, or ministry to the poor, for their continued support or involvement. These are not necessarily in their order of importance:
1. Is this ministry focused on any other personality than that of Jesus? Is it a money maker for the founder, leader, or pastor or is tangible help flowing to the people?
2. Is there an articulation of the Gospel to the people, are people being called to faith, are they being gathered around a submission to the Scriptures?
3. Is there a purposeful raising up of indigenous folk in spiritual leadership for the ministry? Where are the leaders?
4. Is mercy given with accountability, in relationship, and with wisdom so it doesn't make people dependent or cynical?
5. Is there a "holistic" sensitivity to the condition of people and their families, with an awareness of their spiritual, economic, ethnic, cultural, and neighborhood context?
6. Is there a reconciling aspect to the ministry, without attempting to lock people into a "ghettoized" view of community or poverty ministry, where they become ingrown and cut off from the wider Kingdom and community of God?
7. Are people being visibly lifted out of misery, or simply sustained in it with occasional, crisis, or seasonal relief? Are individuals growing in social, literary, vocational, and economic capital so they can thrive on their own?
8. Is there a church being formed, whether it be small or not, whether it have adequate resources for its own sustainment or not? Is it meeting for worship, is it preaching the Word in truth, is there loving accountability, are the sacraments being celebrated? Is it growing at all? The gathering of children should not be despised.
9. Is this Christian community caring for each other, caring for the spiritual life of their own families, friends, and neighbors? Are the poor learning to care for others that are poor?
10. Is this ministry gaining respect from outside supporters, where in developing its own voice and its own aspirations and goals is being listened to, or is it only treated in a paternalistic way and used simply as a ministry opportunity by outside interests?
I would encourage you to examine any ministry with which you are involved with these questions, and to press for the better as simply opposed to what has been. Remember, poor communities which are being evangelized will take much longer to arrive at self-sustainment in being a congregation. This doesn't mean they shouldn't be self-governing, and even self-propagating prior to the day when they need no outside help.
Congregations in very depressed and marginalized communities need at least ten years, or more, of outside help without a barrage of constant badgering or criticism. At the same time any donor has a right to ask for a measure of progress, and maybe the questions above will help give some markers for that progress.