Wednesday, April 26, 2017
I had a hard time sleeping last night. It is sometimes like this for me after I preach or speak at an event. I am often agitated about the mistakes I have made in my sermon or speech. I feel guilty and that I have disappointed the Lord. Usually this does not come about because someone has complained or criticized me. It is extremely rare for anyone to criticize me to my face after I speak, and I suppose I should be very grateful for that. I just jump all over myself.
Let me assure everyone that I know I’m forgiven, oh praise God for that, and that I am loved by my Heavenly Father! It just takes some time to work out the emotions when I think I should have done better. Maybe I failed to connect some of the thoughts and arguments, maybe I failed to rely on the Holy Spirit when I was speaking (I get really angry at myself if that is the case.) So, the purpose of this article is simply to restate my argument from last night in a way that I hope will be more coherent. I desire most to give glory to God and to be faithful to His Word.
I had the honor and privilege of speaking at the annual Hope for the Inner City banquet. They are a faith based non-profit that seeks to pursue Christian community economic development in Chattanooga. This was the tenth anniversary of their merger with Inner-City Ministries, and the 45th anniversary when I helped to found the original organization, Inner City Missions, Inc. back in 1972. Man, am I old! Though both organizations have had their struggles they have tried to be faithful and to help people rise up and prosper both spiritually and economically. I am thankful and proud of their efforts.
My remarks were based on the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18ff. “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
This of course is the very familiar passage which is used at mission conferences and challenges us to go, and to make disciples of the nations, and we do that in the practice of baptism and teaching people to obey everything Jesus taught us. I am someone who grew up in the inner city of Newark, NJ and then was called by God to plant a church in the city. The communities of the poor are something the Lord won’t let me forget in terms of my personal calling and the reality of their need.
We usually see this term “nations” or “ethnic groups” as just that, particular nations or ethnic groups. I have been thinking about African American urban poor communities, Native American reservations, poor white trailer parks and communities as also coming under that “ethne” word in the passage. They are communities that need to be discipled, although we don’t usually think of them that way – unless we are a church planter among the poor, and then we do.
I know it is currently important to look upon poor communities from an “asset based” perspective than simply that of need. But, seriously, when you grow up there and live there it is a little hard to ignore the deficits. The poverty, the gangs and violence, the drugs, the broken families (I grew up in one), the failing public schools, the alienation from the police and justice system, the lack of grocery stores, viable jobs, etc. It goes on and on, generation after generation, and the despair and frustration can be daunting. I know there are assets, and the greatest of course are the wonderful people created in God’s image who live in these places. Their potential is huge and untapped. Yet, the trouble is real.
We know such troubled places didn’t create themselves. We are aware of the history of economic racism, red lining, discrimination in housing, and employment. We do not blame all of the problems of the inner city on the bad or immoral decisions of those who might live there. People make immoral and bad decisions in every kind of human community. It is just that when such overwhelming circumstances are against us then we need something inside us to help us through, and out, and over them.
So, my remarks last night were based on two calls and two challenges. The first call is simply the call to salvation, which I believe is like a miracle. As the Scripture says, “Therefore if any man be in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) We think that the people who live in the communities of the poor need Jesus, they need to be converted. As Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16) If something can only happen by the power of God it must be a miracle.
One might object that is just the old fundamentalism that seeks to get people saved but doesn’t take their physical needs or being seriously. I would say it is much older than fundamentalism, it is essential Christianity. People need to be saved, and especially the poor who need an engine of hope in their hearts to rise above the circumstances in which they live.
The second call is that to discipleship. Now discipleship is that part of the Great Commission which tells us to teach people to obey everything that the Lord Jesus taught us. So much of American Christianity has been built on the idea of the instant miracle, where someone prays the sinner’s prayer (“Lord Jesus come into my heart and forgive me of my sins, amen!”) I am thankful that sometimes we see this miracle happen in people’s lives, where their life is changed immediately.
However, even in the ministry of Jesus, he led his disciples for three years and even after that they struggled, deserting him and betraying Him. No, he did not fail in discipleship, he forgave them, he taught them, he changed them. My point is that it was a process, and some people are saved that way. We are not sure exactly when it happens, but in the process of loving, mentoring, befriending, teaching, and training the transformation takes place. The Holy Spirit opens a person’s heart to realize Christ died for them, and loves them, and they can be forgiven and adopted as a child of God, and they believe.
People who come from so much trouble, dysfunctionality, and brokenness need their value system changed. They need hope, and they need models, and opportunity. Now, why isn’t this happening?
Here is where I want to offer two challenges. The first is to the church, the local church that is anywhere near the communities of the poor. If we persist in having church indoors, staying in our buildings, commuting to the neighborhood but never interacting with the neighbors, then we are not going to have much opportunity in sharing Christ with the poor. For that we are going to have to get out on the streets, hang out on porches, play ball in the community centers, and speak with people. Hold back yard bible clubs, have home Bible studies, whatever ways you can to share Christ.
The poor are not a project for the middle class do-gooder, they are real live human beings. Now, there is obviously a reason people avoid poor communities. Sometimes it is scary, we are afraid, there is potential violence. That has always been true in the history of missions. There have always been places too dangerous to go, too unhealthy, where people die and get killed. Places that don’t seem to even want Christ or seem to hate us for showing up. Yet, Christians went. They went, they shared Christ, they fed the poor, healed the sick, and lived among the people, and yes sometimes it cost them their lives. So, more Christians came, and the Christians among the people grew bold and lived out their faith, and nations were discipled.
Pastors and Christians need to get up out of their buildings and go out among the people. Just show up and hang out and as the Lord gives you opportunity become involved in God conversations. Ask questions, share your faith, invite folks to church and into your life. Now, if you are a pastor who doesn’t believe the Bible, or you don’t believe that people can be saved or need to be, well, you should stay in your office and not speak with anyone. You will just screw them up.
The second challenge, and this is specifically where I challenged people to support Hope, is to help the folk we meet in the community to enter into a long term training and development effort. It is not enough just to go around asking people to make decisions for Jesus; we need to call them to a lifetime of discipleship. This discipleship of the poor includes economic discipleship, and programs like Hope are trying to create a conveyor belt experience where principles of how to work, and then skills to do a job, are taught while a stipend is given to provide incentive to keep going in training.
My hope and vision is to see the community discipled. Yes, I know neighborhoods need viable jobs; that pay enough to allow families to get off of welfare and make progress. We need entrepreneurs, new industry, relevant training that translates into work opportunities. We need good schools; we need good government, better housing, adequate and affordable medical care. Yes, all of those things. But to have an engine of hope to pursue them, to use them, to profit from them, people need a relationship with Jesus Christ. I am calling on the church to get out among the people and disciple them as individuals and the community so that our neighborhoods might be changed. Church, do your job!
Last night I mentioned that even right now some young person is driving around with a gun in his pocket, looking for someone to shoot. This is our reality, and sure enough last night there were a few more shootings. How are we going to change that? Well, some of those folks are God’s elect, and they can and will be saved if we will actually get into their lives and experiences with the love of Christ. The need is urgent and real. May God give us the courage and faith to do so!