Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Churches and Urban Reality (Part Three)

My list may seem too long at this point. I spend a fair amount of time pondering the question I hear so often from church leaders, "How can we help?"

So, the list goes on.

6) Understand the role of the church to be, at least in part, a challenge to the dominant culture.

People left the city for many reasons--economics, racism, crime, suburban sprawl, jobs, freeway development, etc. It is one thing to leave and quite another to forget altogether.

Face it. Our culture deifies the individual to the detriment of any viable sense of community. What's best for me is what I should do. What's best for the church and its growth is best for all.

Not so fast. Greed, materialism, selfishness, inequity in social policy, profit without morality--these forces need to be called to account by the church and its message, but even more by its lifestyle. A secondary outcome of a church's decision to challenge the dominant culture is a growing concern for people in need and, thus, for the city itself.

7) Redefine and broaden the church's understanding of morality and values.

This one can become a bit controversial. The struggle required here is essential.

The church today, especially among Evangelicals, seems preoccupied with right to life issues and homosexuality. Any biblical understanding of morality, any relevant discussion of values must be broader than this.

Urban value struggles involve equal opportunity to acquire fit and affordable housing. Access to healthcare and the quality of life this access provides is a moral matter. Quality education for children, no matter where they live, is a matter of civic morality. Overcoming hunger in the city, providing employment opportunities that deliver a livable wage, equal access to fair and impartial hearings in our courts of law--these are all matters for the values discussion that occupies a lot of time among church people. Scripture study will more than support this contention.

8) When coming to the inner city, don't assume that everyone is "lost" and in need of your gospel.

This may sound strange to some. The fact is, most, no, not most--the vast majority of the urban poor are believers--in God as a supreme being and in Jesus as the Messiah. The vast majority consider themselves to be Christians.

Entering the neighborhood as "saviors" almost always proves to be counter productive to say the least.

Come as friends. Come open to learning and new experiences. Come to receive as much as to share.

Come to engage in new relationships that could be long-term if taken seriously.

Sorry, but there is a bit more to come. . .should churches pay taxes???


Niki said...

I'm catching up becaue it's been awhile. I look forward to reading the rest of this series. I appreciate your words of wisdom and will keep them in mind as we start our work with Dry Bones Denver. God bless you Larry!

Anonymous said...

#8 caught my attention especially because this is a matter that I feel rather sensitive about. An editorial in my small hometown newspaper recently asked the following question: "Should the national Christian leaders say they are stopping most funding for mission trips abroad for 10 years and put all the money into massive campaigns to bring God's word into big cities like Houston and New York? Instead of spending money elsewhere, what about putting millions of dollars and hundreds of mission workers into the inner-city neighborhoods of a Chicago or Houston, for example, over a 10 year period. Then move on to another city or two?"

I wrote a letter in response, and this is an excerpt from that letter--partly based on what David Shipler said at the prayer breakfast and in his book.

"Something I have become aware of the past couple of years is that there is a prevailing American success myth. This myth says any individual who works hard and makes the right decisions can be successful and achieve anything they want in this land of opportunity called America. But the problem lies in that there are millions of people who ARE working hard. They are trying to make the right decisions. But climbing out of poverty is much more complex than just getting a job. There is a great book by David Shipler called "The Working Poor" and in the book, the author talks about this American myth I just described. He says that the myth has value in that it sets a demanding standard both for the nation and every resident: we as a society have to strive to make ourselves the fabled land of opportunity, and each resident must strive to use that opportunity. At the same time, the myth tends to lay blame. In our society, we tend to view hard work as not only practical, but moral. We conclude that if a person's hard work leads to prosperity, and if work is a moral virtue, and if anyone in the society can attain prosperity through work, then the failure to do so is a fall from righteousness, according to Shipler. "In the American atmosphere, poverty has always carried a whiff of sinfulness," he says.

I see this as hundreds of churches and organizations converge on the inner cities to "evangelize" them. It seems it is automatically assumed that because people are poor or disadvantaged, then they need to be saved. Yes, there is a lot of crime, a lot of violence, a lot of drugs in the inner city. Yes there are people who definitely need hope. But just up the road, there is a lot of greed and self-indulgence. A lot of materialism. A lot of things equally as immoral as things attributed to the inner city, but somehow no one assumes they need evangelizing.

My question is if the goal is evangelization, why just focus on inner cities? The truth is, most people in my community have very strong faith. They may be poor and they may make bad choices at times (like everyone in the human race) but there is no lack of spirituality or belief of God in this neighborhood. In fact, they have a much better grasp on what community, compassion, and being a "neighbor" means than most middle class Christians I know. Christianity may be declining in the United States according to the editorial, but is it fair to target the inner cities as responsible for that statistic? In my opinion, Christianity has declined far more in the materialistic wealth of north Dallas than in south Dallas.

If we are going to focus on domestic missions and evangelization, just be careful not to make assumptions about who the target should be. That CEO might need the Lord as much as the homeless man under the bridge. How about putting hundreds of mission workers into Highland Park or downtown Dallas? How about "suburban" outreach instead of "inner city" outreach?

Like I said earlier, I am surrounded by people who definitely need hope. They need purpose. They need all the things faith can give them. But I am also surrounded by people who need society to see them with unbiased eyes. They need to be freed from the condescending, patronizing stereotypes that even the most well-meaning people, often times Christians, oppress them with. And most of all they need people who are as concerned with bringing justice as they are free food and gospel tracts."

Rachel Embry