Friday, September 12, 2008

"Telling others about God"

People interested in our work here in Dallas, especially church people, often ask us, "How do you share the Gospel with your clients?"

Sometimes, after taking an hour-long tour of our several locations and initiatives, including health care, legal services, workforce training, after school programs, and food delivery, someone will ask, "Now where do you do the ministry?"

This question always causes me to smile.

Of course, I know what is intended.

People want to know if we are "witnessing" to those who come to us for assistance. They want to know if we are teaching people about the Christian faith. You know, driving folks toward conversion or a "decision of Christ." This is especially true of more affluent church folks from outside the neighborhood. It is as if "sharing the faith" is all that matters, and once completed, they are "off the hook" and can return to their comfort and luxury without further concern.

I have to tell you, I wish it were that easy.

Across the last 15 years, I've come to understand that questions like these reflect a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the communities where we are working, as well as the individuals who compose these neighborhoods. In addition, these concerns misunderstand how we relate to all who come through our several doors.

Not long ago we received the following message from a prospective donor:

Again, I say thank you for the effort and time, which you commit to the ministry of people. In a recent meeting. . .we were able to discuss the opportunity of partnering with Central Dallas Ministries. Based on the principles and guidelines of our organization, we don’t believe that such a partnership would be the best possible use of the funds that we give to charitable causes.

The primary focus of ministries that we support must include spreading the gospel of Jesus to those that do not know Him; we believe that "loving God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself” is what we should try to do.

While Central Dallas Ministries strongly and actively promotes the second half of this philosophy, I don’t believe telling others about God is a priority to Central Dallas Ministries. People must have the opportunity to know and love Jesus, and we see humanitarian aid as an avenue to promote this agenda. It is an opportunity for them to see Christ in us, and for us to share with them an eternal hope that will greatly exceed what we can give them materially and socially.

I trust I have not offended you in any way, as it was certainly not meant to; however, I thought that I certainly owed you an answer and explanation, considering your efforts and consideration. I wish you and Central Dallas Ministries the best in your future endeavors and know that you will be a blessing to many.

What this person and group do not understand is the simple fact that the vast, vast majority of the people we work among claim a clear commitment to Jesus and self-identify as Christians.

The fundamental question in our community is not whether folks have faith in God.

The major questions we deal with have to do with survival as individuals and families.

In my view some of our "Christian groups" need to read more of Jesus and his early followers.

For us and our organization the key concern is not what others believe. The key issue is what we do because of our faith in response to the pain of our neighbors, most of whom are our brothers and sisters in faith.

I love what John wrote so long ago:

If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? (1 John 3:17) Translation: talk is cheap, especially when it is holy talk or God-talk.

Or, consider these words from James, the brother of Jesus:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:15-17)

Every day we engage, embrace, hear, encounter, hug, love, challenge, pray with, encourage, urge on, call (and did I say love?) the urban poor here in the heart of Dallas. The people we face day-by-day have and know Jesus. What they do not have is opportunity, enough food, education, a way to receive health care, respect and a realistic chance to care for themselves and their families.

To "share the gospel" and walk away is pure foolishness, as well as faithless.

I suppose we are very Franciscan.

St. Francis once challenged his followers with these words, "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words only when necessary." This is our creed.

If that is offensive, come live with us for a while and see how it works out a life at a time in our very real world.

By the way, today in a meeting with volunteers, one of our long-time partners who has come every week for 14 years to serve and to love shared a moving testimony about "prayer time" she had enjoyed with very poor neighbors who had come to our food pantry for help. Tears flowed and everyone understood what kind of ministry she was up to among our dear neighbors who came to unload burdens and receive hope for another day.

If that is not spiritual enough for some donors, I simply regret that they don't understand and that they have no willingness to experience our reality.



Anonymous said...

Good post. Your service is changing lives. Your blog is changing those of us with hard hearts. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

One sentence from the letter you received first stuck in my mind, and then stuck in my craw:

"People must have the opportunity to know and love Jesus, and we see humanitarian aid as an avenue to promote this agenda.

I think this statement, unfortunately and probably unintentionally, sets forth the truth about too many churches in the United States. The Church has no interest in doing what is right for its own sake, but only to promote an "agenda".

This is a particularly unhappy merger between Christianity and American Capitalism--we will not help you unless we get a quid pro quo. No different from the government conditioning food aid to starving people on a country's leaders supporting American foreign policy.

Hear our sermon or you don't get your sandwich!

To be honest, I cannot imagine anyone living in the United States who has not heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I cannot even belive that any, except the willfully blind, believe that to be the case.

I am afraid that what is really meant here is that the recipient of humanitarian aid must have pushed upon them the paricular sectarian beliefs of a specific church before they are worth helping.

What does that mean in practice? I am not entirely sure, but since people in low income communities are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic, and likely to be Catholic, AME or some variety of Baptist, I suppose that means they need to hear the Gospel as promoted by some other denomination--which ever church is providing the humanitarian aid.

I cannot think of an attitude more at odds with the teachings of Jesus.

"Dear Mr. Samaritan, you are bleeding. If you will just let me explain to you the doctrine of transubstantiation, then I will be happy to bandage you."

cindy said...

Great post, Larry! I am blessed by volunteering with two ministries (supported primarily by churches) that operate on this philosophy, and I know lives are being changed - both those who are being served and those who are doing the serving. I appreciate what you're doing through CDM and your blog. Blessings!

lee said...

I hope the person who wrote the letter and his or her church see your posting today. Sometimes I bet you want to shake the people physically, but you are the eptiome of calm, reasoned thought. CDM is one of the best things in Dallas.

Anonymous said...

So many western Christians, especially American free-church Protestants, have it stuck in their heads that the gospel is facts and that belief is assent.

But, like St. Francis, I believe that feeding and clothing the poor is the gospel. Patiently sticking to that freely-giving way of life is belief. You yourself, Larry, report all the time how that gospel is bearing fruit in your neighborhoods: the people you serve become the people who serve.

God bless every assembly everywhere --- whether or not you call it "church" --- that pursues his passions and cares for his loved ones.

Jeff W

Brad Carter said...

This post is right on, Larry. Almost every person in our community--whether poor, rich or in-between-- has some kind of faith (or at least had the opportunity to). The challenges of those in poverty are not faith, but living as you said.

Dear Lord, if our actions speak louder than our words-- may we be doing your work more than we speak your words.

Agent B said...

Give a sandwich or give a sermon...?

Maybe the sandwich IS the sermon.

Anonymous said...

I work for a church which is quiet compassionate, but sometimes I get the feeling that once folks are in the water the work is done. I plan to use this post as a discussion starter at a future elders meeting. I am starting an afternoon tutor program staffed with some church members. Some are wary because they are wondering how the children will be taught. As I have said before, I don't always agree with you, but you sure know how to explain your position.


Stacy Peters said...

Larry, you are one great communicator. Your humility shines through the things you say. I agree with you whole-heartedly. That's why we support your ministry financially (if only a small amount). Helping with food, housing, and health-care is work that all Christians should do. I love the old King James version of Jesus teaching, "When saw we thee sick, in prison, naked, hungry?" The gist of this letter to you is, "When saw we thee?" Your reminders about these things are firm, but kind. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Larry, you have stated your position. My summary of it is;

Liberation theology is “this world” in focus and not “other world.” Its primary concern is not with salvation
from sin, Satan, and death, but with deliverance from earthly oppression. One may see similarities between it
and the false notions of first century Jews looking for a political, warrior messiah. As they would learn through
the gospel of Christ Himself, there is no doubt that God is concerned with the oppressed. However, His primary concern is far greater.

Anonymous said...

Here are some of the important points Pope Benedict XVI made about Liberation Theology:

1. Liberation Theology has it center of power in Latin America and in African Theology, but is found in many Christian denominations throughout the Third World.

2. Liberation Theology is a new interpretation of Christian reality.

3. Liberation Theology is radically Marxist. “ . . .the world must be interpreted in terms of the class struggle and that the only choice is between capitalism and Marxism.”

4. Liberation Theology thrives on perpetuating class struggle. The only people of the Church are those who participate in class struggle.

5. Liberation Theology is a theology of bloody political revolution. All of Christian reality is reduced to politico-social liberation praxis (action).

6. Liberation Theology rejects traditional scriptural interpretations. “The experience of the "community" determines the understanding and the interpretation of Scripture. . . Ultimately, what is normative for interpretation is not historical research but the hermeneutic of history experienced in the community or the political group.”

7. Liberation Theology makes the Bible subject to a Marxist view of history. “The "historicality" of the Bible must justify its absolute dominance and thus legitimize the' transition to materialist-marxist philosophy, in which history has taken over the role of God. . . historical criticism has loosed Scripture from the traditional interpretation, which now appears to be unscientific.

8. Liberation Theology is a threat to the faith of the Christian Church.

Here Pope Benedict XVI analyzes some of the central concepts of Liberation Theology:
Faith: Jesus' experience of God is radically historical. "His faith is transformed into fidelity." Thus faith is fundamentally replaced by "fidelity to history". . .

Hope is interpreted as "confidence in the.future" and as working for the future and thus is subordinated once more to the history of class conflict. . .

Love consists in the "option for the poor"; i.e., it coincides with opting for the class struggle. . .

Perhaps Mr James some of the more informed churches do not support your organization for the reasons noted by Pope Benedict XVI.

Larry James said...

For those who moved the discussion toward liberation theology, I invite you to come down and see what is going on among the very poor in Dallas. This is not about a theory of interpretation. This is about action with and among thousands of people who have been left out, left behind and kicked to the curb in a frightenly systematic manner. It is always interesting to me when people defend themselves by attacking a work based completely on Christian kindness, compassion and a quest for equity, fairness and justice--all very important values to God as communicated in scripture.

Larry James said...

Oh, and BTW--I can assure you that typically the churches who do not support us have very little regard for the opinions of Pope Benedict.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:09 -

Nothing has astounded me more from my Christian brethren as your comments. Obviuosly, in your opinion there is a "score board" that tallies "saved" souls so at the end of the 4th quarter you can send your score card to the Man and obtain entry into the Kingdom. I grew up in a church lead by elders and preachers that had your view point... and I left it as fast as I could once I got out of college and could tell my parents I was old enough to choose my faith. When I was in college, I was surrounded by "Bible Thumpers" as they were called by those around them who were constantly hit on to " be saved". I am so glad I am no longer in the sterile church more interested in the "save" numbers than acting out their faith and getting down in the dirt to help those in need. And by the way, your comments assume these people are not already saved... or maybe you meant not saved the way you think they should be. I would like to say alot more to you but it would not be pretty. And it is almost time for church and some saving of souls to get the score board rocking and to work on vacation bible school strategy to make sure we are in the best position to save the souls of all those kids this summer and plan for the tv broadcast of the service tomorrow.... thanks for reminding me why i made the choice i made.

Anonymous said...

ANON 9:09 - Let me guess. 65 yrs. old. attended same church since you were 20. sit in same seat in your church every Sunday and if someone gets to your seat before you do you make them move. Never miss a service because attendance is most important. on all the committees ( and especially the newly baptized and saved member committee). have raised some hell a time or two when the preacher's sermon was a little on the edge, you know like asking the congregation to get more involved with homeless or starting a food pantry service for poor neighbors but things got smoothed over when you learned that the mission was to "save them" when they showed up for help. wanted to kick out of the congregation any one that has been divorced. pushed for evangelism explosion month to set a new church record for newly baptized. was against outreach programs that did not involve the limits of the 4 walls of the church. favorite hymn is " rock of ages". pushed for only males to be ushers and communion servers. called members to find out why they had not "tithed" this year. believe that everyone is going to hell if they did not convert to your faith. can't understand this new contemporary christian music and think of it as devil worship music. wingtips. buick. and believes that anyone who is an advocate for those who need a helping hand are followers of liberation theology.


You will not find a more loving, christian, caring man than Larry James. You obviously don't know him or his work.

Larry, thanks for allowing me to see that there are really people out there like ANON 9:09 so it will startle me into action. Keep up the good work - the Lord's work - and do not under any circumstances let old timers like ANON 9:09 who don't get it and never will get it ( unless of course you start a program that requires saving those you help before you help them) stop your incredible work.
David D.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:09 et al:

You epitomize what Larry is implicitly critiquing here: people who place their theological theories over people. In Jesus day, they were epitomized by Pharisees, and he has some rather unkind things to say about them. The moment Larry suggests we care about people as radically as Jesus did, you pull out another theory to justify doing little or nothing, in this case, "well, that's just Liberation Theology." Nevermind that there could be some similarities between LT and Jesus' teachings, since LT is based (however imperfectly) on those teachings. Overlap with other ideas does not make all ideas LT. There is usually at least some truth in most significant movements.

Anonymous said...

Coincidently, a nice Catholic woman has an editorial today in the Dallas Morning News making almost the same point as Larry's blog. See it here:

I think it would be hard to attribute her experience to "Liberation Theology".

Let's face it, our arrogance makes us believe we know better, are better, are more Christian, than other people.

In truth, we are just more fortunate and owe it to others to share that good fortune.

We need to visit the ill and the prisoner, feed the hungry, clothe the naked--it is all our Christian duty.

A duty that does not depend on whether someone's beliefs exactly correspond to our own.

Anonymous said...

Larry--The letter from "prospective donor" could have come from my church leadership! I have made copies of this particular post & will give each of our leaders a copy. You & I talked on the phone re: the problem I had just asking for the Clint Black fund raiser to be publicized in church bulletin. I was told by the leaders, that after my request, they once again "looked into" CDM by going to web site & they basically came to same conclusion that "prospective donor" did. But I believe they really felt that because CDM is not "pushing" our particular heritage brand of Christianity, they could not EVEN approve a simple one-time blurb in bulletin for fund raiser. I am greatly disappointed in them & am rapidly becoming disgusted!!

Anonymous said...

anon 10:02 - I completely understand where you are coming from. I suggest you do what I did - RUN RUN as fast as you can from that church and join one that lives the Christian faith and not one that offers lip service and an arrogant faith. If you stay in that congregation you are complicit since no amount of your hard work changing the leaders has worked for you. Good luck and I am happy to know you have an issue with your church's position.