Thursday, October 30, 2008

Can they come?

Several weeks ago, back in the summer, I received the following message from a young pastor who leads a new, young church in an undisclosed urban area.

He wants to lead his congregation in reaching out to the poor. He really wants his group to be committed to engaging the realities of urban poverty, including homelessness and extreme poverty.

He's finding that his vision and good intentions may not be enough to pull it off.

Here's the email exchange we shared. His comments are in italics, my embedded replies to his original message are in bold red font.


I need some counsel. As we’ve started to cultivate relationships with our poor friends, several of them have expressed the desire to participate in our house church gatherings. On one occasion, a couple of them have. Way cool!

We’re delighted that we’re rubbing shoulders with the poor in this way. But it’s messy. Ain't it the truth! If you keep it up, it'll get messier than it is now. . .kingdom does that. . .wears you out too!

I feel tension about it: 1) on one hand, our primary demographic is young adults in the . . . area; I’m concerned about our ability to connect to them in a house church gathering setting if more and more of our poor friends continue to come. Maybe the Lord has a different demographic that is being imposed or has come to challenge you. . .I am serious about that and understand your fear and trembling. . .the fact that you have the "problem" makes you and your current enterprise exceptional in a Shane Claiborne, et. al. sort of way. . . 2) at the same time, I’m thrilled that we have poor friends! It would not feel just or righteous telling Cindy, one of our homeless friends, “You can’t come to house church anymore.” It just doesn’t seem right. Never abandon your heart on this one.

How would you approach this? I 'd let whoever wanted to come, come. I think you'll find that the "non-Christians" among you (what exactly is that anyway????) would be impressed. I'd (you asked for my opinion!) want those looking for a church to know and understand up front our commitment to the poor.

Options we’ve considered: 1) start a house church for our poor neighbors; I wouldn't do this--class segregation is no different from racial segregation, plus reading James helps. . . . And Paul had a thing or two to say about the nature of the church and the poor. . .not that Paul answers all the questions! 2) continue to have our poor friends mingle with our young adult friends in a house church setting; I've found this works, especially if you address it together. 3) propose to our poor friends a weekly meal/hang out time where we can continue to cultivate relationships instead of in the house church setting, relationship. To what end? Friends who aren't good enough to be on the inside, but good enough to hang out with so as to make us feel as if we are doing Kingdom work. . .??? Middle class folks and educated folks too often operate under the notion that control is what we need. Usually, God doesn't work much in such situations.

If you’re able to respond through email, that would be great. Coffee would be even better. I know you’re a busy man. We see this as a significant strategic decision in our community and want to listen to as many wise voices as we can. Francis Shaeffer, not my favorite thinker, wrote a book 30 years ago or so--The Church at the End of the 20th Century--in which he said something like: the church needs the poor more than the poor need the church; the church needs the poor to sleep between its pressed, washed, starched sheets. It is about the kingdom, not about "decisions for Christ."
Let me know. Thanks. Feel free to take that "Thanks" back. ..but you asked! I wish I had time for coffee on the run, but if you want to meet me email. . . Love you guys!


I really don't think there is an acceptable, effective "middle ground" here.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

There is so much that I want to say, and I might comment later, but I have a question. Does there have to be a dichotomy between the kingdom and a decision for Christ? I am also unclear about your beef with FS. It has been a long time ago since I have read him so this is an honest question.

RC, Memphis

incapearl said...

What's it about we're after a "demographic?" There was no such word in Jesus's language--unless you figure his demographic was the poor, the sick, the destitute...essentially everyone who didn't fit in any other demographic.

Further, where would he put the income level? Right now, I'm unemployed, would I not be allowed to house church because I'm only making unemployment? Or, what is the income cut-off?

Wondering "who is in my demographic" and "who is worthy of the gospel" are scarily similar questions.

Daniel Gray said...

Awesome letter.

I think one of the greatest challenges for the church is to get people to associate with others who are not exactly like them. We always look for people like us, and as such our churches are very segregated (not just in a racial or economic sense). If our churches were more diverse (demographically, spiritually) I think we would have a better idea of the right orthopraxy and would place less of our energy and fighting on orthodoxy.

It's good to see Christians asking questions about who should be a part of the body and how they wrestle with including people who are not like them.

Anonymous said...

reflections from a ministry past: a true "evangelist heart" (define evangelist as the person who is always asking how to reach the next person, whether it be for food help, life help, or spiritual help) always conflicts with the agenda of those who say "you have to dance with them that brung you." (a direct quote from a leader from my past). If you have an evangelist heart, then you always go in search of that next person. And if the next person God puts in front of you is that homeless person, then any "2nd class treatment" shows that you are just pretending.

If you think about the "stable" (is "homed" the opposite of "homeless?") as those who will pay the bills for your church, then view those as "them that brung you." But if your heart is a true evangelist heart, you simply cannot exclude that next person, in any way.

Anonymous said...


You're right, there is no middle ground on this, and you gave the right response. To make a conscious choice to exclude or segregate a group of people from a church because of social class seems outright sinful. Didn't Jesus tell parables about that?

I've had similar conversations lately concerning the racial makeup of many of our churches. People have basically said, "What's wrong with going to a church where you are comfortable?" My question has been, "What makes you think church (or Christianity/the Kingdom of God) is supposed to be comfortable?!"

Thanks for always providing me with something to think about.

Anonymous said...

Several thots come to mind: Thank you God for folks wanting to "reach" the needy. God forgive us for being so screwed up that want to help folks in a comfortable manner that makes us feel good. God, open our eyes to a Mother Teresa heart and prompt us to make bandages out of our ties and give folks the shirt off our back and praise you that Jesus left perfect "sanity" and "sanitation" to let us know we are loved. Thank you God that Jesus didn't just watch us and sing "Make Me A Servant" while passing by on the other side. MY REAL ANSWER: Get the street folks to march into the NICE church building with food they've scrounged up and throw a big dinner for the Pharisees! God, be merciful to we sinners!