Friday, October 24, 2008

"So, where's the ministry?"

It happens to me again and again.

Always it involves church people.

It can be in the midst of or at the end of a site visit/tour. Most recently, it occurred in a meeting with a large church's board of elders.

It goes something like this.

I describe in great detail all that we are doing. Or, I escort folks around the inner city to see site after site where we are working with very poor people.

Included in almost every tour or discussion is exposure to our community health services, our public interest law firm, our after-school academy, our affordable housing developments, our 15-story building in Downtown where homeless folks will live, our summer and after-school lunch program, our food distribution center, the one-stop shop that serves the needs of youth who "age out" of the foster care system, the Central Dallas Church, our AmeriCorps efforts, the list goes on.

These efforts touch thousands of individuals and families.

Eventually, someone feels the need to ask the question.

"So, Larry, where does the ministry happen?"

Translation: where do you "share the gospel," "close the sale," "call people to convert to Jesus," "invite people to pray that Jesus would come into their hearts and 'get saved?'"

The question betrays a couple of fundamental misunderstandings.

First, it ignores the fact that 95%-plus of our neighbors already claim that they are Christians. Like everyone, their lives are not problem free or without challenge--now there is understatement! But, the vast, vast majority of the people we touch cling to faith in Jesus as one of their only certain assets. Often, our friends in the community point us to God, a very powerful dynamic to experience.

Second, there is power in the humility of voiceless engagement. I've said over and over again that at Central Dallas Ministries we tend to adopt a Franciscan approach to our work. Saint Francis told his followers to "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words only when necessary."

This is our approach.

But, in my opinion--and it is an opinion shaped by my day-to-day experience over the last 15 years--there is something else going on here with many church leaders and members, something back of the common question so many ask.

In a strange way, "evangelism" and concerns framed by it provide people of faith a nice, respectable barrier, a secure place behind which to hide. Staying in this place of "safety" is not as costly or as dangerous as addressing the evil that keeps people and families shut out, left behind and in perpetual distress.

Frankly, focusing on more traditional "church stuff," as a primary concern in inner city neighborhoods where people battle extreme poverty, is not as personally demanding as facing and actively grappling with the facts of life among the urban poor.

Church folk from the outside, who come to the city with an agenda, often, no, usually, do not stay.

Evangelism, especially when imported from outside the community, has a way of placing the evangelist in a position of power, control and status above the target (at least in the evangelist's own mind!).

Community work is all about incarnation, and I think we know where that leads!

But embracing people in their communities, on their terms is how change happens. And, in this embrace we always find "the ministry."



Steve said...

Yes, Yes, Yes!! I used to think that this attitude was just a result of ignorance and apathy. But recently I have come to see organized churchianity as corporate organizations whose leaders have a vested interest in resisting change even if it entails obeying God. These large church budgets aren't real money, it belongs to the "church" and God put us in charge. It begs the seven woes. The "church's" work is a smiley faced, glad handed entertainment event where the actors parade around in the emperor's new close spouting religious think speak about "ministry" and "sacrificial gifts" and "service to God". Until they/we learn how to LOVE GOD and do it, there will be no change.

Ann said...

I volunteer for a non-profit that serves families that are homeless. We are a network of churches that rotate weekly, providing meals and a safe comfortable place for the families to sleep, while they working toward getting into housing. In the process of inviting churches to become a part of this network, I have encountered numerous churches who choose not to participate, because we do not agressively "evangelize". It is not enough to build relationship and meet needs.

And as you said, the assumption is always that the homeless families we serve are not people of faith. People are surprised to learn that that is not usually the case. I personally believe that what you do at CDM, what we do at Family Promise reflects God's love and care for His people and that is ministry.

The families who come through our program receive, not just the basics of food & shelter, but the nurturing support of loving, caring people. In many cases, they need that as much or more than the safe place to stay.

It puzzles me why that is so hard for "church" people to understand. I think they want to do the "right thing". They just haven't figured out that the "right thing" may be serving in silence.

Anonymous said...

I think the question boils down to whether there is virtue in doing the right thing just because it's the right thing. Whether we should love our neighbor without precondition and without an agenda. I think Jesus' answer to this question was "yes." He did it numerous times himself. His best known parable about "who is my neighbor" has the Samaritan helping under such circumstances (no preconditions and no agenda). Sometimes such encounters might lead to some form of evangelizing. Many times they may not. But I agree we should follow Jesus' lead and help without worrying about whether the relationship leads anywhere else.

Lynn Leaming said...

My eyes were really opened to exactly what you are saying when I read "Same Kind of Different As Me", I was on my knees confessing to God for my own attitudes after reading that book and am praying for Him to just use me to make a difference in living and not just talking. Thanks for the continual way you challenge my heart in that area!

Anonymous said...

Mr James,

Thank you for the clarification and your ministry. Might I inquire what separates your organization from a secular charity and establishes it as Christian?

Anonymous said...

Wow... I am shocked that we got four great comments before Anon. 12:42 showed up. I really thought people like that would have been all over this point sooner.

Sad that people want to tear down a ministry because it's not preaching people to death. But some close minded people still have a transactional view of Christianity and assume the poor are all godless people.

Thank you Puritan Work Ethic! You are still alive and well today in the hearts of the rich, shining down your blessings.

Larry James said...

Anon 12:42, thanks for the question. We are thoroughly Christian in history, mission ("to share the love of God in word, action and attitude while building genuine community in the neighborhoods where we live and work") and approach. We do what we do because of our faith. We are shaped and called forward by our faith. It is just that we don't see our mission as imposing our faith as a condition of ministry with and among the poor. As I said in my post, we serve people of deep faith who are also poor. My point was not to downplay or belittle faith, but to reframe what faith and sharing faith means in the context of inner city poverty in Dallas, Texas.

Ramblin' Red said...

I heartily agree with this Larry. And you said it so much more eloquently than I can right now - I get so "you brood of vipers" about it!

Ann - do I know you? I was going to write the same thing about our local IHN, lol. I was so embarrassed the time that this question came from my church while my dear friend (ED of an IHN) was presenting the program to them. Cringeworthy.

Anonymous said...

Heard it just today about what we do.

I think we have to be led by the Spirit.

In our medical work for the uninsured we have many people who rededicate their life or who give it to Christ BECAUSE we do what we do with no strings attached.

Anonymous said...


I thank God on a regular basis that you were my pastor. You touch many lives, including mine, and have helped shape my understanding of who God is and what he wants of me.


Kent Hill

Larry James said...

Kent, great hearing from you. I, too, remember with great fondness our time at RE. You were always, in every circumstance, an encouragement to me and my family. Your thoughtfulness and your willingness to serve everyone kept me going. My best to your family.

Karen said...

My daughter, Mandy, was so worried by this very question when she was in her late teens and we took confirmation together at our church that she asked one of our priests about it. Other family members and friends who were Christian were always telling her that she had to proselytize verbally and even pressure people if she were to call herself a ‘legitimate’ Christian.

Our priest replied that, while there was nothing wrong with talking about one’s faith with others, it was also perfectly fine to “let one’s life shine as a living example of one’s faith,” and to share the Love of Christ in that way. I knew then that we were in the right faith community, and it is one where people most definitely walk the walk.

Even Mother Teresa was criticized for not pressuring people to become Christian while she was helping them. So you’re in good company!

Anonymous said...

Amen Larry! Its anon 1242's loss that (s)he doesn't understand or experience the embrace. MT

Anonymous said...

Living out a lifestyle of authentic discipleship is a daunting challenge to everyone taking the journey. And it is more than just words uttered. The genius of Christianity is that the only success is attainable through grace. And anyone who truly embraces Christianity lives on the horns of that dilemma, suspended in tension between obedience, grace and self interest. Each one is tasked to find his own way in that challenge.

There is no limit of needs. “The poor you [will] always have with you.”, Jesus said according to the Gospel as he ministered to all the needs of those who embraced Him. Whatever service may be delivered, whether secular or sacerdotal, is to be commended. Undoubtedly God will grant His favor for anyone meeting an immediate physical need without any concern for its relation to values, life resources or eternity.

Unfortunately, there are some who believe that Christianity offers some explicit values and tools to equip folks for the journey and for life. These also seek to acquaint failed lives with lessons on fishing, without regard to any favor achieved. And perhaps in that the Christian ethos is sustained for yet another generation.

Tommy the sinner

Abike Washington said...

I am not a church folk, or have an agenda, nor am I just one coming to the city. I was born and raised in Dallas, TX and have been poor all my life.

It is sad to see both sides of the spectrum ignore God's purpose and His whole Agenda.

Some fight about just evangelism and holla where's the ministry and don't help the poor.

While others who do all these good works in the neighborhood, yet get loads of funding and call others "church folk"

It seems that both sides have missed the point.

Although we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, which means do for them as you would want for yourself; because you know you wouldn't want to be hungry or homeless.

But what about all these hungry souls who need daily food of the word of God. Oh I know that everyone claims to be Christian or put their faith in God, but the truth is these same poor people couldn't even give you 5 true principles from the word of God in Spirit and in Truth, because I was one of them.

Oh yea I went to church, but I was getting a scripture and strange philosophies on top of those scriptures or doctrines of men. This leaves people hungry spiritually.

God explains over and over in His word how people appear to be prosperous, but are destitute spiritually. And this is definitely what is going on in our churches today.

It is the responsibility of those who claim a nonprofit tax break in the name of Jesus to at least share the teachings of the gospel with the poor and might I add for free. The very thing Christ came to do. Sharing the gospel should not be charged for in any kind of way. I am referring to the teachings, knowledge, and wisdom of the word of God.

True lasting teachings that help people make true change, not according to the world’s standards but to God’s standards.

Christ taught us the whole gospel, not just half of it.

You can feed me, cloth me, and give me a place to stay. But if I die and my soul don't even know Christ through his true Spirit and Word being more than just an alter call and confess your sins and know your saved, the lie that people are taught, You would have done my body good, but my very soul was hungry and thirsty and left to the perishing.

It is one thing to be a charity. But it is another thing to say that one is a ministry and do all these things in the name of Jesus.

Even pagans give charity.

But how can we say that we are a ministry, yet not minister the very food that will outlast food that perishes. I am in no way against feeding the poor, or helping the sick.

I am the very poor and have gotten help myself. But my soul has been starving for true food the Gospel. (Word of God, with true Godly ministers to preach and teach his word)

People write books, sell cds, sell music, sell conferences, sell revelations, all these things, but if you truly looked around in today’s society who is preaching or teaching people God’s way of doing things.

Ministers are not even teaching people God’s principle’s of an education, health, or money (only to take the 10%) which is robbery and oppression of the poor, because if you truly read the bible on tithe instead of people manipulating people with Malachi, you will see what true tithe unto God is.

Christ stated that in the last days there would be many false prophet, apostles, Christ, and teachers, taking advantage of weak people through their lusts and naivety. He lets us know in the word that they will use vain words and deceptive heresies.

So a lot of people claim Jesus as their faith, but they truly don’t even know him. And it is the responsibility of those who claim to be a ministry in God’s Son name to provide that very Gospel to them while obeying the other part of the Gospel, feeding the poor.

It doesn’t make since to claim Jesus name and give one all the physical possessions and teach them the fundamental principles of the world and not give people FOOD (the word of God) for their souls.

One day food, clothing, and cars, houses, 10 steps on how to be successful will all pass away.

But people’s spirits/souls and the word of God will never pass away. And the soul will either go to hell or heaven.

So those who carry on missions in the name of God and his Son Jesus have a responsibility to care for the souls of the people and feed them food that will not perish.

And not junk food, (false teachings)

Anyone can be a charity. Even pagan companies have charities, but not anyone can claim to be ministry in Christ and can subtract the teachings of the gospel.

Feeding the poor, seeing after the homeless and teaching people the gospel goes hand-in-hand in God’s book. You can’t have one without the other.