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."