Friday, November 14, 2008

Be redemptive, save your breath

It happened again.

I'm meeting with the "missions" committee of a local church. The church sends us a nice contribution every month, for which we are most grateful.

But, the church has a problem.

They are very devoted to "mission work" and they have limited funds. At least half of their revenue is devoted to missions. Their challenge is how to define what qualifies as legitimate mission work.

We spend almost two hours together.

I review, explain, show and discuss all that we are up to among some of the poorest folks and neighborhoods in Dallas. I talk about health care services, food distribution, employment training, the Central Dallas Church, legal services, housing development, work among youth who age out of the foster care system, the summer lunch and reading program, our after school academies, the list gets almost unmanageable as I go over it.

Then at the end of our session the question, "Larry, do you do evangelism? Do you have a method for sharing the gospel as you do you work?"

A discussion follows during which I attempt to make the case that the gospel is best revealed in the context of authentic responses to the pain and difficulty of suffering men, women and children. At the end of the conversation I want to ask these sweet people, "How much of the money that you spend on Sunday mornings is really evangelistic?" but I don't.

It is very frustrating to me to engage in discussions like this. From my perspective such conversations are a huge waste of time.

Cutting to the chase let me say this to church folks who are struggling with this very artificial distinction:

. . .stop talking about being redemptive, bring redemption;

. . .stop talking about salvation and insert a saving moment into the life of just one struggling person;

. . .stop preaching a message of reconciliation and become reconcilers;

. . .stop worrying about your message and live a message that produces hope.

I could go on, but I'll stop here.

I am convinced that things of the spirit that turn out to be eternal will always begin rooted in the here and now of the pain of people whom God hears, acknowledges and cares about. The church needs to save its breath and act redemptive.



Jeff Slater said...

What you do at CDM is mission work. Period.

It's unfortunate that some people can't see that.

Joe James said...

Larry -

I have the same frustrations as you do. As a leader in my church I am trying to be "salt and light" and perhaps even an "agitator"

And the most frustrating comment is this: "Feeding the poor is good, but we would rather do something that makes a lasting difference!"

Perhaps many of you have heard this before?

Anonymous said...

You keep on "letting the word become flesh".

Anonymous said...

Of any population I have ever worked with, the poor and homeless preach the gospel to me more than anyone. Most already have the Love of God in them and their faith helps them survive. What they need is God’s love in return. It is unfortunate that many people do not have the opportunity to experience that when they reach out and help this population. Believing in Christ does not mean you are exempt from adversity.

Dawn McMullan said...

I couldn't agree with you more! I've heard of your work but we haven't looked into it much. I will now ... thanks for all you do.

Dawn McMullan
Missions Chair, Greenland Hills United Methodist Church

Anonymous said...

Hi -

You wrote:

"the gospel is best revealed in the context of authentic responses to the pain and difficulty of suffering men, women and children..."

I agree 100% with you!!!! I'm confused, though, why that question would even bother you, if you do share the gospel with them through your example of unconditional love, inviting them to small groups/church, whatever you do. They may just have wanted some examples, etc.

However, if you provide all of those services (which are wonderful , don't get me wrong) but never once invite them to learn more about Jesus, or just give them a clear opportunity to, (but a the same time not discontinuing services if they have no interest in hearing the gospel) then I can understand why they might be upset.

But surely you do mention Jesus and God in what you do?

Or do you not? Are you not allowed to because of government funding or something like that? Please clarify, thanks. I'm just curious.

I have to be honest, I have given money to CDM in the past. If people are never once invited to church, offered a Bible study (not forcibly of course) it would make me sad and I would prefer to send my money to someone who is okay with talking about the gospel.

Thanks for clarifying and for everything you do to make a difference in our neighbors.

Anonymous said...

Brother I feel your frustration too, but I think I can understand where these folks might be coming from as well. Folks like Walter Rauschenbusch and some others have perhaps taken the "social gospel" to such an extreme it presents itself to the world as no different than any other humanitarian aid.

Now dont get me wrong, love what CDM is doing. I am fortunate to have been involved in similar ministries in Nashville and no in Kentucky.

It is a legitimate concern though that people are not just seeing Jesus in your lives but hearing the story of his death and ressurection as well. After all faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. Not to mention that Jesus balanced preaching and selfless service.

Again, I dont want you to hear this as an accusation, rather as an attempt to explain why this concern may exist. We preach the gospel always and use words when necessary, the problem is that these days many people arent using words even when they become necessary.

Blessings on your continued ministry. Shalom

Anonymous said...

3:49, I think you may have a fundamental assumption that the majority of the poor don't know Jesus.

Anonymous said...

I'm posting anonymously, because I can't remember my password.

Anyway... I have a different perspective. My perspective is that very few people are doing much evangelism at all - even in the Bible belt.

But when the topic of evangelism comes up in church circles, I hear a lot of TALK from a lot of critics of evangelism about feeding the poor, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, etc. They TALK (or blog) a lot about how we need to quit TALKING and start DOING.

But I don't see a whole lot of actual doing.

So, I think the church is doing a lousy job of speaking the gospel with courage and wisdom when they should. And, I think the church is doing a lousy job of feeding the hungry and caring for the poor. But I do see a lot of bloggers, who while not wanting to see Christ preached vocally, do their own share of indignant preaching against preaching (which is kinda of hypocritical and contradictory if you think about it). We won't even go into how many of these people think that Obama is the answer to our prayers. I see a lot of people talk about how cheap talk is - unless they happen to be in agreement with what is being said. i.e. Folks in the emergent church like to get together with their focus group and talk talk talk about how lousy those talking/non-doing fundamentalists are.

But then again, I only see from my perspective, and I'm sure my vision isn't 20/20. Still, I obviously think enough of my view to inject here.

Here's a question: In your church, how many people have recently adopted a child? Or... can you remember one thing that you have done - that has required sacrifice - for a person you disagreed with - in the past 2 months?

I'm just tired of people talking about the need to stop talking, so I'm talking about it. ;)

Anonymous said...

"I think you may have a fundamental assumption that the majority of the poor don't know Jesus."

That's not what I meant.

I was just wondering if CDM is allowed to mention Jesus /God / church to its neighbors or the people the serve.

Does anyone know?

Anonymous said...

That would be interesting to know. Because I'm assuming that since you receive governmental funding that you need to separate between church and state. Correct.

I see your ministry as good work, but if you receive federal dollars then you may have a legal issue on your hands, especially if the ACLU gets wind of it.

Ada S.

Anonymous said...

. . .stop talking about being redemptive, bring redemption;

. . .stop talking about salvation and insert a saving moment into the life of just one struggling person;

. . .stop preaching a message of reconciliation and become reconcilers;

Is it wrong to do both?Seriously is it?

Larry James said...

Thanks for all of the comments. I suppose you have to be here and in my seat to understand what I am saying. It really isn't a theoretical situation at all. And, to a good extent, many here are both missing and making my point all at the same time with their reactions.

Of course, we share the good news of Jesus as we do our work. During the past month, I've a number of meetings that relate directly to new Bible study opportunties and spiritual formation at CDM. On our interview forms at the food pantry we provide a time for prayer with every person who comes out way. It is built into our process. We have a full-time pastoral counselor at our health clinic who is also the minister at the Central Dallas Church. Our WorkPaths employment training program devotes a lot of time to spiritual formation among students and teachers. I could go on. . .

And, no, a thousand times no, we are not limited in any way by the public funds we receive--city, county, state and/or federal. We cannot and would not make our help or our programming conditional upon some faith test or some response index. But, we are as free as we can be to share what we believe and what our fatih has to offer. This has been true for the entire time I have been at CDM.

My point is simply that the work we do is seamless in the community. As I've said a thousand time, the poor share the gospel with us and more often than not insist on that. But my concern goes deeper than the false dicotomy.

Too many in churches hide behind this litmus test of "sharing the gospel" so that the poverty and injustice of the culture don't have to be a real concern to us at all. After all, it is only "what's after life that matters." That is very bad theology--see Luke 16 for just one example. Loving my brothers and sisters is the only way I can love God.

There should be no dividing line, no segmenting. Souls depend on it--read the gospels to see who comes out okay on the other side and who doesn't--the poor and the sinful do very well with the good Lord. The religious and the well-healed are admonished by the same Lord to think again about their faith and their values and how each informs their daily lives. That's all I'm saying.

BTW--the persistent urban myth that the government is out to get religion and faith groups like CDM just doesn't hold up in my experience over the past 15 years.

Anonymous said...

Larry, thanks so much for clarifying. It sounds like we are on the same page. I have been accused more than once of only being concerned with social issues and not with people's souls. In one of my seminary classes this semester we have been talking about balancing both of these vital areas and realizing that they are truly inseperable if we are truly following the example of Jesus.

I am glad that your voice is being heard, perhaps not always listened to unfortunately, in the Christian community as you point out the urgent need for Christians to get up and start addressing the social justice concerns all around us and start sacrificing to see needs met.

Thanks again for all you do brother and for sharing so much of it on your blog.


Frank Bellizzi said...

Maybe the Christian people who are most involved with the kingdom of this world are also the ones most invested in the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. Eventually they'll be the same thing. And he shall reign forever and ever!

When Luke tells the story of the Holy Spirit, he styles it as a continuation of what Jesus began to do and teach. A ministry of the Word is always both. So preach on.

Anonymous said...

At what point would you focus on eternity instead of the "here and now"? Perhaps, on your death bed? Ministering to physical needs is just that.

The spirit is eternal, and Christians do tend to focus on the eternal.

Larry James said...

Anon 11:26, ironically, the way things are set up, there is really no authentic way to "focus on eternity" without focusing on the here and now--this is really true of rich and poor. But, this is especially true of the poor. Read Luke 16--whole chapter is a challenge. But the last half deals with a rich man who ignored the poor, dying beggar Lazarus at his gate. I bet he went to Temple, supported the sharing of the message of God; but he lost it all because he didn't focus on the "here and now"--you see, the souls at stake here are not among the poor and those who willingly admit their problems. The souls at stake are those who ignore the pain of the poor while making sure the "gospel is preached to them" as they suffer and as we pass by.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more Larry. Sounds like this church group is a bunch of fundamentalists. Didn't they do any homework before hooking up with you? Does not sound like it. They believe one thing and you believe another

KenBandy said...

Maybe they are fundamentalists. Larry should send their checks back to them instead of criticizing them on his blog.

... or maybe it is worth it (and the right thing to do) to continue sharing/working with people until they appreciate the balance of showing both tangible and spiritual love.

Larry James said...

KenBandy, again, thanks for the post. We do continue to work with all kinds of groups and churches. It is just that, in my view at least, the churches that focus most on scripture as the authority and basis for their faith, seem to understand or emphasize the least about the very message they cling to when it comes to poverty, injustice and the Kingdom of God. Thus, the message that is read here from time to time. We work with any church that wants to help improve life in the city.

Anonymous said...

Here, here! If we all just throw up our hands and walk away from those with whom we may currently disagree, it just assumes we cannot continue to dialogue and find common ground.

Anonymous said...

There is also the issue of doing what works. In spite of what millions of good Christians think, preaching alone gets you nowhere. First, you must develop trust and friendship before people will listen to you. Any true change of life comes only through time and work.

In the Middle East, Hamas and Hezbollah have understood this--they earned the people's support not because of their despicable ideology, but because they were willing to commit to a long-term effort to help people who were oppressed.

It is only through this sort of sustained, painful effort--like that led by Larry James--that missions work can have any true effect.

Too many Christians are lazy and seek the easy way out. They want a project for an hour or a weekend and want to believe that they have effected change. It has never worked that way from the earliest days of the church.

You ought to be grateful that you no longer have to face the threat of crucifition, or commit to a life of poverty, obedience and chastity to do good. Mission work in the way Larry James does it is difficult and demanding and a person pays a price for doing it, but the price is much less than it used to be. It is sad that so many Christians regard even that price as absorbitant.

People and churches that believe they can serve some sandwiches and make an altar call and that they have done any good are deluding themselves. They are forgotten as soon as they are out of sight.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:50 PM, its perhaps unfortunate that you use Middle East terrorist groups to support your argument. I would not hold these groups up for anything other than what they are. Any support given them by those in their communities is due fear of violence or a shared fanaticism.

Evangelical churches are about spreading God’s word, AND offering physical relief as well.
There is a philosophical difference with those who use Christianity as an expedient.

Churches should and must ally themselves with charities who share a belief In God and Christ akin to their own.

Tim Timmons said...

Those that ask such questions about Central Dallas Ministries and evangelization have not even the faintest idea what the term means – and even more importantly – “who” is actually being evangelized.

To know true Compassion is to come into perfect union with God, Jesus said – to reach out, in particular, to the “the least of these my brethren” – to get inside their bodies and their experience and literally writhe with them in their pain through the night.

When you touch the sores of a leper, when you live with the leper and breathe with the leper - when you physically and emotionally take on his or her experience as you bandage the leper – then kneel down and bathe the leper’s feet …

YOU are the one that gains the JOY - the joy we used to talk about but knew we really didn’t have. What we didn’t know then – just as most do not know – is that the Peace That Transcends Bliss – “God Within” - comes from actually physically touching and smelling and dressing the leper’s sores. It comes from doing some major time hanging with those who live outside the camp.

I doubt that the members of missions committees who have asked such arrogantly ignorant questions have ever considered volunteering – and they only rob themselves.

Anonymous said...

Without the Great Commission, the ministry is secular.

Tim Timmons said...

and parimutuel odds-makers are giving 20 to 1 odds on on that last bit of clairvoyance.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it confused me to. I believe its from Liberation Theology 101

Anonymous said...

"...arrogantly ignorant questions..." Really, Tim? Could your statement be a bit ignorant?

You are referring to what was a simple, humble, legitimate question: What does CDM do to evangelize those who come through their doors? A QUESTION MORE CHURCHES AND COMMITTEES OF ALL SORTS NEED TO PRAYERFULLY CONSIDER AND ASK THIS ORGANIZATION BEFORE SENDING THEM MONEY.

Your doubt that these mission committee members have ever "...considered volunteering..." is also a rather sweeping, if not arrogant statement. Unless I've missed seeing you at our services, you have no idea what kind of mission and volunteer work we perform and offer to any who are willing. AND how we manage to incorporate the gospel message as we go about those tasks; AND how many church members, as well as mission committee members, VOLUNTEER for and go about those tasks in loving, heartfelt ways.

Further, if I might be so bold... true compassion and oneness with God isn't totally wrapped up in "dressing the leper's sores" any more than it was in preparing Martha's meals. Of course we need to prepare meals and dress sores. We need to be about a host of other physical needs as well, but knowing God and experiencing the fullness of His reality is found in more ways than one - both for those who give and those who receive - both for the poor and the rich. In this life, at one point or another, we will all probably be on both sides of the former equation, if not the latter.

Some might begin with sitting at His feet and considering the full counsel of His Word - with a greater attempt at His perspective, not their own. Perhaps praise and adoration might be where some need to start - as David did on the hillside with the sheep and God and no one else. Perhaps going to the carpenter's shop and pounding a few nails or to the tent maker's shop and piercing a few tarps will help enlighten others. Maybe putting on the armor of God and going about battle in the prison cell or in the culture at large is what a few need to do....

Perhaps before any of these one needs to first go to the sea shore and listen to The Preacher... who fed souls first, before healing or feeding the bodies. And I'd venture to say that out of those 5,000 and 4,000 people (actually, many more than 9,000 total), there were both poor and rich. Maybe even some who were sincere God-seeking believers and who already "knew all about God", as well as lost unbelievers who had never heard about Him. Regardless, all of whom needed The Shepherd's teaching and direction.

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:36 - I wish I had said that! Thank you

Brandon Scott said...

Thanks for this post. I haven't had a chance to catch up on your blog for a few days.

I understand your frustration...which is exactly what it is. When Larry and others express feelings of frustration it never seems to fail that all the anonymous commenters out there come out of the wood work.

Larry is approaching this from his paradigm and viewpoint which are based in walking neck high in these things. He sees things most of you (or I) never see. His experience doesn't make him infallible by any means...and if you know Larry at all, you'd know that to be true. But it does offer us a view into a world that, face it, we DO NOT walk neck deep in...probably not even knee deep. We should listen.

Most of the anonymous perspectives seem to come from your own paradigms which, again let's face it, don't live, breathe, or revolve around the world of the poor.

I guess what I am trying to say is a little less defense and a little more reception of this prohetic voice would do us all good. Larry has a right to be frustrated. What he mentioned in his post is most defnitely more the NORM than the exception.

And... to the anonymous poster who talked about being bugged by all the blog discussions where people are calling for people to put action to their words...what is it exactly that bothers you about that? It seems that maybe unknowingly you have made a wide, sweeping generalization... "Folks in the emergent church like to get together with their focus group and talk talk talk about how lousy those talking/non-doing fundamentalists are."

While there are things about the emergent church movement that bug me too, what do you really know about all of those people? It's funny that you are accusing them of lumping all fundamentalists into ne box, but you did the very same thing.

Larry, we NEED your perspective. We NEED your voice pricking our hearts. We NEED to have to consider these things and take action. Your example has blessed me personally and helped Sheryl and me have the courage to take steps in our own lives. I am eternally...literally, ETERNALLY, grateful for your heart because you've not just helped me change actions...but you've helped me know Christ. I see Him so plainly in you. If we are to b known by our love and our fruits then you are one GINORMOUS fruit tree, bro. :)

Brandon Scott said...

wait..did I just call larry James a fruit tree?

Joe said...

Seems to me there is a simple solution: stop expecting money from churches.

If we really believed in the God we claim to serve, we would continue our programmes whether or not we had support or future funding, paying out of our own pockets if necessary. Naive I know, but I don't think there is much point in criticising churches that don't want to financially support what we are doing - do it differently, find other sources of money or something..?

Larry James said...

Brandon Scott, you are a riot And, I've been called a lot worse for sure! Thanks for your encouragement!

Joe, you're logical and we do. Last year, churches contributed less than 3% of our almost $8M budget. The poor, our "clients" provided over 4%. I'll tell you why I stay after churches because fundatmentally I am a churchman still. I believe organizations like mine need connection to faith communities. So, I stay after them in an effort to mobilize what I still consider a sleeping giant. And, because I feel a need to stay connected. We have long ago gone after other primary sources of funding, and, yes, at times we come out of our own pockets. I just can't bring myself to give up on the church or the folks who created this organization. You know, "dancin' with the one who brung you"?