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A Christian Witness: How We Respond To Poverty

As I began ministry at my first urban congregation in Detroit, no sooner had I unpacked my boxes and set up my office than the following verses began to torment me:

“He (Jesus) will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41–46 ESV).

It felt like Jesus was walking up and down the streets of my Detroit neighborhood and reporting what He saw, circumstances I often wanted to ignore.  I was called to pastor this church, not the community, right? Jesus sees the hurt, the pain, the broken lives; I was safe and secure in my office.  I could spend hours crafting awesome sermons and worship experiences for Sundays, but somehow I knew this Scripture would keep haunting me.  Jesus is informing His followers that actions are evidence of a life lived in devotion to him.  Matthew is not preaching works righteousness here.  It is a mistake to read the text as saying that people who do good things will punch their ticket to heaven.  Quite the opposite is true; he is telling us that good works of service are evidence of true discipleship and authentic faith. This is the kicker: those who are saved by faith are still judged by their works.  Our works show how much we will deny ourselves and take up our cross in the service of God and others.  This is our starting point today.

What is one of the main challenges of urban ministry?  Poverty!  Poverty is a central issue plaguing most cities in the US.

For the church to witness in urban areas, it must address poverty issues in our neighborhoods. The difficulty rests in the reality that poverty is complex; the issues are various and interrelated.  Experts list dozens of areas of life that must be covered in-depth in order to fight urban poverty. Some of these areas include:

drug and alcohol addiction,

crime,

underemployment and unemployment rates higher than the national average,

satisfactory education,

spiritual needs,

financial planning and management,

healthcare,

housing,

identification,

immigration issues – legal and undocumented,

legal issues,

drug possessions,

recreation opportunities for children,

healthy, stable relationships,

a safe sanctuary to escape crime,

and reliable transportation.

The problem is widespread, but we can develop a strategy to solve it.  To truly make an impact in the life of an individual struggling with poverty, we must assess each situation to determine what help they need in those sixteen crucial areas of life.

As churches, we can usually meet spiritual needs, but how effective is our witness when we must confront challenges in these other areas?  It may seem like we are just putting our finger in a dam to plug a hole while the dam is leaking in a thousand other places.  Drug use and other addictions are prevalent in the urban context.  People experience the devastating effects of crime on a regular basis in their daily lives.  And try as one might to overcome the streets, the unemployment rate in inner cities is above the national average.  This is in part due to poor education systems that fail to provide students with marketable skills and adequate job preparation.  All of the this indicates a failed system that lacks sufficient employment opportunities for individuals to break the cycle of dependence on government assistance, which would in turn help to lift the next generation out of poverty.  The failed system creates a never-ending cycle in which residents cannot produce adequate financial resources to improve their impoverished communities.  That leads to a sort of black-market system of bartering in the inner-city culture. EBT cards and other resources are used like currency and exchanged for cash, shoes, and other items.  We are sharing Christ amidst a broken, failing system.

How do we fix this?

If the church takes the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 to heart, we must address the issues facing our cities face in a holistic way.  Community Development is the key.  This development processes, by which local partners are identified and mobilized to transform the community, can help to realize what God intends – that our neighborhoods are places where we clothe the naked, feed the hungry, welcome the immigrant stranger, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner.

According to Bob Lupton, founder of Focused Community Strategies in Atlanta, our focus should be not on charity, which he calls betterment, but on development: “Betterment does for others; development enables others to do for themselves.”  This plays out in our witness to those in need when urban churches and ministries are concerned and aware of what is happening in the community, both the good and the problematic. Then, churches take the next step and, along with other partners in the community, develop ways to create solutions to identified problems in their community.

I will leave you with some idea starters below – more on this next week.  Please share your thoughts and stay tuned as we go deeper.

Key Elements of Community Development

Christian Community Development, according to author John Perkins, consists of ministries to the poor that:

Begin with felt needs of the people in the community

Respond to those needs in a holistic way

Are based on clear biblical principles

Are “time-tested”

Develop and utilize leaders from within the community

Encourage relocation – living among the poor

Demand reconciliation – people to God and people to people

Empower the poor through redistribution – all community members

Sharing their skills, talents, education, and resources to help each other[1]

When our faith moves us to action it manifests itself in what Matthew describes in the first half of the opening verse, which bears repeating; we feed the hungry, we give water to the thirsty, we welcome strangers, we clothe the naked, we care for the sick and imprisoned.  “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’”(Matthew 25:34–40 ESV).

In the Service of an Awesome God,