“I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and turban.”
What does a missionary in a post-Christian western urban context – within the USA actually do? Why are you needed? How do you do it? Is there an impact? Aren’t all Americans Christians, or rebellious people who know the Gospel? These are common and realistic questions to ask.
It’s been a while since I unpacked that – and to be honest, it’s a challenge at times to explain in ways that most Christians can get a handle on…. We’ve been working on how to best unpack it. I openly admit I’ve borrowed terms from others who are better words smiths than us! I’ll make another attempt to refresh and unpack our work.
In a post-Christian context of the US, especially in cities along our costs, where the church’s influence is drastically diminished within society and communities, things have changed and for many Christians, they aren’t daily thinking about how secular it is, save when the media brings the hot topics to our door step or embraces licentiousness that offends us. People are busy, including Christians… but did you know the best estimates are under 15% of the US is marginally Christian and in the coastal cities, it’s even lower? That’s the big why! But it’s more personal, and intentional for us. Here’s our gig… It’s not to make people projects, or convert by baiting them. It’s about authentic relationships. Let me unpack it.
What we do: In many ways, we do exactly what missionaries in many countries do… from meeting real and tangible needs, to helping develop neighborhoods, to meeting direct spiritual needs! This prepares hearts to hear the hope we have and then communicating so they “can hear”. We’ll unpack that more below.
Who we target: We are called to work in engaging people “beyond the reach of the church… any church.” We use this phrase to simply refer to people who, be they secular, another religious background, or distant Christian backgrounds; they have no interest or a disposition against relating with, wrestling with, or participating in a relationship with God, or His church…any church. That’s not a fringe, but a major percentage of people in the West, in the US, and an even higher percentage in major cities, cities like New Orleans!
Why we do it: God loves all people – He created them to relate with Him, and see them become everything He created them to be, in right relationship with Him! He tells us to leave the 99 to get the one! Sometimes, there are “life happened” and oher times, they are clearly underserving – openly sinners. One of my favorite stories is the Prodigal, which included his father and his brother. It moves me deeply at the father’s posture – God’s posture…read Luke 15. As Jesus told this story to the critical Pharisees for his cavorting with “sinners”, his ultimate point was the posture of the good son. It motivates us to live our lives sacrificially.
How we do it: In summary, the vision is to create the “beloved community”… where the values of the kingdom are seen lived out pragmatically… In other words, what if.., “Your Kingdom come; Your will be done; on earth as it is in heaven” were real in our neighborhood – in your neighborhood? It’s that simple, and that hard – because we have to live in what a pastor mentor, Tim Jack from Seattle taught me years ago, live in deference to others before ourselves. We’ve learned that this is what He calls all of us to do – live in deference.
We work hard to incarnate (be like Jesus – in the flesh), to inhabit Christ to these people (live life in the same space, same neighborhoods)… By inhabit and incarnate, we simply mean we live life alongside people in normal contexts of life – in our normal contexts of life. They need to “bump” into God (people) daily as they live life, in the same tasks of normal life – who smell different; act different; look different; but yet look like them, are just like them, facing normal life like they do.
First, we work hard to create situations where they are so touched by the people (us) in front of them, in these normal life situations, that they cannot help but see God and be thirsty for more. Traditionally, we’ve called this “evangelism”. We honestly do not use this term often, simply because it has meant confrontational “truth telling” in the past and it makes people feel like “a project”. We want to get to the place where we can “explain” (unlock the mystery of the radical truths of who Jesus is, what He accomplished, and God’s heart to relate with them) the great news. We often need to gain trust, be authentic, unconditional, constant friends over time. Some people have bad tastes in their mouth from the past, or have such brokenness in their life story that we need to “take down the brick wall” keeping them being able to emotionally and/or intellectually understand our message.
This often comes through meeting real world needs – physical, material, emotional and spiritual. We are working to relate with people in an urban, complex area of the city – bohemian, artistic, multi-ethnic and cultural. From musicians, to artists or various kinds, from elderly to immigrants, from the poor to homosexuals, this area is ripe with brokenness and also a spiritual thirst that makes them ready to have real conversations.
Funny reality… we “never” bring up God first, but they always do, always taste and see, smell it, see the light on the hill and initiate the conversation about spiritual things, God, living following Him. It may start with asking us to pray, or a discussion about bad things happening to people – but they introduce God into the relationships, and regularly!
But, how do you do it? Okay, okay, let me attempt to give you some handles. Ever hear of John Perkins? He’s a legend in how to work with and heal broken communities… reaching them spiritually while through being obedient to minister to physical needs-as God so repeatedly commands as we emulate Him. He uses some great concepts….
1) Relief (working on physical and financial needs that are immediate, right now). Think of the Good Samaritan Story. This might look like helping people get financial help from government or church sources. It also might look like financial training to manage their funds and bills, or parenting mentoring.
2) Development (working to move people from need of relief to economic and personal development that leads to financial self-sufficiency and healthier families and neighborhoods, that see families stay together, kids getting educated, neighborhoods safer). This can be by helping in youth sports, advocating for education, neighborhood association and collaboration. It can be job training or helping them access training for a future.
3) Through the 3-R’s;
Relocation is the first part…. To do what we do – you must inhabit – in other words, live where they live; same schools, stores, streets, cafés, clubs, problems, etc. You can’t “drive to ministry” in this context – you have to be one of them.
Redistribution is often seen as a “take from one and “give” to another. That’s not what we or Perkins means. In broken communities there is economic blight, loss of jobs and the money there, from poor paying jobs or government subsistence, it flows out to businesses owned by people somewhere else and usually worked by people somewhere else… no momentum locally! Even well meaning banks removes funds from the local context. Therefore, in working with people to get business owned and operated locally, employing local, and banks designed to help people in these neighborhoods gain more financial freedom and success. It includes to working on the beauty of the neighborhood, and events (like block parties) that build unity and momentum for a future together.
Reconciliation is the last part. People usually think white people apologizing for past and present bigotry and systems that discriminate, at times unknowingly and unintentionally. Yet it’s bigger than this. It means empowering the locals to lead – not paternal external (almost always white males). We work to empower local leaders (male-female, white-black-brown-yellow) to working for their own futures. We have a role, because we live there also, but we know we must empower the local people for it to last or have deep transformation and not just create a new dependency and no confidence to make progress without external help.
Have you connected why we use the quote from Job here (at the top of this article)? You see, Job understood that to be a God serving person, it was more than the sincere religious habits, but a faith lived out in the most intentional, sacrificial and pragmatic ways. Job worked to stop injustice, to advocate for those in need and to meet real needs – sacrificially. To translate it to today – he spent more of him self (time, money, resources – including his business) to “incarnate God” far more than he spent on himself (material stuff – cars, house, items for the house), or vacations, or spending the majority of his time with people like him. Read the passage – it’s impressive! The prophet Micah tells us the same message, as does Isaiah, Daniel, Jeremiah, then Jesus, Luke and Matthew, Paul, Peter and James. This isn’t just a means to “getting to” explain the “Gospel” – but is inherent to and foundational as part of the Gospel.
We hope this inspires you and encourages you! We pray it empowers you to advocate and be the hands, feet, eyes, ears, mouth and heart of Christ in your own neighborhood as you posture to be light, be salt, be the fragrance and see the needs right there, no matter what the economic context you live within!