There is a lot of talk these days about returning the Church to its first century roots. As a result, many churches have implemented cell group or small group programs. Others have abandoned the concept of a large corporate gathering all together and created a multiplicity of house churches under the banner of a single church name. Still others attempt to produce a liturgy that reflects the practices of the first century (even though no one really knows what first century liturgy was like). Yet all of these things miss an important characteristic of the first century Church; it seems that the early Church was largely composed of the dregs of society.
In his first letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians that most of them came from the lower class; not many of them were wise, powerful, well born or rich. Indeed it pleased God to build His church in Corinth out of society's losers. He chose the weak, the foolish, the low born, and the people of no account. The example of the Gospels is very similar. Jesus' message was primarily received by the outcasts of society while the high and mighty rejected Him.
Now, it would be an overstatement to say the first century Church was composed exclusively of the lower classes. Nevertheless, the evangelism of the down and out was a fundamental feature of first century Church. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be a distinctive mark of the modern north American Church. Instead, Church growth activity in modern America typically targets middle class suburbia rather than the unwashed masses. I know that this is a generalization, but drawing on my nearly 40 year association with the north American Church, I'm fairly comfortable making such a statement.
Outside of the USA, the Church is growing at a phenomenal rate; south America, China, and Africa are all experiencing a powerful move of the Spirit that rivals the history of the early Church. And like the Church of the first century, the harvest is primarily from among the weak and needy.
Why is it that we don't see the same sort of blessings here in north America? Well, part of the reason is that the Church has relinquished the duty of serving the needy. We have handed over the dirty work to para-Church organizations, or worse yet, to the civil government.1 We spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars learning how to be "friendship evangelists" and to make our churches seeker friendly, but most Christians have no idea what life is like on the wrong side of the tracks. It's normal for birds of a feather to flock together and most north American church going Christians are middle class or better. Contact with society's dregs is limited to a once yearly volunteer stint at the local gospel mission; since one is required to wear rubber gloves when handing out the dinner rolls, the experience leaves one unscathed.
I think it would do many a Christian well to have a taste of what it is like to live on the ragged edge of need. I don't mean the sort of poverty experienced by a college student or even a young family just starting out and still making their way in the world. I'm speaking of impoverishment that grinds on year after year with little or no hope of resolution. I'm talking about the sort of need that stares you in the face whenever the clock tells you it's time to eat. I'm referring to a form of scantiness that leaves you short every month - month after month for years on end. I talking about the desperation of unemployment while being responsible for the support of a large family and finding it impossible to secure a job with adequate pay. I've known that kind of poverty. I've lived that way of life. And I wouldn't wish it on anyone.
I can say without hesitation that God has used hardship to shape me into a different man. A decade ago I was like most middle class American Christians; I couldn't comprehend what a life of poverty was like. Frankly I never really gave it much thought. If the plight of the poor did cross my mind, I typically dismissed it with a shrug, thinking that they must have brought it upon themselves through lack of initiative.
I think differently now. These days I understand the weak, the foolish, the low born, and the people of no account because I have become one of them.
Yet, one does not need to experience the plight of the lowly in order to understand them; we only need to ask Christ to give us compassion for the weak. We must not fool ourselves into thinking that we are already able to empathize with the poor; it is very difficult for Smith to understand Jones unless he has walked a mile in his shoes (Prov. 14:10), and the typical north American Christian has never worn the shoes of want let alone walked in them.
The Bible tells us that pure and undefiled religion is characterized by care for widows and orphans in their trouble (Jams. 1:27). But caring for the down and out in their trouble requires us to dirty our hands. It's inconvenient. It takes time. It takes us out of our comfort zone. And it is not an option, it is a requirement.
What does this mean in practical terms? How does care for the weak and needy look in the "real" world? To begin with the help we extend to the poor must be more than the sum of our individual efforts. In other words, it is the Church that is supposed to reach out to the "untouchables." Obviously this requires action on the part of individual Christians, but ministry to the poor is supposed to be Church organized and directed ministry; the Bride needs to replace para-Church organizations and the State as the primary instrument of compassion toward to the needy. Moreover, the Church must do so without receiving government funds. At some point we need to come to the realization that the State has n o business being involved in charity work at any level.
Rather than have each church in any given city attempt to provide a comprehensive array of help to the poor, it makes more sense to have each church provide one or two specific forms of assistance. For instance Church A may provide work training and placement help to the poor and unemployed. Church B might run a day school for with scholarships offered to the poor - or better yet a day school for the kids as a stop-gap measure until the parents are prepared to homeschool their own children.. Church C could provide family counseling services.2 Now, I know that there are Churches doing these sorts of things. My point is that every church should be involved in the work of ministering to the needy. And again, as helpful and wonderful as the para-Church ministries are, I don’t believe that we find biblical support for their existence. The para-Chruch organizations need to bring their ministry work under the authority of a local Church and cease activity as separate entities apart from the Church.
The field is ripe for the harvest. Let us pray that the Lord of the harvest would send compassionate workers into the harvest - workers who are willing to stoop to serve. I firmly believe that the blessings which await an obedient and compassionate Church are beyond anything we have experienced in a hundred years.
1. See: Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy Of American Compassion, (Washington D.C.: Regnery, 1992).
2. I’ve been involved in State sponsored "ministries" to the poor. You see, Medicaid pays for mental health services for the needy who have been diagnosed with chronic mental illness and in a nut shell it’s a crock. By and large the clients receiving the free services are children whose parents will not (or cannot), discipline their own kids. When the offspring have gotten completely out of control mom and dad seek out free mental health services hoping that the agents of the State will "cure" their children. And - abracadabra - the children are cured without any effort on the part of the parent. Obviously it doesn’t work. But the state will continue to pay as long as some expert somewhere deems it necessary (which means forever because the child will not change unless his heart is changed first; as you might imagine this is a real cash cow for the private agencies providing the mental health and psychosocial rehabilitation services). This is a prime example of the State invading the realm of the Church. There cannot be any real lasting change without the death of the old man and a new creation in Christ. Why in the world does the Church stand idly by while the Leviathan State runs roughshod over the rights and prerogatives of the Church?
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