I recently heard a pastor announcing a church’s outreach project to a local impoverished neighborhood. He invited parishioners to come spread love to “those that are far from God.” He talked about the various projects that would be completed during the outreach and then moved on to the next announcement.
But I didn’t hear the next announcement, because I could feel the heat rushing to my face. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard a pastor or church leader talk about the poor as being “far from God” or “nonbelievers” or “outside of the family.”
Suburban church, let’s get something clear; just because someone is poor doesn’t mean they don’t know Jesus.
Think about that for a minute.
Do you often think that your local urban mission projects are an outreach to spread the message of Jesus to those who need to hear it? While your service may be a physical demonstration of the love of our Savior, the recipient of the service may already know Jesus. The recipient of the service may have known Jesus longer than you, or more deeply than you, or more truly than you.
Physical poverty doesn’t imply spiritual poverty just as physical wealth doesn’t imply spiritual wealth.
And yet somehow, from our privileged pews, we have constructed a notion that our volunteerism to the poor is for their physical, financial, and spiritual benefit. Are we open to just serving someone for their physical and financial benefit? Or would our service be less serve-y if the recipients already had Jesus? Is it even worth our service to help someone physically if they already “have Jesus”?
Are we willing to accept that the poor, the disenfranchised the marginalized, and the down and out might be even closer to God than we are?
Think about it: In Matthew 5, that famous sermon on the mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” I’ve met a lot of poor folks, both in the United States and in third world countries, who are closer to God than I am. I’ve heard many Americans return from mission trips to say, “The people in [insert whatever city they just visited] were just so happy. They were content with their lives, they helped their neighbors, they had a joyous faith…” Many poor people have great spiritual wealth.
Theirs is the Kingdom. Very truthfully, my wealth may very well be keeping me from fully participating in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24)
So who are we to make judgement calls about the condition of another’s soul? We may have more physically, but they may have more spiritually. We won’t know the state of someone’s spiritual life unless we get to know them deeply.
The reason we get this all turned around in our heads is based in stereotypes, pride, bad theology, and a series of other spiritual ills. But the deeper reason that our thinking hasn’t been corrected, is our lack of knowledge. We would know the spiritual condition of a neighbor if we simply got to know her. It’s hard to meet our neighbors if we never leave the doors of our homes and churches and own communities. And even if we do leave our doors and go into the community, we won’t get to know our neighbors by picking up their trash or painting their walls, we’ll get to know them by spending time with them regularly and intentionally.
The reason we get this all turned around in our heads is that many of our community service projects aren’t relationship-building projects. We would know about the spiritual condition of our neighbor if we talked to him on a regular basis. We would probably learn a lot. We would probably throw out the notion that we were serving him and we would learn that we were serving each other.
I think the real reason pastors, church leaders, and church attendees assume we are serving those “far from God” when we serve the poor, is that we feel superior, more put together, and more in the know. We don’t admit that, and we might not even know that we believe that, but most of us do. From our higher position, we come to serve and bring Jesus to those lower than us. We have something to offer them.
“When my goal is to change people (and I would like to add serve people), I subtly communicate: Something is wrong with you; I am okay. You are ignorant; I am enlightened. You are wrong; I am right. If our relationship is defined as healer to patient, I must remain strong and you must remain sick for our interaction to continue. People don’t go to doctors when they are well.
The process of “curing” then, cannot serve long as the basis for a relationship that is life producing for both parties Small wonder that we who have come to the city to “save” the poor find it difficult to enter into true community with those we think needy.”
What do you think? Does this agree with you, disagree with you? Talk to me.