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Thinking biblically about ministry in the city

Jesus never sends the poor to find a church, but he does tell the church to find the poor. In response, some congregations help the needy but don’t evangelize. A few churches evangelize, but don’t serve the impoverished. A handful of congregations do both; most do neither.
Those observations, inspired by Tony Campolo and Ronald Sider, reflect critical questions about the church’s mission to the poor and the lost.
As churches increasingly focus on the inner city or send teams to do disaster relief, many church leaders ask, “Should the church reach out to the poor?” Four recent books say “yes.” A second question is, “Why should the church seek out the poor?” These four works provide an effective, if incomplete, response.
In Radical Christianity: Peace and Justice in the New Testament, Daniel Keeran, a Lipscomb University graduate who founded the Counselor Training Institute in British Columbia, presents in rapid-fire format New Testament texts calling the church to radical involvement with the poor. He argues, for example, that the command for the rich young ruler to sell all he has applies to every Christian.
Michael Landon, in Sweating It Out: What the “Experts” Say Causes Poverty, gives church leaders answers to the question, “What makes people poor?” Landon, an Oklahoma Christian University graduate who served as a missionary in São Paulo, Brazil, critiques 10 influential social-scientific theories about the causes of poverty by drawing upon interviews that he conducted with low-income citizens of Hammond, La.
In Saving Souls, Serving Society: Understanding the Faith Factor in Church-based Social Ministry, Heidi Rolland Unruh and Ronald J. Sider present findings from their in-depth sociological study of 15 congregations working among the poor in the Philadelphia area. Unruh and Sider serve as the associate director and the director, respectively, of the Congregations, Community Outreach and Leadership Development Project in Hutchinson, Kan. Their analytical framework clarifies the complex relationship that exists between benevolence and evangelism in ministries to the poor.
The fourth book, Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, combines sociology and theology, practice and Scripture.
Here, Shane Claiborne, associated with an inner-city congregation in Philadelphia called The Simple Way, weaves personal stories of ministering to the homeless in Philadelphia and to lepers in Calcutta with scriptural insights. Claiborne provides the best entry-level read on the subject among the four volumes.
Claiborne’s own journey is summarized by the statement, “We decided to stop complaining about the church we saw, and we set our hearts on becoming the church we dreamed of. We dreamed ancient visions of a church like the one in Acts, in which ‘there were no needy persons among them.’” Later, he adds, “It felt like we were reinventing the early church for the first time in 2,000 years.” Then, on further reflection he acknowledges, “We were quite ignorant.”
Rooted in this vision of the early church, Claiborne presents biblical example after example calling for a form of radical discipleship that requires being up close and personal with the poor. As a result of these varied experiences, Claiborne says, “Once we are actually friends with folks in struggle, we start to ask why people are poor, which is never as popular as giving to charity.”
Claiborne’s and Keeran’s biblical focus on poverty evokes such influential earlier works as Richard Batey’s Jesus and the Poor and Ronald Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Landon’s and Claiborne’s considerations of the sociological underpinnings of poverty recalls previous works in urban ministry, including Raymond Bakke’s Urban Christian and John M. Perkins’ Beyond Charity.
For their part, Unruh and Sider contribute new vocabulary and typologies to elucidate the complex relationship between social ministry and evangelism within the contemporary spectrum of church-based efforts among the poor in the United States.
While Landon, Keeran and especially Unruh and Sider write more for the specialist reader, Claiborne’s book has a broad and popular appeal. From the faux duct tape on the cover to the self-deprecating humor and periodic cynicism that pops up in every chapter, Claiborne speaks for his postmodern generation in calling into question the insularity of so many churches in relation to the poor.
Teenagers on mission trips to Hurricane Katrina-torn neighborhoods and deacons struggling to respond to local needs will find instruction from Scripture and inspiration from his stories.
Claiborne’s radical response to the demands of Jesus will make some readers uncomfortable but will perhaps move others to action.
Working among Calcutta’s lepers helped Claiborne understand Jesus’ teaching on the poor as never before. He concluded, “The world will never be safe as long as millions live in poverty so the few can live as they wish.”
While most of Claiborne’s more radical proposals are workable, a few are untested and appear to stem from cynical rejection of the status quo. (His congregation rejects institutional health insurance as a matter of faith, and he objects to megachurches just because they are large).
By way of contrast, Saving Souls presents radical but tested church-based ministries. While Claiborne powerfully reminds us of the biblical vision for helping the poor, Unruh and Sider acquaint us with a variety of concrete and practical ways in which churches have been busily doing it.
Landon, Keeran and Claiborne fall prey to a common tendency seen in urban ministry literature of focusing on humanitarian concerns at the expense of evangelism. These three books place more emphasis on the poor than the lost.
As C. Norman Kraus contends in An Intrusive Gospel: Christian Mission in the Postmodern World, “We need to move beyond the notion of ‘humanitarian’ service and ‘spiritual’ salvation as discrete, definable activities.” Unruh’s and Sider’s study Saving Souls painstakingly examines the role of both dimensions in different approaches to social ministry. Even so, one might read all of the books featured in this review and miss the demand to be born again, whether one is rich or poor.
Jesus never sends the poor to find a church, but he does tell the church to find the needy.
These four volumes provide healthy redirection for what the church does when it finds them.
Shane Claiborne. Irresistible Revolution: Living as an OrdinaryRadical, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006. ISBN; 367pages; $12.99.
Daniel M. Keeran. Radical Christianity: Peace and Justice in the NewTestament, Vancouver: Counsellor Publishing, 2006. ISBN;190 pages; $22.95.
Michael L. Landon. Sweating It Out: What the “Experts” Say CausesPoverty, Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2006. ISBN; 185 pages; $29.95.
Heidi Rolland Unruh and Ronald J. Sider. Saving Souls, Serving Society,New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN; 272 pages;$35;.
BOB CARPENTER is a professor of missions and ministry at Oklahoma Christian University and served as a missionary for 10 years as part of a team in Brasilia,Brazil.
HAROLD SHANK is a professor of Old Testament at Oklahoma Christian University and worked with inner-city ministry at the Highland Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn.

  • Feedback
    thanks for the information. great job
    Ignitous Mametshe
    Nelspruit Down Town Church of Christ
    Nelspruit, Bushbuckridge
    South Africa
    December, 26 2010

    Greetings to u all brothers. Keep on doing great work of Christ
    Ignitous Mametshe
    Matsapha Church of Christ
    Manzini, Africa
    October, 7 2009

    The information you supply is so helpful. thanks
    Lazarus Munetsi
    Church of Christ
    Pretoria, Gauteng
    South Africa
    August, 21 2009

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