“I don’t see myself as a pastor,” a local minister told me, “I see myself as a community developer who’s using the church as a means to change the community.”
Taking a brief glance at many poor neighborhoods, you can understand why there is so much talk of change. In my Baltimore neighborhood, 93.5% of the children are in single parent homes. Most fathers are absent. Many are raised by their grandmother. 85% of our neighborhood families are poor. Six out of 10 adults do not work a (legal) job. Median reported income is a mere $15,950. Our community is filled with vacant homes. An entire block of vacants was torn down this past month. Many blocks have become open air drug markets.
Talk About Change
We need to talk about change. On that point, I don’t disagree. There is a place for community centers, development work, job training, rehabbing homes, and helping to create a more equitable society. As a Christian, I am a big believer in common grace. I want to work with all toward the flourishing of humanity everywhere.
But is the flourishing of humanity on earth the gospel? No. “Change the community” is a morally neutral goal. It depends on what you mean by change. It depends on your ultimate goal. Where is your hope?
For many, change-the-community has become a false gospel. It begins with a belief that humans are created by their communities. Instead of being created by God in His own image, you are made in the image of your neighborhood. You’re a product of the society in which you were brought up. As a result, the Fall happens as the neighborhood falls into decline through drug addiction and poverty. Generally, this happens through injustice and inequality. It’s not your fault. It happens to you. Redemption finds itself in acquiring the money, people, and resources which can redevelop the community. Ultimate restoration is a cleaner community with more resources, better education, and increased rates of home ownership. This is a false gospel.
‘Relocate the Poor’
There are those who come in from the outside. They are the resourced. Sometimes the resourced are former insiders who made it out. Usually, the vision is some form of gentrification. Don’t get me wrong. Nobody is honest about it. They talk about mixed-income housing and “affordable” homes. But at the end of the day, the poorest of the poor are not in the picture.
Their savior is the developer with money. The fruit of conversion is a young professional family who’s moving in. Their church is the home-owner association. Their spirit is cultural superiority. Their hope is in home values.
‘Empower the Poor’
Yet there is a second category attracted to the change-the-community gospel. They are the disenfranchised—the victims of injustice and societal neglect. They’ve got parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents raised in the neighborhood. Many of their friends are dead or in jail. They’re tired and sick of seeing the same old cycle. They too want change.
Their vision doesn’t involve relocating the poor. For them, it’s about keeping the gentry out. It’s about an equitable society where the poor own the homes (and are no longer poor). Ideally, it will be a grassroots movement, without the help of the outsider. Unfortunately, they often don’t have the resources to make change happen.
Their savior is the person or organization who will give them the resources to do what they need to do. Fruit of conversion means taking control of their own life. Their church is the community with whom they grew up. Their hope is in finally finding peace and happiness on earth.
The Gospel is Better than “Change-the-Community”
For two-thousand years, Christians have sought to better the lives of everyone around them. During the great plagues, for example, God’s people gave their own lives to nurse the sick and the dying. Rodney Stark points out that, in the year 165, a plague swept through the Roman Empire. All of the townspeople, physicians, and family fled the sick. Stark explains that, “Christians met the obligation to care for the sick rather than desert them, and thereby saved enormous numbers of lives!”
One hundred and fifty years later, Emperor Julian was disgusted with the way Christians were making his government look bad. He wrote of the Christian movement explaining that the Christians “care not only for their own poor but for ours as well.”
Christians who do not care about the plight of the poor are not in step with our family history. It deserves to be said, however: Our goal has never been to “change the community.” Any change comes as a byproduct of gospel-driven Christian love.
The gospel says that we are not made in the image of our community but in the image of God. This means all people have equal dignity and worth. Yet, due to the Fall, our problem is far worse than a broken neighborhood.
The world is broken from the top to the bottom. Rich neighborhoods are just as broken as the poor—they just look different. I often tell our church: the last thing I want to see for our community is change which results in our neighborhood looking like the rich neighborhoods in our city: godless, greedy, and self-sufficient. There is no amount of communal change we can bring which will solve our deepest problem. We need Jesus. And Jesus is the very best we have for our neighbors.
The gospel creates a church which serves as a counter-cultural society. We put on display the equitable community of heaven. In the church, we don’t want to remove the poor. In the church, we don’t just want to see the people who are like us. We’re a community which shows the real hope of change.
Saints, be involved in your neighborhood. But beware: some of your neighbors have bought a false gospel of change-the-community. Display and proclaim the root of real change: the pure gospel of Christ.
Author’s Note: This short series is intended to explore the subtle false gospels which pervade the inner city ministry context (and many others). While there are hundreds of additional false gospels, these simple evaluations are intended to inspire ministers and gospel workers to discover, diagnose, and dismantle false gospels in every community.