Part A: Church Based Community Development
In his book, Generous Justice, Tim Keller states:
“All I know is, if I don’t care about the poor, if my church doesn’t care about the poor, that’s evil.”
Jesse Johnson, writing an article for The Cripplegate Blog, has a somewhat different perspective. He writes:
“. . .the fact of the matter is that nowhere does the Bible command the church to care for the poor of the world, to lower the poverty rates in society, or to care for the homeless in our community. There are zero verses that command this, and several that even argue against it.”
The question of the role of the church in culture, particularly as it relates to matters of social justice and mercy ministry, is popping up in all sorts of forums across the Christian spectrum. It has been addressed in various blogs, articles, and books from men like Mark Dever, John Piper, Tim Keller, and Kevin DeYoung et al.
My concern in this post is to ask the question of the role of the church as it relates within a poor community. That, to my mind, is a somewhat different concern than a ministry to the poor and oppressed. Reaching out to the poor and planting a church among them are two entirely different propositions. In spite of the reams being written and said, when I have visited many churches in the UK and overseas, I haven’t exactly been trampled to death by the stampede of poor people attending their services! Nor, I have to say, have I come across many leaders from housing schemes and poor backgrounds. Leadership development in the UK is mainly a middle class sport.
I am not, unlike many, trying to build a church with a heart for the poor, I am seeking to build a church of God worshippers in the heart of a deprived scheme. That is a somewhat more complex task! Now, I am largely with Jesse (and others) when it comes to understanding that the commands to love the poor and care for the widow, etc., are there for the benefit of the Christian Community primarily (although by no means exclusively). He, I think correctly, gives voice to the concern of over emphasising the needs of the poor:
“I am making the observation that when money is going to soup kitchens, it is not going to missions. To guard against that, the church is never commanded to show compassion to the poor as a means for expanding the kingdom. Simply put, you owe the poor the gospel; Jesus died to purchase for them the privilege of hearing the testimony of his death and resurrection (1 Tim. 2:6).”
Mark Dever is even more direct on this topic:
“We, as a congregation, are not required to take responsibility for the physical needs in the unbelieving community around us. We do have a responsibility to care for the needs of those within our congregation (Matt. 25:34–40; Acts 6:1–6; Gal. 6:2, 10; James 2:15–16; I John 3:17–19) though even within the church, there were further qualifications (e.g., II Thess. 3:10; I Tim. 5:3–16). Paul’s counsel to Timothy (in I Tim. 5:3–16) about which widows to care for seems to indicate that the list was intended for Christian widows. One qualification seemed to be lack of alternative sources of support. Thus the instruction that family members should care for the needy first, if at all possible, shows the kind of prioritization of allowing for families—even of unbelievers—to provide support so that the church wouldn’t have to do it (I Tim. 5:16). We can extrapolate from this to conclude that support that could be provided from outside the church (for instance, from the state) should be preferred over using church funds, thus freeing church funds to be used elsewhere.”
I couldn’t agree more in terms of the financial aspect of social action and/or community development (however you want to define it). In Niddrie, we are not concerned with financial handouts (though we do have an interest free loan initiative in extreme emergencies for both members and non-members). People here generally aren’t lacking financially, and the state, if anything, is a hindrance in many ways to community development, rather than an aid to it. Indeed, our concern has even less to do with changing the social structures around us and more to do with (1) evangelistic opportunities and (2) discipleship issues. Let me take our bike project as an example of what I mean.
Niddrie has a huge criminal problem with stolen mountain bikes. Combine this with a healthy interest in the sport on the scheme. In a more middle class area with an established youth work, and a solid Christian base, Bible studies may be an option. Here, they are not. So, we have an opportunity to contact people who would never darken the door of a Sunday meeting, go to an evangelistic event, or meet a Christian of any shape or form. Our project then serves the purpose as a vehicle (it’s ultimate objective) for evangelism. A young person may then be saved and so can spend further time in the workshop fixing a bike whilst being discipled by one of our youth team. Getting into the Bible then ensues.
It just so happens that this vehicle of ours comes with a few added extras. Crime goes down (not massively, but it has an effect). Less bikes are being stolen in and around the church. The local police send us their stolen bikes to use as we report any stolen bikes to them. The local school uses our project to motivate struggling children educationally. And so on. There are other spin offs. They are all secondary to the gospel’s primacy, but they are not insignificant in terms of community development and justice. Most of our outreach, projects, and ideas have the same types of spin-off in different areas and across different demographics within the scheme. So, what do we call this?
Again, returning to Dever’s assertion that helping the needy is primarily an in-house job for the church. That's great for a“gathered” church community. What about the many community people who we see daily on the scheme? They may not become members, but they certainly become an intimate part of our lives. Surely, we have a biblical responsibility to them? Let’s remember that Galatians 6:10 says, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Many reformed pastors will emphasise the last three words as a proof text for Dever’s position, but the text appears to indicate helping all regardless of affiliation.
I agree, the answer to our community sin problem (its greatest need) is salvation through Christ. But, sooner or later, discipleship kicks in. So, yes, we can strengthen their Christology and biblical doctrine, but we still have to walk them through abusive relationships, sexual dysfunction, threats from drug dealers, mental health problems, etc. That becomes about loving them and practically seeking, where possible, to help them relieve some of their (often) self-imposed troubles. Fighting the macro causes of their issues doesn’t even get put on the table. We just haven’t got the time here, even if we had the inclination!
Reformed Churches in the UK have generally operated out of a separatist mindset in housing schemes (if they have ever really operated at all). Many have gone down the‘Word only’ route. This has left us with some serious problems which my generation of pastors has now been handed. I want to continue this article tomorrow and look at some key issues and why I think the local church must be the centre for change in housing schemes and indeed the whole reason we have started 20schemes.