January 23, 2013

The Keys to Breakthrough in the Housing Scheme: The Local Church and the Poor

Mark Dever, in an article published at The Gospel Coalition, notes that:

“Since the Fall, the trajectory of unredeemed human history—the City of Man—is always in the Bible to judgment (the Flood, Babel, Canaan, Egypt, Jerusalem, Babylon, Rome & then Rev. 19). (Not quite as universal as gravity, but seemingly as inevitable in its overall tendency.)”

For a comprehensive overview of the pastor and his relation to his community, read his full article here.

Many churches, likewise, believe that the world is going to hell in a handcart and therefore our role is to preach Christ, rescue some, and leave the rest to their own devices. Others believe that we have a role to play when God ultimately ushers in the renewal of all things at the end times. The result for the former group is slipping into a separatist approach to evangelism. For the latter, it is slipping into a ‘cultural accommodationalism’.

Now, I can see how certain eschatological positions can lead us down both tracks when it comes to the relationship between the church and its immediate culture. In fact, I see their legacy in housing schemes up and down the country. It shows itself in two main ways.

1. Those who have historically fought for doctrinal and theological purity at the expense of cultural engagement (for fear of watering down the gospel) now find themselves on the fringes of schemes, with aged, dying congregations. They have a gospel with nobody to preach it to. It suits their worldview of “them against the world” and it is leaving generations with no clue about the good news of Jesus. On the other hand, those who have sought to adapt and engage with culture at the expense of biblical truths tend to be very socially aware but have the same aged, dying congregations. They are viewed as little more than a social work agency and people don’t come when evangelism is not practiced. Both sides are suffering, with the real losers being the very people they are supposed to be reaching with the good news of Jesus Christ. Whilst the Christian world has been drawing their theological lines, real, living souls have been perishing for lack of witness. In the words of some old, dead dude: ‘A plague on both your houses’.

2. Because of this turn of events, much of the evangelism community development work is being carried out in schemes by a combination of government agencies and para-church organisations. Groups are visiting schools and doing RE classes, running clubs, and trying to reach young people for Christ, but largely detached from any local congregation whatsoever, and without any real long-term aims and objectives to combat the ‘congregational crisis’ we now face. On the one hand, how can we blame them when the local church is either (a) dead or (b) not doing its job (either from a lack of heart or because it is just unable to)?

The only way to reverse these trends is to plant new churches and/or renew existing ones. Spiritual Community renewal and development will not happen at a root level if the local church is not central to our plans. In Brasil, when we founded our street children project, we did it with a church plant at the core. Why so? A number of reasons:

1. A localised congregation gives a solid, consistent thrust for concerted evangelistic efforts.

2. It offers a place for spiritual accountability for those working in the field. Many para-church workers I have met (particularly youth workers) have little or no spiritual accountability and have either been burned out or are in danger of burning out trying to deal with the rigours of a front-line ministry such as ours.

3. It offers a context in which young converts and believers can grow in discipleship, in community, together. So, it avoids the hit and miss problem of people parachuting in, trying to reach out and then leaving people in the wind until the outsiders return again.

The local church has the responsibility to evangelise, disciple, nurture and prepare people to worship and serve the Living God in their respective communities. Surely, loving our neighbours shouldn’t be handed to those outside of our doors? Are we loving our communities? Are we serving our communities? If we love a community and seek to know it then ideas for outreach, evangelism, mission, and development will naturally flow out of this. I think many churches struggle to make an impact on schemes because they do not love their communities enough to really know them at a deep and intimate level. We cannot love the Lord and the gospel if we do not love people. The gospel needs a conduit for it to do its powerful, transforming work. Too many churches are burying their treasure in a field and hanging on for the master to come again.

We recently received news from our church plant in Brasil—The Good News Church—which is an indigenous community that operates in the poorest neighbourhood in the poorest state in Brasil. It’s poor! The church is small (50ish people) and yet recently they clubbed together to build 6 new homes in the community for displaced families! That is gospel-driven community development in action. Despite fears in some quarters, it does not water down the Word but rather offers a living example of the reality of the message that congregation is trying to bring to its community.

I appreciate the nuances of this debate. I really do. Christ above all, gospel before all, but when discipleship becomes indistinguishable from helping people deal with some of their life issues, then we have a duty of care. Let’s not protect the gospel to death. That would be a crime.

I am sure we’ll revisit this at some point.

Follow this link to PART 8 of 'The Keys To Breakthrough In The Housing Scheme'

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