Let me tell you about Lachie. He is in his late 30s and has no experience of Christianity in the home. He grew up in the local authority care system and is the product of a couple of decades of unsuccessful institutional reform. He was weaned on a diet of daytime TV chat shows, History Channel documentaries, a bit of spiritism, and a cocktail of conspiracy theories on the meaning of life. Lachie likes to talk about God, but usually when drunk or in some random home stoned out of his face.
In his lucid moments, he isn’t really sure if God exists. After all, science has disproved God’s existence, right? If you ask him how science has done that, he isn’t really sure. But he’s confident it has something to do with evolution and some big bang.
Anyway, the one thing Lachie knows is that if God does exist, God surely doesn’t care about people “like him.” His life is proof of that fact! If God does exist, he mustn’t like us all very much to leave us to suffer and let bad stuff happen. If God does exist, then the best Lachie can hope for is to live for the moment and trust that God will forgive him later.
I have worked with both street children in Brazil and inner-city housing residents in Scotland. And in my experience, they are remarkably similar in their thinking about God. Both groups have an innate super-naturalistic worldview. They have no problem believing that some form of supernatural entity (or ‘god’) exists. Make no mistake: they don’t yearn for a relationship with God. The Apostle Paul is clear that “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God” (Rom. 8:9a). But it is true that you won’t find many intellectually convinced atheists in a housing scheme or on the streets of Brazil.
The issue is not that people don’t believe in God. The problem lies with the kind of god they believe in.
- They view God as irrelevant. He is utterly disconnected from daily life; he’s something to dust off for weddings, baptisms, and funerals. He’s not really good for anything else.
- They view God as disinterested. Theoretically, this god is capable of helping them; he’s just not interested in doing it. They find it incredible that God could be “known” in any real sense of the word. They perceive that God (and the church) is only interested in the “posh” people.
- They view God as lenient. To your average person in the schemes, God is not holy. He doesn’t hate sin. He’s contractually obligated to be a good guy. So you can be confident that he’ll give you a pass on the last day. And if that’s the case, then why should you worry about obeying him today? At the very least, there’s not much urgency to please God with your life.
Because of so many wrong ideas about God, it is absolutely essential that we proclaim the character of God among the poor. We must present a God who is holy and who will hold them accountable, which is a direct attack on their morally laissez faire approach to life. We must present a God who can be known, and who in Christ has revealed himself perfectly to sinful people. This is a real kick against the cultural goads. This God is worthy of our service. He will replace self as the primary object of service and worship. When we know this God and are known by him, we gain a transforming amount of purpose and self-confidence in our lives.
Take Rob, a forty something former heroin addict, career criminal, and thief. Rob did whatever he wanted, when he wanted, without any thought for the consequences. He stole, he lied, and he hurt people at will. To his way of thinking, there was no God and no point to life. Life was about survival of the fittest.
One day Rob heard about God and his eyes were opened to see God’s character: God’s infinite holiness, perfect love, and implacable wrath against sin and sinners. That knowledge has transformed Rob’s life. He now submits himself to his creator and judge. Now he understands that God’s loving concern and care for him personally exist in harmony with God’s holiness. As a result, Rob is no longer wandering around in a story with no script. He lives with purpose, hope, and direction. He no longer commits crime. He no longer is absent in his children’s lives. He now lives responsibly as one who knows that his heavenly Father loves and cares for him and expects him to behave as a child of his.
All of this change in Rob’s life, the kind of change that social programs aim to achieve (and rightly so), is due to a change in Rob’s theology. Rob now understands what God is like, and that has made all of the difference.
Failing to present God’s character faithfully and biblically has major ramifications in ministry to the poor, wherever they may be.
This post is adapted from Church in Hard Places: How the Local Church Brings Life to the Poor and Needy by Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley.