The Gospel and Ministering to the Poor

City Outreach,Ministry to the Poor,Urban Ministry | Posted by: Editors

By Diana Lisle

Note: Diana Lisle is a member of FBC Durham and has spent many years ministering in the urban context of Durham, often leading Bible clubs for children in nearby neighborhoods around our church building.

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Two Possible Wrong Responses to Poverty: Pity and Pride

If you minister in an area of poverty, it can be easy to err in two very different ways: pity or pride. The gospel teaches us to set our minds on things above, not on things on earth. The gospel teaches us apart from Christ we are hopeless, all things are given by Christ not gained by the strength of our own hands. The gospel teaches us that the most pressing need of every man, woman, and child is to be reconciled to God. God gives all spiritual fruit. We were once God’s enemy, but now we are adopted into his family and coheirs with Christ. This is not based on any merit of our own, but only by the merciful, pursuit of Christ. It is with this understanding that we must minister. It is out of the knowledge of our past condition and God’s mercy that we must share the good news with those who are still, like we once were, dead in their trespasses and sin.

Keeping this right perspective, can be a struggle when we are ministering to people from our own culture (i.e., those who look like us, think like us, and live like us). When we minister cross-culturally, whether across ethnic or economic lines, this struggle can be increased if we don’t fully understand and live out the gospel. In other words, as we minister to others our practical theology comes to light. What do we really believe about the gospel? How do we view the places we minister? How do we view the people we minister to? How do we view other peoples’ circumstances?

1. Pity

Working in areas of poverty can be a distraction from the gospel for many Christians. When they see others without things that they have come to depend on as daily provisions or comforts, often it produces a response of pity. They may hurt for those in such conditions and want to help. It can be hard to see others without the comforts that you are used to or at times without their basic needs met. This can make one pity the families in this situation and begin to find solutions to their financial or material woes. Some people are so overwhelmed by entering a culture of poverty that they leave emotionally paralyzed. Others return with a determination to change the earthly situation of those they met.

There is a time for providing for those in need. Having compassion and providing for others in need is an important godly response. We should be generous in doing so. However, pity can be used to distract us from what’s not physically seen: their spiritual condition. I can become more concerned about the living conditions of others than spreading the hope of the gospel. My concern for providing material wealth for others can be used to distract me from the gospel.

2. Pride

Another wrong response to poverty can be pride. It is easy for one to be thankful they would never be found in a situation of poverty because of their own hard work and faithful service. Some start to judge those in poverty. While following patterns of biblical principles can lead to stable or fruitful lifestyles, all people living in poverty have not been the cause of their situations. Consider those who were born in poverty, many for generations, sometimes because of unjust societal structures or oppression. This may have left them without the resources and knowledge to get out. Consider also what the Bible tells us about wealth and material possessions: “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth …” (Deut 8:17–18). If one falls into the trap of taking credit for their material possessions or wealth, this can also hinder one’s gospel witness.

If I let pride cause me to think I have gained material wealth by hard work, then I am failing to truly understand the grace of God, and I might judge myself more highly than I ought and might judge others lower than I ought. This can damage any ministry in which I am involved. If I let pity drive me to focus on changing the lifestyle of my friends, those I minister to, I can be distracted by valuing the temporary over the eternal. The same God who provides me with every good and perfect earthly gift (common grace) provides me with eternal life with Christ (saving grace), and I don’t deserve either one. If I compare my life with that of another without the correct view of the God’s grace, I may walk away with misguided pity or unmerited pride. 

Self-Assessment

When you think about ministering in an area of poverty, what do you think? Do you think someone needs to go rescue those poor people? Do you view those living in poverty as in a more desperate situation than your unbelieving neighbors next door? Are you distracted from the gospel by the effects of poverty and wealth? Does one’s earthly condition cause a stronger emotional response in you than their spiritual condition? 

Do you think of all people in poverty as unbelievers? Or do you believe there are co-laborers and co-heirs of Christ, people saved by grace just like you living in poverty? Are you distracted from the gospel by thinking too lowly of others or too highly of yourself based on material possessions?

Do you believe that some of the next church leaders are living in neighborhoods of poverty? Do you believe that God is at work pursuing, saving, and growing believers living in a variety of life’s circumstances? Do you believe that the greatest rescue that can be made is not from a life of poverty, but a life of sin? Do you believe that God has rescued you by unmerited favor from his wrath and made you his child and he will do that for others?

Poverty in Light of the Gospel

Believing that all material gain I have comes from God and not from my own self-worth means I must humble myself and give all credit to God for my earthly possessions. Believing God offers his grace freely to all who believe, completely without merit gives me the best strategy for rescuing others in poverty. We have the glorious privilege of joining the father in ministering to others in a variety of life circumstances within the body of Christ and throughout the world. By remembering God’s sovereign role in our lives, we can minister humbly and compassionately with great joy sharing the same hope of the gospel that has rescued us.

“I Have a Dream” … For FBC Durham

City Outreach,Urban Ministry | Posted by: Editors

By Matthew Hodges, Director of City Outreach

On Martin Luther King Day, in Durham, North Carolina, I’ve been thinking about King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, mainly because we’ve all got dreams. Our church is Durham’s oldest, founded in 1845, and we continue to meet near downtown Durham. Of Durham’s 228,000+ residents as of the 2010 census, 42 percent are white, and 41 percent are African-American. And, my church has a dream for our church and surrounding community. A dream where the Good News of Jesus Christ crumbles down walls that would normally separate us one from another, a dream of FBC Durham growing more and more to resemble the multitude of saints in Revelation 7.

Matthew Hodges with Andy Davis

Matthew Hodges with Andy Davis

It’s our senior pastor’s dream also.

As I begin my sixth year as the Director of City Outreach, my soul has been encouraged often by the men and women referred to in Hebrews 11, and those like them who’ve followed. There are many things I could point to that God has used to strengthen my resolve as I help lead FBC Durham to minister to our surrounding urban context, but something Dr. Andy Davis recently preached in a sermon was huge for me.

1. Dr. Andy Davis’ Dream

On November 17, 2013, Dr. Davis preached a message from Galatians 2:11–21, which he titled, “The True Gospel Produces True Unity if Truly Followed.” And in his introduction, he made this tremendous statement:

“A few years ago, Martin Luther King said ‘I have a dream.’ Well, I have my own dream for First Baptist Church. I would love to see a supernatural unity happening in this church. I would like to see more people walking to church here, … people right from this community, who don’t need to drive, and have been reached by our city outreach ministry, and others who have come to faith in Christ and make First Baptist their church.”

This isn’t a new dream for Dr. Davis. It’s always been his dream. I’ve had the joy of talking with Dr. Davis on many occasions, and even before I came on staff as the Director of City Outreach, I’ve had the joy of hearing his heart on the subject: that our northeast downtown building not just be that—a building in the community—but that FBC Durham be a people, actively engaging the surrounding community with the gospel, and with other acts of grace.

For years, one of Dr. Davis’ go-to chapters for ministry in the urban context has been John 17. We’ve talked about several of the verses in that chapter numerous times. In John 17, we see Jesus praying for unity (not uniformity), as this supernatural unity would be a sign to the world that Jesus Christ had, in fact, come into the world (see vv 21, 23). What an amazing evangelistic strategy! Jesus, bringing people from all different walks of life and backgrounds together through the forgiveness of sins and faith in the gospel message, so that the world might know that God the Father has sent God the Son.

2. The People of the Dream

The local church composes the workers of this dream. Over the years, FBC Durham members have served in the urban context in a number of ways: health fairs, Jobs for Life, working in the Caring Center, kids clubs at Liberty Street Apartments, benevolence, and so on. Those are just some of the ways we’re seeking to make progress toward the goal of our dream. Whether you’re a member of FBC Durham or of another local church, as men and women who desire to be obedient to the Word of God in every area of life (even those areas that stretch us!), may we grow and work together to increasingly see evidences of the dream Dr. Davis proclaimed in his sermon in even greater ways this year.

3. The Goal of the Dream Will Not Come Easy

But keep in mind that the goal of this dream doesn’t come easy. Cross-cultural ministry isn’t easy in any context. FBC Durham’s population center is northeast central Durham. There, the population is 49 percent African-American, 27 percent white and 21 percent Hispanic—and that is quite different than the make-up of FBC’s congregation. The good news is that Jesus knows all about the make-up of our surrounding community. He knows everyone! He knows their temperaments, interests, life experiences, joys and challenges. Jesus knows just as well that cross-cultural ministry is a challenge because the world’s disunity is due to sin. And, he knows that cross-cultural servants often have their own fears to overcome, their own comfort zones to breach. He knows that the dream of our senior pastor will not magically become our new reality overnight.

4. By the Lord’s Help, We Can Make Progress

But you know, on this day, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered, not because his dream has fully met its goal (it hasn’t; there is still work to be done), but because of the major impact he had on a movement in our nation to grow to see all men seen as equal, and treated as equal. Similarly, I hope this day will encourage people like you and me to embrace the dream of our pastor, Dr. Davis—to see men and women from the surrounding community join with us in the journey of the Christian life as family, walking to First Baptist Church because they’re members, not just visitors. It won’t be easy, but thankfully God is with us. May obedience to the Great Commission—even if in small steps—be accomplished this year by going, declaring the gospel (Matt 28:18–20), and showing the gospel (John 17:20–26).

Ministry in the New Urban Context

Urban Ministry | Posted by: Editors

By Kevin Schaub

I’ve never been to Detroit, so I don’t know for sure whether the comparisons I’m about to make will be able to stand. Since this isn’t a post about Detroit, but instead one about Durham and ministry in the urban context, it’s not necessary that I be nuanced on Detroit. So if you’re a Detroiter, please bear with me.

1. Durham’s Urban History

Detroit is a city with a complicated history. It’s a city once built on the shoulders of the auto industry, now reinvented as an entertainment hub. It’s an important American city, but it has its well-documented problems: crime, social tensions, urban decay, and bankruptcy.

In a similar way, Durham is a city with a complicated history. It’s a city once built on the shoulders of the tobacco industry, now reinvented as a city of research and medicine (which is kind of ironic when you think about it). Durham is mostly a liberal city, and one which is haunted by its Southern, sometimes racial past. Of course, Durham is smaller (and less influential) than Detroit will ever be (at least I should think so). But like Detroit, Durham’s once vibrant urban center decayed once the tobacco industry left the city. Durham’s suburban areas flourished, however, north, west, and south of the city center. Those without financial mobility to move with the (mostly white) suburban middle class remained in the urban center, while many of the once-urban jobs left the city to follow the money. The sad result was the city’s lower class (mostly urban, poor African Americans) was left behind, in many ways without hope.

2. The New Urban Context

There is yet another comparison to be made with Detroit. Motown’s present-day reputation isn’t flattering. Outsiders hear of the city’s crime rates, distressed urban districts, and the city’s inability to pay its bills, and many conclude the city is too messed up to turn around.  Marchland and Meffre’s “Ruins of Detroit” photo-art has immortalized Detroit as a city lost to decay, but if you ask Detroiters, they will tell you those images don’t tell Detroit’s whole story. Detroit’s downtown, midtown, and New Center areas have all been revitalized, so the money and middle class of Detroit don’t necessarily live just in the suburbs anymore.

Durham’s Revitalized American Tobacco Campus

Similarly, Durham’s present-day reputation, at least according to outsiders, isn’t always flattering. They hear Durham is crime-ridden, scary, racial, too messed up to be turned around. However, Durham residents know better. Just as “Ruins of Detroit” doesn’t tell Detroit’s whole story, neither does the “Welcome to Durham, USA” documentary tell Durham’s whole story. Revitalization has come to Durham’s downtown and nearby tobacco districts. Once near empty of businesses, downtown Durham is now vibrant and full of life. It’s trendy, it’s cool. The food is delicious; the entertainment is top-notch. With the downtown revitalization has come its money and community, which makes it all sustainable.

In other words, the urban landscape isn’t the same in Durham as it was in the 70’s. Ministry in the urban context—at least in a broader sense—isn’t just ministry in poor, distressed neighborhoods. With the revitalization of downtown Durham has come its people: middle class, mostly white, liberal, entrepreneurial, independent, mostly unreached people who love Durham, who love this city—at least in their own way.

However, still across the street from revitalization in Durham—sometimes literally—are the low-income apartment communities and homes, where life is hard, sometimes hopeless, often crime-ridden, where real people created in God’s image live day in and day out, just as much in need of the gospel as the new downtowners. The urban poor have been here through it all.

3. Ministry in the New Urban Context

Ministry in the new urban context isn’t monolithic, if one could say it ever was.

FBC Durham stayed in downtown Durham; we never left. Most of our members live in suburban areas, and commute in for services and local ministry. I don’t know all the reasons why our church became a commuter church, but it’s safe to conclude there have been family, social, financial, and cultural reasons for it. I live about 15 minutes from downtown Durham, so in Durham terms, I technically live in the suburbs. I’m a northwest Texas transplant to the area, so I’ve never been urban. Suffice it to say that I don’t want non-urban Christians to feel bad over where they live.

Matthew Hodges praying for Jobs for Life graduates

With that said, for churches in urban areas, it is vital to their Christian witness to have a heart for ministry in the urban context, and therefore essential that those churches be careful to pray for, and train for cross-cultural ministry. Urban cultures aren’t the same as rural, suburban cultures. White, middle class, urban culture isn’t the same as African American, urban poor culture. 

In my mind, though, an urban church should have a missional heart toward all of its urban communities. This is what it means for a church to be a good steward of its geography (where its members meet), not for the sake of its historic property, but for the sake of the community that walks passed and lives near that historic property, and hears stories about the people who meet there.

In recent years, the hearts of the church members of FBC Durham have been moved afresh toward a love for Durham’s urban communities. Because it’s not monolithic ministry, because it’s often cross-cultural ministry, and because it’s hard ministry, ministry in the urban context needs to be a whole-church ministry. In other words, it can’t just be for a few. There are many ways in which a whole church can join in urban ministry, and it’s not all rocket science. For example, an urban church’s services should feel safe, not socially uncomfortable for visitors from the urban community. This doesn’t just happen. Church members have to work on it, and be intentional about it. Training is necessary.

As I conclude my thoughts, let me say this: cross-cultural ministry is difficult, but it’s not impossible. Left to our own resources and skills, it would be impossible. However, we as Christians shouldn’t rely on our own resources anyway. Instead, we should rely on our sovereign God, who is able to accomplish all he purposes to come to pass. It is our confidence in God and the gospel of Jesus Christ and obedience to his commands that should lead us into faithful and sustained ministry in the new urban context. After all, only the gospel addresses the greatest needs of all of the people of the world, no matter their culture or social background.

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Image credits: Durham’s Revitalized American Tobacco Campus; Matthew Hodges praying for Jobs for Life graduates.

 

Discipleship in the Urban Context

City Outreach,Urban Ministry | Posted by: Editors

By Kevin Schaub with Matthew Hodges

Durham has become known for its urban revitalization, its artisan restaurants, and its complicated history. First Baptist Church is the oldest church in Durham, established in 1845, and it certainly has its own contribution to Durham’s history. In recent years, God has been at work in the hearts of FBC Durham’s church membership to unite us under sound doctrine, to help us on the road of sanctification, and to usher us into city outreach ministry.

(Left to Right) Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr., Matthew Hodges, Darrick Smith

The task is a difficult one. In fact, left to our own resources and wisdom, FBC Durham cannot serve well in the urban context. God is sovereign, he’s on mission, and it’s his mission to accomplish. Thankfully, he purposes to use weak vessels to advance his missionary task. For years now, it’s been on the heart of Matthew Hodges and the city outreach ministry team to help our church body and other area churches be equipped to minister cross-culturally in the urban context, and recently Matthew led our church to host a one-day conference on discipleship in the urban context, simply called City Outreach Conference.

Because we believe we’re not in this cross-cultural ministry alone, but instead desire others to join with us in outreach in the urban context, we wanted to make the audio from the conference available online to you. I went to the conference, and personally, I thought it was the most helpful, informative one-day conference I’ve ever been to. Before leaving the conference, one attendee remarked, “I learned that I need to do theology in the urban context.” Another, following Dr. Carl Ellis’ first session, exclaimed, “He made the Old Testament come alive!”

We were blown away. We had visitors to the conference from all over the state of North Carolina, and several area colleges and seminaries were represented. As I said earlier, the theme of the conference was discipleship in the urban context. The speakers for the conference were Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. (author of Saving our Sons: Confronting the Lure of Islam with Truth, Faith and Courage and Free at Last?: The Gospel in the African American Experience) and Darrick Smith (NCCU College Director of Summit Church). Their talks were both informative and challenging, giving a clear picture of the challenges, culture, and history that has shaped the urban context.

The audio is linked below. We hope you’ll listen, apply what you learn, and depend on the Lord as you join with us to labor for Christ in the urban context.