By Jim Herbst
Diane, an MBA student, asked me to review a presentation. She was speaking about the International Monetary Fund, about which I knew nothing.
Poor Diane never made it through her whole presentation. I kept interrupting to ask questions. Monetary policy, microenterprise, microloans and their application to poverty fascinated me. She never came to me with something to review.
Even if my college had offered a course in economics, I wouldn’t have taken it. Only after living in poorer neighborhoods have I become interested. Now I see daily the incredible influence economic standing has on how we live our Christian lives and what challenges our churches face.
Consider a neighbor released from prison who has nowhere to go but to return to his drug-prone family. As a convicted drug felon, he has few job prospects, but still he has fines, restitution, and child support to pay. He works seven days a week at odd jobs and metal scrap-work collection, but struggles to make ends meet and has no health coverage. You begin to understand the high recidivism rate among prisoners.
Kids wander the streets with little or no adult supervision. All they know is street survival. What job prospects do they have when they turn 18? Guns and the underground (i.e. illegal) economy always offer an income.
When cities lose population, taxes increase for remaining citizens. Low-income seniors who have paid off their houses can lose them to property taxes and high healthcare costs.
When the motivation is present, one can’t help but notice economics in the Bible. Notice, for example, the year of Jubilee or the prophets’ concern for justice. I can offer no better alternative to free enterprise, but no serious Bible student can ignore that Jesus’ parable of the rich man undercuts a major premise of capitalism. Jesus’ teachings often contradict the American dream of bigger and better. It was crucial to the testimony of the early church to make clear Jesus showed no favoritism toward the wealthy (1 Corinthians 11 and James 2). The gospel had profound impact on local economies—both positive (Acts 4:32ff. and Romans 15:26ff.) and negative (Acts 16:19 and 19:27). The generosity of poorer Christians became a strong testimony (Luke 21; 2 Corinthians 8; Revelation 2:9 and 3:8). Economic justice was a way of testifying to God’s unending mercy and power.
How we respond to economic disparities today continues to demonstrate to the nonbelieving world what Christians really believe about Jesus. Although favoritism today is more by neighborhood than by individual, it still goes on. On the other hand, the jealousy, contempt, and judgmental attitude poorer Christians often have toward the wealthy is equally unhealthy. Here are a few suggestions to both sides.
How Wealthy Christians can Help Poorer Christians Without Spending a Dime
• Listen—If wealthy churches could grant me one wish, it wouldn’t be for money. It would be for wealthier Christians to just listen to the lives of the poor. It’s naive and idealistic, but I dream of wealthy churches sending staff or elders to live in poor neighborhoods—not to coordinate great commuter crusades or run programs, but just to listen and observe the factors influencing the poor. I really believe it would change American evangelical Christianity. I believe our faith and worship would be richer and deeper.
• Tone down your political rhetoric—Our church and most other urban churches live in the center of the “blue” areas. We’ve spent years trying to earn trust and break barriers to the gospel, only to have it ruined by some of the fire-breathing, fear-inducing, exaggerated political speeches some evangelicals have made during elections.
I’m proud of our teenagers. They are debating evolution in public schools. They are taking unpopular stands on abortion and the gay agenda. They are writing essays on Jesus in class.
But they are doing it from the inside. They are taking those stands among the same people they play guitar with, play football with, and go to the movies with. They are not standing on the outside lobbing in political napalm.
I wish wealthy Christians would stand and weep with us over the lost around us instead of just spouting off political rhetoric,
• Be sensitive in your fund-raising—I have spent three months working on these two paragraphs. I don’t want to be judgmental or accusatory. I only want to express how left out poorer churches feel when receiving not a few but volumes of requests asking to help pay for million-dollar buildings, flat-panel TVs, and super comfy chairs. While I have no position to judge, I have cause to wonder if the “need” for such funds is embellished more often than anyone wants to admit.
Of particular concern is the habit of organizational overspending and asking others to help bail them out. I watch seniors painfully crawl up steps on hands and knees to be in church every Sunday. They have chosen repeatedly to spend money on outreach and youth rather than buy themselves a chairlift. Our leaders wisely limit our spending to within our means. Through sacrifice our people are helping released convicts, gracefully but boldly getting drug dealers off our corner, and raising up young leaders.
Yet we receive desperate fund-raising letters asking for help with debt in what to us is extravagance. It is such a struggle not to feel slighted when watching poorer Christians live within their means, while organizations with far higher revenue streams repeatedly beg for help with overspending.
• Keep doing what you’re doing—We owe you a great deal of thanks for your influence. Tears ran down my cheek at a megachurch as I watched a man baptize both his son and his mother the same day. It was awesome. I love the stories of changed lives in our church plants. Just don’t forget there are lost sheep in poorer neighborhoods too.
How Poorer Churches Can Help Themselves
• Celebrate our calling—We poorer churches whine too much. Yes, our work can be discouraging, but we have a great calling (James 1:9). We build relationships with street kids and addicts and alcoholics. Thankfully, we don’t have to measure up to anyone but God’s standards. We are witnesses to levels of faith few outsiders will ever see. It is an awesome privilege.
We must guard against jealousy and any sense of entitlement—that the wealthy owe us something. They owe God something, but not us. And in terms of the larger world, we’re still rich in this country.
• Come up with better strategies—This can be our greatest challenge. We do what we know whether it works or not. There are some wonderfully creative models out there, but we must give time, effort, and courage to try them. The most effective and financially efficient ministries I’ve studied were usually started by neighborhood insiders with simple ideas. They equip the poor instead of treating them as projects or exhibits.
Like churches everywhere, too often we cater to the loudest voices rather than concentrate on disciple making. We become distracted by building maintenance, and we tolerate mediocrity indefinitely to save a few hurt feelings. I mention these as my own failures. The burden is on us, however—not anyone else—to come up with better strategies and not make excuses.
• Stay focused—Most people who work with the poor are driven by great compassion. A side effect is scattered direction. We are blown about by so many heartbreaking needs, we fail to pick a focus and stick with it. One of our great dangers is to be so busy doing good things we fail to do eternal things.
• Be accountable—One of my biggest fears is denial. I’ve seen dozens of troubled churches that couldn’t admit it. And denial is always easier to see in others than in myself. I find it helpful to stay connected with colleagues who help me stay focused on outreach. They help me see barriers and ways of breaking those barriers. They also keep evangelism fun, not just obligatory.
I love what I do because it gives me a tangible expression of my faith. I grew up in public schools that were increasingly dismissive of Christianity. When the church sees people come to Christ and helps rebuild neighborhoods or jump starts local economies with small business, I could not be any prouder. When the church goes where no one else wants to go, and when it succeeds where governments and social science intellectuals fail, I can say, “This is the power of Christ.”
Unfortunately the converse is also true. Every time Christians abandon difficult areas, we are likewise making an influential statement to the nonbelieving world about what we really believe.
Jim Herbst ministers with Hazelwood Christian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.