The Role Of The Local Church Within Deprived Communities (1)

The Role Of The Local Church Within Deprived Communities (1)

Note: This is an updated version of a previous post.

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, is popping up in all sorts of forums across the Christian spectrum and has been addressed in various blogs, articles and books from men like Mark Dever, John Piper, Tim Keller and Kevin DeYoung et al. I have no wish to denigrate their (weighty) opinions but I feel that this subject needs more commentary from (a) the so-called ‘poor’ to whom many are referring and (b) actual practitioners of gospel ministry in deprived areas and not only to them.

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 church’s in the UK and overseas, I haven’t exactly been trampled to death by the stampede of poor people attending their services, never mind being trained up for future leadership!

Let me clarify. I am not, unlike many, trying to build a church with a heart for the poor (although that is not a bad thing), I am simply seeking to build a church of God worshippers in the heart of a deprived scheme. That is a somewhat more complex task on multiple levels than if I were, say, coming into Niddrie twice a week to do some schools work or to operate some kind of ‘outreach’ event. The latter may be viewed as some form of mercy ministry/outreach (although I would contest that) and the former I see as building the local church. Now, I am 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 (although I disagree with his premise below):

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). At Niddrie we are not concerned solely with financial handouts. We have, at times, used an interest free loan initiative (for members and non) which, whilst we have received back our money, has not helped people as we hoped it would. If anything, we enabled their perilous lifestyle choices (that’s one for another blog!) and in some cases maybe even made it worse.

People in Niddrie 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. Of course, there are those who are struggling badly but in almost every case it is down to lifestyle choices. Our main issues here are to do with mental health not (very often) people who can’t feed themselves. Obviously, we have emergency situations and we deal with them as sensitively and unobtrusively as we can. Will we give someone a fiver if their heating has gone or some food if the cupboards are empty? That depends. Can we help you look more closely at your finances to help you budget better for these occurrences? Those who don’t want that help don’t get our money. It’s as simple as that. It’s not the most mathematical scenario, and we’ve had our fingers burned many times, but it is the best we can do.

However, it’s one thing reading Mark Dever’s paragraph from the safety of our laptops in a leafy suburb and quite another when you live in the maelstrom of chaotic lives in a Scottish housing scheme! Even when we know people have done it to themselves, it is extremely painful to listen to story after story of suffering, abuse and horror without feeling some sort of emotional want to reach out and ease it. It’s hard to take the members only approach when we see so many people day in and day out on the scheme.  These people 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 emphasis the last three words as a proof text for Dever’s position, but the text appears to indicate helping all regardless of affiliation. So, how do we avoid getting swamped then? How do we avoid just turning into another ‘social agency’? Simply, as a church we have clearly defined our mission to our community and the world.

Glorifying GOD, preaching the gospel and making disciples of Jesus Christ

Our main concern on this estate is the spiritual well being of its residents rather than expending (too much) energy on changing societal structures or partnering with Jesus in cultural transformation (whatever that means!). Again, many have written extensively on the issue of the church in relation to culture. Tim Keller has produced the following, helpful, diagram. Click the link here to view. At Niddrie the question is not where do we fall on Keller’s diagram but how does what we do match up with our mission? Is it leading us closer toward it or taking us further away? I find myself frustrated by the diagram because, as usual, it is men trying to box other men into corners. I think personally, and as a church, we probably have people who fall into all the categories in one context or another. I agree, the answer to our community sin problem (its greatest need) is salvation though 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! The answer, for us, is to make sure we keep the gospel front and centre. We can make mistakes in all of the other areas but once that starts to slip then we really are going to have problems!

Many (not all) 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. So, what we need is careful thought and consideration as we discuss and think these issues through. The only real hope for areas like ours are healthy, gospel centred churches. That is the foundational underpinning of 20Schemes.

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.