People are often skeptical when I say we are “making poverty history.” However, the gospel has been making poverty history for more than 2000 years where it has been faithfully conveyed through God’s three-step plan for changing the world: The Great Commission (1. Go and make disciples [Christians]; 2. Join them to the church through baptism; 3. Teach them the truth related to all of reality and how to obey all that Christ commands regarding same).
It might surprise you to learn that there are many parts of South Dallas, which include “un-reached people groups.” In missiological terms, any community where there is no indigenous, self-propagating church growth movement is, by definition, an unreached people group. I am suggesting that it is the absence of a growing Christian community—learning to live in right relationship with God, themselves, others and creation—that perpetuates the conditions particular to the kind of poverty that we see in America.
The Spiritually Darkest Parts of the City
In my experience, many inner-city neighborhoods are suffering from something much deeper that the obvious urban blight and material poverty. These communities are among the spiritually darkest places I have ever seen in the United States. Understanding that behind all things visible and physical stands a reality that is invisible and spiritual, these communities suffer under the dominion of dark forces that seek to destroy the image of God on earth.
I would argue that this is due to the fact that the Great Commission has largely been ignored and therefore unfulfilled. To be sure, there have been countless evangelism efforts aimed at reaching the “inner-city poor.” However, these efforts have often been undertaken in conjunction with transactional charity events such as Christmas and Thanksgiving giveaways (I know, we have done these!). You know the drill; assemble the poor with the promise of free food, clothing, and the like; share the “personal plan of salvation,” deliver the promised goods and go back home. While this may seem like “preaching the gospel” and sharing material goods with the poor is a good thing; this formula falls far short of what Jesus actually commanded us to do.
The Fallacy of Drive-By Evangelism
First, the “gospel” being presented is often a truncated gospel that emphasizes the benefits of the gospel apart from any demands such as confession and repentance. It is the false offer of easy believeism.
I have a friend who grew up in South Dallas and, like many, he found himself hustling in the streets, selling drugs to make a living. He told me about his first encounter with this type of evangelism. He was on the street in the middle of a drug deal when a church van pulled up and a number of young white teens hopped out. They quickly proceeded to ask him the two diagnostic questions they learned through Evangelism Explosion, which began with: “If you were to die tonight…?” Well, upon hearing this, they had his attention because he’s thinking; I might die in the next fifteen minutes! So, they proceed to share the plan of salvation, which concluded by leading him through the “Sinner’s Prayer.” They jumped back in the van and he finished his drug deal. These students left thinking they had fulfilled the Great Commission and he thinks he’s been saved from eternal judgement! Both were deceived.
It wasn’t until years later that my friend encountered the true gospel—proclaimed and demonstrated to him in the context of a relationship—that he, burdened by his sin, repented and placed his hope in Christ to save him.
Evangelism Remains Incomplete Without Being Joined to the Church
Second, this type of transactional evangelism neglects the second essential part of the Great Commission: Membership in the Church. Upon professing faith in Christ, God not only rescues us out of our isolation, but He also requires that we abandon our willful independence and be joined to the community of His people; the Church. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul employs language that emphasizes the corporate nature of our salvation in which Christ is creating “in himself one new man” (Eph. 2:15). In other words, the Church is a new humanity being created in Christ Jesus that together bears witness to the in-breaking rule and reign of God (the kingdom). This is the significance of baptism; it is the sign and seal of our inclusion into this new humanity of God’s covenant people.
This sort of “drive-by” evangelism ignores the formation of the Christian community (The Church) and thereby arrests the progress of the gospel in that person’s life.
Learning to Obey All That Christ Commands Results in a New Worldview
Thirdly, where the New Testament Church exists, new believers must enter into that community as faithful members of the Body, becoming part of a new society as it were. Where no New Testament church exists, they must be formed, nurtured and grown through the teaching of the Word and Sacraments. It is the Church to whom God has given the keys to the kingdom and as such, it is within the Body of Christ that we learn to obey all that Christ commands.
However, Jesus’ statement to obey all that he commands includes much more than just his moral instruction. Jesus Christ, by his very existence, confirms for us that there is a Creator to whom all of creation is subject. As such, we are introduced to the all-encompassing truth that correctly defines and organizes all of life and reality. It is this total truth that reshapes our every conception of life, and the proper ways in which we are to live in relationship not only to God, but also to ourselves, others, and creation. This results in a totally new life and worldview that changes the nature and direction of our every choice. If we make choices in obedience to God, we are more likely to flourish in these four relationships. Conversely, if we choose to continue in the direction of our sinful nature—disobedience—then we will likely experience dysfunction, conflict, and suffering. In other words, you can’t go against the grain of the universe and not get splinters!
In my experience, people suffering under the weight of generational poverty in America are generally unaware of the “all-encompassing truth that correctly defines and organizes all of life and reality.” As such, they lack a worldview capable of helping them avoid those choices that foster and sustain their poverty. I meet many so-called “poor” who claim to “believe in Jesus” but are not connected to the local church and unsurprisingly, their lifestyles are completely incompatible with Christian faith. I also meet many who do belong to a local church but possess such limited understanding that I wonder if they truly understand the gospel. Only one of two things is possible: either these poor folks aren’t actually saved or they aren’t being taught “all that Christ commands” within their churches and therefore don’t know how or what to obey.
Throughout the last two millennia, Christians have followed the Great Commission into countless heathen and pagan cultures only to see them Christianized and their societies utterly transformed. Where the people once lived in brutish subsistence, fear, and deprivation they slowly began to flourish in countless ways; politically, economically, socially, morally and the like. In short, their societies began to display a sign and foretaste of what life looks like under the rule and reign of Christ (the kingdom), which will be finally and forever consummated upon the return of Christ.
In conclusion, poverty and the deprivations common to our inner-cities are no match for the kingdom of God, but the kingdom of God does not advance into the world apart from the three-stage fulfillment of the Great Commission. This is the root of our strategy: Proclaim “good news” to the poor; form them into churches or join them to our church partners, where we, together, will teach them to obey all Christ commands.” As this happens in the inner-city, then and only then, will you see the eradication of poverty in its current form!