Serving in the Shade by Delighting in God

(I ran across this quote this past weekend and had to share it. It’s a journal entry of Hudson Taylor’s that was found after his death. He wrote it when he was 42 and everything in his life was going wrong. His China Inland Mission was at one of it’s lowest points, without the funding and the people that it needed to survive. Taylor had been ridden for months and apparently forgotten by most of his friends. It was encouraging to me, I hope it is to you. His biographer says that this entry gives “a window on his soul, on the true Hudson Taylor who wanted to be like Christ, cost what it might.”)

HudsonTaylor21

“If God has called you to be really like Jesus in all your spirit, He will draw you into a life of crucifixion and humility, and put on you such demands of obedience that He will not allow you to follow other Christians; and in many ways He will seem to let other good people do things that He will not let you do. Other Christians and ministers who seem very religious and useful may push themselves, pull wires and work schemes to carry out their schemes, but you cannot do it; and if you attempt it, you will meet such failure and rebuke from the Lord as to make you sorely penitent. Others may brag on themselves, on their work, on their successes, on their writings, but the Holy Spirit will not allow you to do any such thing; and if you begin it, He will lead you into some deep mortification that will make you despise yourself and all your good works.

Others may be allowed to succeed in making money, but it is likely God will keep you poor, because He wants you to have something far better than gold, and that is a helpless dependence on Him, that He may have the privilege (the right) of supplying your needs day by day out of an unseen treasury. The Lord will let others be honored and put forward, and keep you hidden in obscurity, because He wants some choice fragrant fruit for His coming glory which can only be produced in the shade. He will let others do a work for Him and get the credit for it, but He will let you work and toil on without knowing how much you are doing; and then to make your work still more precious, He will let others get the credit for the work you have done, and this will make your reward ten times greater when Jesus comes.

The Holy Spirit will put a strict watch over you, with a jealous love, and will rebuke you for little words and feelings or for wasting your time, over which other Christians never seem distressed. So make up your mind that God is an infinite Sovereign, and has a right to do as He pleases with His own, and He may not explain to you a thousand things which may puzzle your reason in His dealings with you. He will take you at your word and if you absolutely sell yourself to be His slave, He will wrap you up with a jealous love and let other people say and do many things which He will not let you say or do.

Settle it for ever that you are to deal directly with the Holy Spirit, and that He is to have the privilege of tying your tongue, or chaining your hand, or closing your eyes, in ways that He does not deal with others. Now when you are so possessed with the Living God, that you are in your secret heart pleased and delighted over the peculiar, personal, private, jealous guardianship of the Holy Spirit over your life, you will have found the vestibule of Heaven.”

(quoted in “Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century: It Is Not Death to Die” by A.J. Broomhall, pages 516-517)

Lloyd Jones on Poverty of Spirit

I’ve been studying and meditating on Matthew 5-7 recently. As a part of that, I picked up D. Martin lloyd-jones-copia+2Lloyd Jones sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. This morning I read his sermon on “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) The whole sermon is worth your time, but these last three paragraphs are gold:

“That, then, is what is meant by being `poor in spirit’. It means a complete absence of pride, a complete absence of selfassurance and of self-reliance. It means a consciousness that we are nothing in the presence of God. It is nothing, then, that we can produce; it is nothing that we can do in ourselves. It is just this tremendous awareness of our utter nothingness as we come face to face with God. That is to be `poor in spirit’. Let me put it as strongly as I can, and I do so on the basis of the teaching of the Bible. It means this, that if we are truly Christian we shall not rely upon our natural birth. We shall not rely upon the fact that we belong to certain families; we shall not boast that we belong to certain nations or nationalities. We shall not build upon our natural temperament. We shall not believe in and rely upon our natural position in life, or any powers that may have been given to us. We shall not rely upon money or any wealth we may have. The thing about which we shall boast will not be the education we have received, or the particular school or college to which we may have been. No, all that is what Paul came to regard as `dung’, and a hindrance to this greater thing because it tended to master and control him. We shall not rely upon any gifts like that of natural `personality’, or intelligence or general or special ability. We shall not rely upon our own morality and conduct and good behaviour. We shall not bank to the slightest extent on the life we have lived or are trying to live. No; we shall regard all that as Paul regarded it. That is `poverty of spirit’. There must be a complete deliverance from and absence of all that. I say again, it is to feel that we are nothing, and that we have nothing, and that we look to God in utter submission to Him and in utter dependence upon Him and His grace and mercy. It is, I say, to experience to some extent what Isaiah experienced when, having seen the vision, he said, `Woe is me ! … I am a man of unclean lips’-that is `poverty of spirit’. As we find ourselves in competition with other men in this world we say, `I am a match for them’. Well, that is all right in that realm, if you like. But when a man has some conception of God, he of necessity feels `as one dead’, as did the apostle John on the Isle of Patmos, and we must feel like that in the presence of God. Any natural spirit that is in us goes out, because it is not only exposed in its smallness and weakness, but its sinfulness and foulness become apparent at the same time.

Let us then ask ourselves these questions. Am I like that, am I poor in spirit? How do I really feel about myself as I think of myself in terms of God, and in the presence of God? And as I live my life, what are the things I am saying, what are the things I am praying about, what are the things I like to think of with regard to myself? What a poor thing it is, this boasting of the things that are accidental and for which I am not responsible, this boasting of things that are artificial and that will count as nothing at the great day when we stand in the presence of God. This poor self! That hymn of Lavater’s puts it perfectly: `Make this poor self grow less and less’, and `O Jesus Christ, grow Thou in me.’

How does one therefore become `poor in spirit’? The answer is that you do not look at yourself or begin by trying to do things to yourself. That was the whole error of monasticism. Those poor men in their desire to do this said, `I must go out of society, I must scarify my flesh and suffer hardship, I must mutilate my body.’ No, no, the more you do that the more conscious will you be of yourself, and the less `poor in spirit’. The way to become poor in spirit is to look at God. Read this Book about Him, read His law, look at what He expects from us, contemplate standing before Him. It is also to look at the Lord Jesus Christ and to view Him as we see Him in the Gospels. The more we do that the more we shall understand the reaction of the apostles when, looking at Him and something He had just done, they said, `Lord, increase our faith.’ Their faith, they felt, was nothing. They felt it was so weak and so poor. `Lord, increase our faith. We thought we had something because we had cast out devils and preached Thy word, but now we feel we have nothing; increase our faith.’ Look at Him; and the more we look at Him, the more hopeless shall we feel by ourselves, and in and of ourselves, and the more shall we become `poor in spirit’. Look at Him, keep looking at Him. Look at the saints, look at the men who have been most filled with the Spirit and used. But above all, look again at Him, and then you will have nothing to do to yourself. It will be done. You cannot truly look at Him without feeling your absolute poverty, and emptiness. Then you say to Him,

Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling.

Empty, hopeless, naked, vile. But He is the all-sufficient One-

Yea, all I need, in Thee to find, 0 Lamb of God, I come.”

Why I’m Done With Urban Ministry–One Year Later

Arch2O-Urban-Planning-Museum-Architects-Collective-19

It’s been a year since I finished my blog series, “Why I’m Done With Urban Ministry.” It was the first entry I wrote, and it was the main reason I started the blog in the first place. I wrote this series mainly to get it out of my system. It was bugging me so much, and I only expected a few my friends to read it. I always tell the teens in my youth group that anything you put up on the Internet can be read by anyone. Most of the time that’s a negative thing. This time it wasn’t. More people ended up reading it than I ever imagined.

That happened thanks mainly to Dr. Anthony Bradley, a widely published author and professor at King’s College. He wrote a piece that was originally published on the think tank Action Institute’s website and then republished several other places. His article “The End of Urban Ministry” summarized my main points and fleshed out some implications that I hadn’t thought about. Thabiti Anyabwile, now a church planter out of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C and speaker at Together for the Gospel, plugged my article on his Twitter account. I’m one of pastors at a little church in a low-income neighborhood and have never crossed paths with either of those guys before. I can’t get out to a lot of conferences, but if I did, it would be a privilege just to sit in the back row and listen to those men teach. So I don’t have to tell you that I was blown away.

Here are some random reflections after writing “Why I’m Done With Urban Ministry” twelve months ago:

  • I’m definitely not a blogger. Having a small church, small children, and sporadic bouts of self-discipline doesn’t lend itself to the craft of blogging. There are times when I just have no time to write. There are a lot more times when I just feel like I have nothing to add to the conversation. Thankfully, social media drives most of the content these days so regular posting isn’t quite as important (at least that’s what I tell myself). I do enjoy writing, though, so I’ll keep paying the eleven bucks a year to keep my domain name. I do it for those few times when I actually have a chance to write and have something important to say.
  • One of the biggest, unexpected blessings that I’ve gotten out of this series has been the number of pastors who have contacted me to thank me for what I wrote. Some of them were pastors I knew, but many were pastors whom I’ve never met. They contacted me to let me know that the article seemed to take a weight off of them. The burden of the “special forces” mentality weighs on pastors more than we realize. Some of the pastors were from rural contexts, and they appreciated the idea that ministry is the same everywhere. They’re often given the impression that their place of service is second class because it isn’t “urban.”
  • With people reading my blog and talking about my ideas, I was surprised how much my sinful heart fell in love with unique visits, Facebook shares, and retweets. I knew in my head that this was just one series that happened to strike a chord, but my heart wanted to be more stuck on itself. This made me thankful for my church and my community for keeping me grounded in what matters most. Most people in my church don’t have a Twitter account or read blogs of any kind. Only a handful of them even read what I wrote. The teens in my youth group don’t even know I have a blog. The most important thing, though, is that most people in my neighborhood have never even heard of the gospel. Twitter and Facebook are fine, but let’s not forget that there are a lot of people out there who can’t afford Internet access and who don’t have the reading skills to follow a blog. Because Jesus loves them too, our churches should be strategizing about how to reach them.
  • Why was being “Done with Urban Ministry” so popular? I’m not totally sure, but I think part of the reason is that we’re moving back towards biblical terminology. Poverty is a biblical category while rural/suburban/urban just are not. Yes, God told the Babylonian exiles to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer. 29:7) and encouraged Paul that He had “many people in this city” (Acts 18:10). But are we really going to say that those verses are only for those of us who are ministering inside city limits? Sticking with the biblical distinctions and the principles of dealing with poverty will serve the church better. Adding the “urban” or “city” label to our ministry makes it look like we’re advertising to the millennials who love gentrification. Instead, we need to be reaching out to the people who have lived in the city for decades. Plus, if the Bible says that helping the poor is important, then that’s important everywhere–not just in cities.

I am a little surprised that there was no backlash from Dr. Bradley’s article “The End of Urban Ministry.” I expected the people and institutions out there pushing “urban ministry” to respond (hopefully kindly and thoughtfully) and tell us all the reasons why that label mattered. They’re still using it. Gentrification, suburban/rural poverty, the decline of upward mobility, economic segregation–these are important issues that affect how we spread the gospel here in America. Urban ministry has become urban legend. The faster we realize it, the more the poor will “have the good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:22)

Why the Church Isn’t Growing in Poor Neighborhoods (Pt 4)

(This is the last in my four part series, Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here)

Teamwork and corporate profit

4. Relying on conversions, not transfer growth.

There’s nothing wrong with transfer growth. Hopefully, though, no one plans to grow their church entirely with people from other churches. Every doctrinally-sound church wants to see people saved, but transfer growth still happens. We know that transfer growth is just moving around the same pieces of the universal Body of Christ.

Your church can only draw people from two places–from other churches or from the world. People can leave other churches to join yours, or new members can come from conversions–when people leave the world and start following Christ. We accept the reality that some people are going to come to our church from other churches, but we’re praying for conversions.

Here’s the challenge when you minister in a poor area–you’re not going to get a lot of transfer growth into your church. The whole vibe that a lot of churches give off in order to get transfer growth falls flat in poor neighborhoods. Proving that you’re just so much cooler (or your worship band is better, or your programs are better, or your doctrinal distinctives are so much better, etc., etc.) than other churches, doesn’t do anything to save people. The whole “this ain’t your grandma’s church and we are way hipper than your parent’s church” just doesn’t matter if you’re a brand new Christian taking your first baby steps as a believer.

As I mentioned in Reason #2 in this series, there is a lot of transfer in poor neighborhoods. Most of the time, though, it’s just transfer OUT, not transfer in. People get saved, God changes their lives, and they assume that part of God blessing on them is His providing a way for them to move out of the neighborhood. Some people may fall in love with the romantic notions of helping out a small church in a poor neighborhood. Before long, though, that wears off, and they move on to greener pastures. If your church is located in a low-income neighborhood, there probably aren’t a lot of Christians moving into the area that your church can draw from.

So how does a church in a poor neighborhood grow? People get saved and join the church. Easy Growing-team-garden-analogyenough, right? Except for the fact that God is the One who saves people. We can’t talk about church growth without remembering that God is the One who does the saving. If no one can come to Jesus “unless the Father draws him” (John 6:44), then God has a lot to do with how the church grows.  God sovereignly chooses who to save. I’m not going to rehash the doctrine of election here. That’s not the point of this article. I’m just saying that if I want the church to grow, and if growth is people being saved, then doesn’t church growth ultimately depend on God? Of course, God’s sovereignty in salvation doesn’t mean we forget our God-given responsibility. The church needs to keep sharing the gospel, loving people, exalting Christ, and above all praying. But when God starts saving people, he’s going to save poor people, too. The first and second Great Awakenings in our country are proof of that. When the Holy Spirit begins to move in a special way, He saves people from every economic class.

Believing that the doctrine of election has something to do with church growth keeps the church going in a poor neighborhood. It brings peace, faithfulness, and courage even when you can’t see results. Transfer growth is fine, but we can’t depend on it in poor places. We must be diligently praying, passionately spreading the gospel, and then waiting for God to do the work that only He can do.

Conclusion:

More of our resources in America should be focused on reaching places that aren’t hip, but where people need help. Denominations and church-planting organizations should have plans, training, and structures in place to start churches in poor rural, suburban, and inner-city communities. When Christians are looking for a new place to live, they should consider the impact they can have for the kingdom of God in a poor neighborhood rather than just looking for comfort and convenience. One of the best ways to help the poor is to live next door to them.  We need to get used to doing cross-cultural ministry in our own backyards. We need to plan and work to stay in these places long term. We need to recognize that there are great people who aren’t great readers but who still need to get introduced to a great God. We need to be patient, pray, and wait for God to save people. We don’t have to rope off poor communities in America and assume that the church can’t grow there.

th

Why the Church Isn’t Growing in Poor Neighborhoods (Pt 3)

(This part 3 in this series, Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here)

education

3. Not recognizing and adapting to the education gap.

Did you know that only 1 out of every 12 seventeen-year-olds can read the science section of the newspaper? But wait, according to this study, it gets worse. That number was for white seventeen-year-olds. It plummets. Only 1 out of every 50 Latino seventeen-year-olds can read that science section, and only 1 out of every 100 African-American seventeen-year-olds can read it.

The next time you pick up a newspaper, (here’s the link to the science section of the Philly papers) flip over to the science section and think about how few people can read what you can read.

Then ask yourself this question, “Compared to this article, are the sermons, literature and songs at my church easier or harder to understand?” I don’t think we’ll like the answer.

A recent survey of the top 40 books assigned to 9-12th graders showed that most high-schoolers are AA039550reading at a 5th grade reading level. For a point of reference, the English Standard Version of the Bible is written on a 10th grade reading level. Part of the reason that we’re not reaching people is that we’re often speaking a language that they can’t understand.

Tragically, a poor education is a characteristic of poverty culture. Three out of four people on welfare can’t read. It should shock you that a first grader in poverty has a vocabulary that is 50% smaller than a child in a higher-income family. Schools in poor neighborhoods have a higher percentage of first-year teachers that are not qualified.

Do you think that the average American’s reading level goes up or down after high school? In a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, one out of every five Americans said that they hadn’t read a single book in the last year. That number was even higher for people who didn’t graduate from high school and for people whose household income was less than thirty thousand a year.

In addition to a poor education, another challenge of communicating Biblical truth is that most people have very little general knowledge of the Bible. A lot of people don’t get passing references to key Bible stories. They’ve just never heard the story of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, or Moses in the bulrushes. And sometimes we completely forget that a lot of the vocabulary in Christian theology is totally foreign to many people. Key words and ideas like love, faith, and hope are now used in everyday language in ways that are exactly the opposite of the biblical definitions. In today’s vocabulary, love is a subjective feeling, faith is a leap in the dark, and hope is wishful thinking. When we say “sin,” we have a good, biblical definition in mind, but people just hear “general bad stuff that everyone does.” Too often we assume that other people have only slightly-less biblical knowledge than we do. Instead, we need to realize that we are actually introducing words, stories, and ideas to them for the very first time.

Churches are assuming that people know how to read better and that they know more about the Bible than they actually do. This mistake is magnified in poor neighborhoods where most don’t have the luxury of a decent education or any type of religious background. Our songs, sermons, and discipleship materials are written by (and maybe for?) well-educated, middle class people. A lot of the songs we sing in church don’t make any sense unless you know the theological references and vocabulary.  At pastor’s conferences, they always hand out free books. It only took me a few years in ministry before I realized that many of the people who I was trying to disciple could never read those books. The preaching at your favorite conference is undoubtedly a blessing to you, but if you use the same vocabulary in your sermons, a lot of people in your congregation are going to be lost. Is it any wonder that someone with a lousy education, without much church background, may only visit your church once?

You may think that I’m overstating my case open bookhere. Surely illiteracy can’t be such a widespread problem, right? The years we’ve spent in school and the hours we spend reading each week make it hard for us to understand this education gap. Think about this: who advocates for the illiterate in America? The politicians and teacher’s unions that have created the problem certainly aren’t speaking out. And the illiterate can’t speak for themselves. They can’t organize, can’t write blogs, and can’t make their voices heard. They’ve learned to survive with the educational level they received. They’ve learned to live with the shame of a poor education. I lived in Uruguay for a summer to learn Spanish. My Spanish skills weren’t too sharp, and I learned that I could get through a lot of conversations with just smiling and nodding. People with a poor education do that, too. They’re not going to come to you after your sermon and ask you what the 16 words you used meant that they didn’t understand.

We have to be honest about the years of abuse that the government-run educational system has done to the poor. After abortion, the systemic evil of the educational system in America should be the church’s next major cause. Abortion ends a life in the womb. Lousy schools handicap a kid for life before they’re in the 5th grade. Here in Philly, the graduation rate from high school is right around 50%. That’s right, 50%. And I personally know graduates from high school that can barely read or write. A few years ago I tutored a 10th grader that didn’t know his times tables. An eighth grader recently asked me if Maine was a part of the United States. The educational system in America cripples people for life, and Christians should have more to say about it.

Poor education in America is a major problem for the church if we want to reach the poor. I’m not advocating for a theological mushy-poo, as if poor people can never understand good, sound theology. This is also not a knock on the intelligence of the poor. The poor need rich theology, just like anyone else. I’m just being critical of the job we’re doing in Christianity at clearly communicating across cultures into the lives of the poor. If you’re trying to wash puppies in a fire hydrant, the problem isn’t that dogs don’t like water or that the water doesn’t clean. The problem is you’re just not very good at cleaning puppies.

Imagine that our churches sprinkled some Mandarin Chinese words into our outreach materials, gospel presentations, worship songs, and sermons. What percentage of our words could be in that foreign language before our ministry became ineffective? How many words can we use that our audience doesn’t understand before they give up trying to understand?

To work in poor neighborhoods we need to realize that cross-cultural almost means bilingual. We need to study the language in our neighborhoods. We have to spend more time in our sermon prep simplifying our outlines, sentence structures, and vocabulary.  We have to communicate truth in the language of the people we’re reaching. In a poor neighborhood, that means we have to be aware of the effects of a poor education.  As C.S. Lewis said,  “Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can’t turn your faith into it, either you don’t understand it or you don’t believe it. You must be able to communicate your faith so a child can understand.” And by the way, most people don’t know what “vernacular” means anymore.

 

(Wrapping up the series tomorrow with Reason #4: Relying on conversions, not transfer growth)