Thursday, August 07, 2008

Suburban poverty and the mission of the church

My church, The Well, recently held a week long missions trip to its own suburban neighborhood in order to open our eyes to the poor living “next door,” so to speak. The week was full of activities, including: working at a soup kitchen, caring for single mothers dealing with drugs at a halfway house, visiting the Russian immigrants at a nursing home, and helping the local Salvation Army stock their food pantry and catch up on yard work. We spent a great deal of time with children, many of whom were living in difficult situations of poverty and yet were filled with joy. We learned a lot about what the suburbs hide behind the veneer of shopping malls and carbon-copy home developments.

One of the most exciting events was a community forum that we held on Thursday, July 24, on suburban poverty. We invited five speakers from our area, including a local politician, a pastor, and a couple people involved with NGOs. The event was attended mostly by people outside of our church community. The dialogue was excellent, touching on important issues of government policy and the unique difficulties and complexities of suburban poverty.

Our church is following up on that insightful and humbling week with a seminar on “Missional in Suburbia” this Saturday, Aug. 9, with Al Hsu, author of The Suburban Christian. The seminar will take place from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm and costs $25. There is an open house meet-and-greet time on Friday evening. If you are in the area, I would recommend trying to attend this event.

The church is called to be with the poor, because that is where Jesus is. According to Matt. 25, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. . . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ demands that we follow him into solidarity with the poor, seeking liberation for them in correspondence with the way Jesus accomplished liberation for us all in his reconciling life, death, and resurrection. The mission of the church is constituted by its being sent by God to those who are hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, and imprisoned. We are commissioned by God to be with them as God came to be with us, to love them as God first loved us. Certainly, the efforts of our church and any church to embody the love of God in our local community are broken and incomplete, but they remain humble efforts at following Paul’s appeal “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1).

We do not worship first and then engage in the mission of the church to the poor and homeless. We worship precisely by engaging in mission. The being of the church is actualized in the act of mission. We are the church in that we are sent forth as God’s disciples, commissioned to love others in humble obedience to the command of Jesus Christ. Toward this end, we remember that “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:11-12).

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