A couple of years ago, I was sitting at lunch with a veteran pastor of many years that I was meeting for the first time. We talked about our ministries and churches and different outreach strategies and programs, and he asked me, “Are poor people welcome at your church?”
“Sure,” I said.
“That’s great,” he replied. “How many poor people do you have in your church?”
Our church is not by any means a church full of rich people. Most of my church members live simple lives by modest means. But there is no one in our church family that I would describe as living in poverty. I had to admit it: “None.”
We can do outreach programs to provide relief for those in need. We can speak about concern for the poor. We can go on mission trips to minister directly to people in poverty, but if we are not making disciples of the poor from the neighborhoods and communities that surround our churches, something is missing.
In my last post, I proposed four reasons why the traditional “Romans Road” form of gospel presentation is failing to bear fruit among the poor and working class of our country. It’s not that the gospel is ineffective for those in poverty. The Bible insists that the gospel is good news for the poor specifically. Jesus was surrounded by the poor and the marginalized. The early church clearly had many who were poor.
So how do we communicate the gospel effectively so that the message resonates with those who live in generational poverty or who struggle daily to make ends meet? Here are four observations from Jesus’ ministry that offer suggestions for how we might change the way we communicate the gospel in order to make disciples more effectively among the poor.
1 – He met people at the point of their current need
Research on the mindset of those in poverty shows that it is very much grounded in the present. Because surviving each day brings its own set of demands, long-term thinking is often close to impossible. What can meet a need or provide relief today takes precedence over anything that promises payoff in the future. This mindset is a problem when the gospel seems to be primarily about being prepared for eternity.
Jesus often spoke about the coming kingdom of God and eternity, but he always met people where their minds were that day. He spoke about bread to the hungry and water to the thirsty. He healed the sick and touched the untouchable. He brought the blind man to him and asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Jesus’ approach suggests that listening may be as important as speaking when it comes to making disciples. Many people aren’t struggling with whether they believe Jesus died for their sins or that he rose from the dead. Many are willing to accept them as facts and have even done what has been asked of them to demonstrate that belief: they’ve prayed the prayer, walked the aisle, raised their hand, been baptized, or joined the church. What they don’t really believe is that it really matters to the experience of their everyday lives. When they go to church, they are told to read more, to give money, and to come more often. What would happen if we asked people, as Jesus asked, “What do you want Jesus to do for you?” and then took time to listen for the answer?
2 – He focused on restored dignity and reconciliation
The gospel presented most often by our churches uses a guilt-forgiveness narrative: We are guilty of sin and deserving of punishment, but Jesus took our punishment so that we can have forgiveness. To be truly moved by this concept, you have to accept and understand your own guilt. Most of the world does not operate from the guilt-innocence lens, least of all those who live in poverty.
Jesus spoke in terms of forgiveness for sins often, saying at one point that those who have been forgiven much, love much. But people experience their sin in different ways. Some have a deep sense of legal guilt before God, but this courtroom narrative of the gospel does not resonate well with people in poverty (so they “love little”). When Jesus gave this example, he spoke in terms of money to the rich people to objected to the woman crying at his feet, but the woman herself was a picture of restored dignity and honor, someone who had been excluded and despised (evidenced by the reaction of the religious authorities at her intrusion) but now is loved and honored, so she “loved much.”
Jesus’ teachings assure those who are marginalized that God accepts them, that he runs to them and embraces them. Jesus touches the leper, calls the woman who suffered from bleeding “daughter,” eats with the tax collectors, and encourages people to pray to God as “Father.” This kind of gospel is not spoken with words and a canned presentation; it is spoken with actions and with a loving touch. It requires us to be willing to restore all people as spiritual equals and to operate as a spiritual family.
3 – He invited people into a different kind of life
When we speak about repentance, we usually are talking about “stop doing this and start doing that.” Jesus rarely spoke about repentance in those terms. His call to metanoia was more about a complete overhaul of your understanding of God and your view on life, to change your mind about everything, because the kingdom of God is within your grasp.
This kind of gospel requires careful teaching and modeling. It requires us to walk out the relationship with people beyond a presentation and a prayer. It requires us to love people enough to allow them to fail and to mature at a different pace and in a different way than we might find most comfortable. It calls us to be the agents of reconciliation and restoration ourselves, to be the ones who embrace people in God’s name that have been rejected by others. It calls us to experience this kind of repentance in our own hearts and minds.
If a completely different kind of life is the goal, then no one is ever finished. We all have to receive the gospel every day, not for ultimate salvation but for everyday and continued salvation. One of the problems with presenting salvation as a one-time event is that it makes the rest of the Christian life optional, and from the point of view of those on the outside of the church, those “optional features” are for folks who like to read, listen to teaching, and have meetings.
4 – He called for holistic commitment
One aspect of the modern gospel presentation that is nowhere to be found in Jesus’ teachings is what Dallas Willard and others have called “The Gospel of Minimum Requirements to Get Into Heaven When You Die.” Never in his teachings does Jesus hint that there is a way to eternal life short of turning your whole life over to him, seeking the kingdom first, and selling it all to grasp the treasure.
Many of the debates that have divided churches and denominations have been about what commands of Jesus are really optional when it comes to salvation. To stay orthodox and to avoid a “works gospel” we have made sure people know that salvation does not depend on things like baptism and many other of the Lord’s commands. We argue about what is the least a person can do and still “make it.”
Jesus didn’t do that. He didn’t teach people that there is a “minimum payment” for your heavenly deposit. You don’t have to live your commitment out perfectly in order to earn the grace of God, to be sure, but we rob people of the power of the gospel when it is reduced to a faith-for-forgiveness transaction. This minimal call leads to minimal response and people who believe that Jesus does not hold value in or authority over their everyday lives.
I am still trying to work out in my mind what this would all look like in personal evangelism. So what do you think? What difficulties have you had in making disciples from your evangelistic efforts? What are some of your stories in trying to reach those in generational poverty? What does it look like in your mind to preach good news to the poor?
I would love to discuss your thoughts…