Hope Network Newsletter: A Disturbing Brotherhood Development (Dec 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Lynn Anderson
December, 1992

8Something downright upsetting happened in Memphis a few weeks ago. Churned-up church folks descended on Graceland City from 20 states. Convincing speakers taught troubling classes, brought startling reports, and delivered unnerving lectures. Most sessions were packed. Registration swelled past 700. Ah, yes! This was a disturbing weekend. And may God grant us many more such disturbances. Forty different ministries came together in Memphis November 12-14 for the thrd Annual Conference on Ministries to the Poor and Homeless. (If you missed it, tapes are available from Riverside Productions, 2167 Mangum Road, Memphis, Tennessee 38134).

Harold Shank, preacher for the warm-hearted Highland Street church in Memphis, thinks the next great revivlal could break out among the poor! A lot of us think Shank may be right. Rick Atchley, preacher for the Richland Hills Church of Christ in Ft. Worth, Texas, said, “This conference really stretched me.” Charley Middlebrook of the “now-becoming-famous” Impact Church of Christ in inner-city Houston, said, “This is the dawning of a new day, of a new direction in ministry among churches of Christ.”

What We Saw

Frankly, I was not prepared for the way this conference body-slammed me! Since I work with a church that is anything but “inner city,” I was somewhat of an outsider to the conference. I didn’t really expect anything earth-shattering. Boy, was I wrong! My heart was touched, my head stretched, my conscience stabbed, and I repented many times. The conference was a real eye-opener. here are some things we saw:

1.) We saw tremendous progress in ministry to the poor. Many of the 40 ministries represented did not exist just five years ago. Harold Shank observed, “There is far more going on than most of us realized.” And momentum is building.

Some examples: In Texas, the Richland Hills church, through the leadership of Jan Johnson, manages a million dollar grant from HUD. This keeps Jan and her team busy locating suitable housing and qualifying homeless applicants. Through these efforts, God is opening doors for evangelism, and lives are being changed.

In Tennessee, a young married couple, Drs. Bruce and Dale Woodall, are foregoing potentially lucrative medical practices and opting for county health work among the Appalachian poor. “We’ve discovered a mission field, right here in the USA,” they explain.

As far away from Bruce and Dale as it is possible to get without leaving Tennessee, MACS (the Memphis Area Cooperative Services), sponsored by churches of Christ, cares for the inner-city poor. MACS pioneered Life Skills Classes to upgrade the employability of the unemployed. This has opened the way for new inner-city churches in Memphis.

In San Francisco, the Metropolitan Church of Christ, led by Kinwood DeVore, serves inner-city poor. They work to rehabilitate ex-convicts and substance abusers, while supplying resources and counseling targeted to inner-city families.

In Houston, Charley Middlebrook and his team planted an inner-city church, the Impact Church of Christ. Here, young professionals combine with ministers to promote an exploding work among inner-city street people.

In Dallas, the Central Dallas Food PAntry supplies food, clothing, and life skills, plus medical and dental care to the inner-city poor. Work is shared by volunteers from several congregations. Nine months ago, Carey and Sophia Dowl, sponsored by the Preston Road church, planted the Central Dallas Church of Christ among their food-pantry friends. Already 25 people have been baptized.

Other stories came from Little Rock, New York, Atlanta, and other cities too numerous to mention. For a list of ministries to the poor among churches of Christ, contact MACS at 1930 Union Ave., Memphis, TN 38104, (901) 272-3700.

2.) We saw quality. First, in the conference itself. The sessions addressed key issues, accessing current and practical material from experienced people. No “brotherhood politics” or competing egos dampened the conference.

Among the presenters were Dr. Evertt Huffard of Harding Graduate School, who has for decades studied ministry in the urban setting. jan Johnson, recently honored by the City of Ft. Worth for outstanding work among the homeless, presented a session on strategic planning that was worth the trip to Memphis.

Wayne Reed, formerly the director of MACS, is now in doctoral studies and coordinator of the HOPE program in New York City, and rewriting the Life-Skills curriculum taught across the nation by agencies of various backgrounds. His eye-opening session, repeated by popular demand, dismantled the traditional dichotomy between evangelism and social action.

3.) We saw a shift in emphasis. Several underscored “incarnational” ministry to the poor. As Evertt Huffard said, “We cannot bring the poor to us. We must go to them.” Most of these new ministries are going to the poor!

4.) We saw a colorful variety of ministry styles celebrating each other’s uniqueness.

5.) And, as Harold Shank observed, “We were surprised by gratitude.” Thos who serve the poor hands-on poured out deep gratitude for the overwhelming interest and support of so many other Christians.

What We Gained

In a string of last-day conversations, hundreds recited what they gained from the conference. Some of the benefits they mentioned were:

1.) We gained awareness of the critical importance of compassion for the poor. The poor cry out from every city! And w heard God’s heart cry out on their behalf. We sensed with Roger Greenway (Cities: The New Mission Frontier, p. 49), “There is a sense in which God stands on the side of the poor.” Hear the voice of Amos, “I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor … and deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:6-7). And Isaiah, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, … who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people … (Isaiah 10:1-3). And James, “Weep and wail for the misery that is coming upon you … Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you” (James 5:1-4). And Jesus, “He has sent me to preach good news tot he poor … to proclaim freedom for the prisoners … to release the oppressed …” (Luke 4:18-19).

Of course, Scripture does not romanticize or halo poverty. But mercy and salvation are so woven together in Scripture that, according to Greenway, p. 50, “If we wipe out poverty but neglect to tell the poor the Good News about Jesus Christ, we will have failed in our mission. And if we preach the gospel but ignore the plight of the poor, we are false prophets.”

2.) We networked with people of like passion. Fulltime inner-city ministers often feel alone in their work. But fellowship with scores of colleagues from across the nation lifted their spirits. Everyone swapped resources and most headed back home to their ministries feeling much less alone and much better equipped.

3.) Those of us who are not involved hands-on with daily ministries to the poor definitely gained profound respect for the persons serving in our inner cities.

4.) We gained harmony. As Evertt Huffard said, “Nothing unifies Christians quite like ministry to the poor.” We sensed no critical, argumentative, or divisive spirit. Differences shrivel alongside passion for the poor!

And Then Reflection

Yes, we’ve come a long way in the last few years, but most of us went home to reflect on the distance yet to go. Some reflections from my quiet corner:

1.) We must keep refining the theological underpinnings of our ministry to the poor. From Jerusalem on, distorted views of Jesus produced distorted expressions of the church. Ancient Gnostics stripped Jesus of his humanity, thus separating him from the concerns of physical experience. Ebionites and their kin stripped Jesus of his divinity and lost sight of their heavenly roots. Similar imbalance still stalks our streets. The fundamentalist movement overemphasized the deity of Jesus, focusing on “salvation and spiritual things.” For them, ministry was preaching ideas that hopefully would filter down into society. But they neglected institutionalized injustice and shied away from social service. Interest in these things was tagged “social gospel,” symptomatic of “demon liberalism.” Conversely, the classic liberal movement over-emphasized the humanity of Jesus, focusing so completely on the here and now, and so politicizing social issues that they lost their spiritual roots.

Prior to the fundamentalist/liberal controversies, Christians didn’t separate their mission into “evangelism” and “social concerns.” Now is the time to recover a balanced Christology, which blends mercy and evangelism. Jesus also balances compassion and justice. we are a compassionate people. From Amos to james, scripture calls to justice as well as to mercy; to release people from social suffering under oppressive systems, as well as from personal sin.

As Roger Greenway says, “Churches and mission agencies that hand out food and clothing month after month and year after year are not really tackling poverty. Things need to be done that will break the poverty cycle for individuals, families, and neighborhoods, and lift people to a level where they can provide for themselves adequately and with dignity” (p. 51).

2.) Our strategies also need further reflection. Bad methods can swallow good motives. Again, Greenway warns, “I’m deeply disturbed by the relief work carried on my organizations that year after year bring in money, material and personnel from places of affluence to places of poverty without accomplishing long-term changes in the lives of the poor … There is a better way … [the poor can be] … not merely fed and clothed … [but] empowered to meet their own needs, and the needs of their neighbors …” (p. 55).

3.) Another reflection: Our isolation from others penalizes us. Churches of Christ need not reinvent the wheel. A giant network of resources, experiences, and role models is available from groups outside ourselves; groups with longer and larger experience. Shouldn’t we think about expanding our network?

4.) Finally, our goal must be to plant churches! In fact the consensus of those with long experience is that “viable, indigenous churches are the best – and maybe only – hope for the inner cities.” Political and sociological “solutions” flounder, and compound problems. The poor and homeless rarely vote. Thus elected officials do not really represent the poor. Social workers implement the legislation of the elected officials. Thus, legislative and welfare attempts to “fix” the inner city often combine the impersonal, the inept, and the inadequate.

But Jesus designed genuine churches differently. “My theseis is that Christian churches, motivated by the love of God and taught the essential principles and values of Christian community development, can become the most effective weapon against poverty and suffering in the city if they are planted and educated in a proper biblical manner” (Greenway, p. 56).

Whatever is done in the inner cities among the poor and homeless must not be mere social work. It must be clearly Christian. Motivated by Christian convictions. Conducted by Christian people. Known in the community as Christian undertakings and carried out through authentic relationships that demonstrate Jesus’ love.

One example of this: Recently, over breakfast, Tony Evans, minister of a large black church in the Oak Cliff district of Dallas told of a young man in his neighborhood who had been convicted of theft and and sentenced to prison. Evans persuaded the judge to make the young man a ward of the church, rather than “to jail the boy and refine his criminal skills.” The young man learned life skills, got a job, and paid back the money he had stolen. he met Christ and became a productive member of society.

The judge then asked Evans, “Could you take 20 more boys?” A major impact is now being made on Oak Cliff and the approach has spread to a number of other cities. “When evangelism, relief, and development are joined … there will be hope for the cities and a bright new day for church growth” (Greenway, p. 59).

The Future

We hear reports that future conferences may combine at least four major compassion-oriented ministry arms among churches of Christ. In past years, child-care agencies, prison ministries, teen work projects, substance abuse support groups and the poor/homeless ministries each staged separate conferences for their own networks. Sometimes this results in duplication of efforts. For example, an inner-city ministry may be serving a homeless mother She may be homeless because her husband in prison. He may be in prison for substance-related offenses. A child-care agency may be involved with their children. The value of a joint conference might eliminate some duplication. Networking and collaboration could increase effectiveness and decrease costs. Besides, these somewhat related ministries need the resources, encouragement, and momentum they could give each other.

The Memphis conference sent us away with hope. Several who came feeling alone and overwhelmed, left for home feeling part of a ground swell that could shape the future! Mark your calendar now for October 21-24, 1993, the Fourth Annual Conference on Ministries to the Poor and Homeless, at the Impact Church of Christ, Houston, Texas.Wineskins Magazine

Lynn Anderson

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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