The Theology of the Hammer (Jul-Aug 1997)

By Matt Dabbs

by Millard Fuller
July – August, 1997

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Corporate executives work alongside college students. Skilled carpenters give tips to volunteers who are learning to drive a nail for the first time. Members of African-American congregations spend months planning with representatives of a white church from across town, Lutheran congregations partner with Catholic communities, and Church of Christ congregations join with Baptists.

Habitat for Humanity brings together such diverse groups and individuals through what I have termed “the theology of the hammer” – putting aside our differences to work in partnership with one another. This theology is about bringing people together to build houses and to establish viable and dynamic communities. It is acknowledging that differences of opinion exist on numerous subjects – political, philosophical, and theological – but that we can find common ground in using a hammer as an instrument to manifest God’s love. Even though there may be strong differences on all sorts of things – baptism, communion, what night to have prayer meetings, and how the preacher should dress, for example – we can agree on the imperative of the gospel to serve others in the name of Christ.

This ability to put aside our differences and work together is the specific definition we at Habitat often give to the theology of the hammer. However, there are several other biblical teachings at the heart of this theology, and these are the principles that shape the ministry of Habitat for Humanity.

Faith and Action

One of the basic tenets of the theology of the hammer is that we must put our faith into action. If we are to be true disciples, we must answer Christ’s call to love one another and care for those in need. Clarence Jordan, who became will known for his “Cotton Patch” translations of the New Testament, and who was the principal founder of Koinonia Farm near Americus, Georgia, greatly influenced me and inspired my thinking about putting faith into practice.

Clarence was a man full of grace and kindness who was completely in touch with and in tune with Jesus. To me, he actually thought like Jesus. Clarence introduced me to the Gospel imperative to live out our faith. he taught me that religious practices alone can be irrelevant. I think we in the church must ask ourselves what happens when worship makes us feel good but doesn’t call us to do good. We must match our words with deeds. Jesus spent his entire ministry trying to teach his followers that loving God meant service to others.

When we profess our faith in word and deed, the results are spectacular. The rich and powerful are humbled, our social barriers begin to fade; relationships with God grow closer, and often God touches the hearts of unbelievers. We know that we cannot bring salvation to others through our deeds, but we believe we are called to witness to our faith and leave the results to the Lord.

When we began the ministry of Habitat for Humanity, we knew that the resources to build homes were available. We had to stir in people the willingness to respond, to get up out of their pews and put their faith into action. God has chosen us to put the issue of decent housing on the hearts and minds of all people and to take action to solve the problem of inadequate shelter. The theology of the hammer proclaims that, with God, all things are possible. That includes a world without shacks and homeless people.

A Theology of Enough

It is difficult to serve God when we can never be satisfied – when we always want more material possessions. I decided at an early age that I wanted to be a wealthy person. I worked hard and succeeded. I remember the day the treasurer of our company told me that I, personally, was worth a million dollars. My response was that I wanted to be worth $10 million.

Before I could reach my new goal, however, my wife Linda stopped me cold. She said she didn’t love me anymore and that she couldn’t live this way. After a time of anguished soul searching, we determined that the only way to rekindle our relationship was to sell my interest in the company and give the money away. We had to make ourselves poor again to put ourselves right with God. We both realized that we had strayed from God’s path for our lives. In a truly miraculous way, God led us to Koinonia and ultimately to start the ministry of Habitat for Humanity.

One of the big impediments to solving the housing problem is that too few and talented people have developed a theology of enough. They keep striving, struggling, and scrambling for more and more things for themselves and are too short-sighted and immature spiritually to see the futility of that type of grasping lifestyle.

Determining when enough is enough is the ethical center out of which the theology of the hammer emerges. It is also a complex and personal issue for each person to address. It calls us to examine ourselves – as individuals and as churches. We must develop a theology of enough.

True riches come from a life of service, a life committed to doing God’s work in the world. Jesus spent his entire ministry feeding the hungry, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind. He repeatedly warned about the neglect of the poor.

God is counting on all people – especially talented and wealthy people and richly blessed churches – to come forward and to freely open their hands and hearts so that additional resources, both material and human, will be made available to rid this world of poor housing and homelessness.

Developing and Nurturing Disciples

What each congregation understands to be the purpose of the church will direct its ministry and activities. Matthew 28:19-20 tells us that the church is called to develop and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ.

If the church is to succeed in its task of making disciples, it must be submissive to God. It must not become concerned with materialism, status, prestige, and egotism. These pursuits create children of greed, not children of God.

Surrendering to the call of Christ requires a new manner of thinking. Sometimes it means that we must change our assumptions about the poor. It dictates that we act on our concern, doing what we can. It requires that we go where God calls us, rather than chasing dollar signs and status. This new way of thinking calls for a willingness to follow the leading of God’s Spirit. It requires that we humbly accept the role of servant and that we take bold action buttressed by prayer.

Habitat for Humanity provides individuals and congregations a vehicle for service. Working with Habitat is one way in which the church can let its light shine so others can see its good works and glorify God in heaven. Habitat gives witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ by working with God’s people in need to create a better environment in which to live and work.

Unity

Jesus taught us about the inclusive nature of God’s love. He taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves and showed us in the parable of the good Samaritan that we are neighbors when we have mercy on those in need. When we become disciples of Jesus Christ, the world becomes our neighbor whom we seek to serve.

Do we as Christians heed that teaching or are we more concerned with being right and surrounding ourselves with like-minded persons? The church has been divided since its early days. Paul encouraged the church at Corinth not to have any divisions among themselves, but groups within the early church developed their own doctrines and practices, and fought over who was right. Such divisions, punctuated by the Protestant reformation in the sixteenth century, continued throughout the life of the church. Beginning in the early 1900s however, various movements and official policies sought to bring denominations together. Service seemed to be the key. As one group proclaimed, “Doctrine divides, service unites.” Working toward a common goal allows people to focus on positive actions rather than on their differences.

Habitat for Humanity has built many bridges within the church. Building a Habitat house has brought together individuals within congregations, it has created special bonds between churches of the same denomination, and it has allowed faith bodies with divergent beliefs to accept one another and join together in the service of God.

Habitat also builds bridges in communities. People who live in the same town, but who might otherwise never meet one another, form friendships when they work together on a Habitat home. As individuals cooperate to raise walls, barriers crumble. The common goal that brings volunteers together becomes more important than their differences.

A Well-Built Theology

Habitat for Humanity houses are simple, modest homes, constructed by volunteers, many of whom are not sure of themselves as builders. So, when the rules say put two nails in a board, often volunteers put in ten. Because the houses are built carefully and with “love in the mortar joints,” they have withstood hurricanes and other natural disasters. I am not saying that Habitat houses will never be damaged during a disaster, but I believe there is correlation between quality building and strength in time of testing.

In addition to building safe, sturdy homes, Habitat for Humanity takes special care to nurture its homeowner families. Volunteers work with the families to equip them with the skills and knowledge necessary for home ownership. Lasting friendships often are created between volunteers and homeowners, and the families are lifted up in prayer collectively and individually by Habitat partners all over the world.

Rallying Around the Hammer

The theology of the hammer extends far beyond the planning meetings and worksites, however. Congregations who become partners for a Habitat project often find other avenues of ministry in which they can work together. When churches worship together, eat together, work together and fellowship with one another, they are empowered. Their combined resources, ideas and energy enable them to build strong communities where peope can become all that God intended them to be.

What better symbol can we rally around than the hammer – the tool Jesus used in Joseph’s carpentry shop? With every house we build and every community we strengthen, we create a sermon of God’s love.

About Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity International is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing ministry that is dedicated to eliminating poverty housing and homelessness from the earth. Since 1976 Habitat has built more than 55,000 houses worldwide, providing families in need with safe, decent affordable shelter. Additional houses are being built at the rate of a thousand a month.

But there is still much to be done. More than one billion people worldwide still lack adequate shelter. Through volunteer labor and tax-deductible donations Habitat works with families to build or renovate simple, decent housing. The houses are sold to partner families at no profit and are financed with affordable no-interest mortgages. Habitat is not a give-away program. In addition to making down payment and monthly mortgage payments, homeowner families invest hundreds of hours of their own labor – sweat equity – in building their houses and the houses of others. This labor reduces the cost of the house, increases the pride of ownership and fosters the development of positive relationships.

The Church and Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity works through volunteer groups, called affiliates, that are organized locally – often by city or county. Although affiliates operate under a covenant signed with Habitat for Humanity International, all work is done through a local affiliate board of directors. The board and its committees are responsible for working with partners, such as churches and groups of churches, to guide them through the process of building houses. House sponsors raise the money and provide the volunteers for construction. Habitat affiliates are responsible for locating and preparing a site, selecting a family, providing construction supervision, preparing legal documents, delivering materials to the worksite and so forth.

Habitat for Humanity enjoys the support of many individuals, groups, and businesses. However, the church as Christ’s body in the world, is Habitat’s primary partner. Churches can participate in the ministry of Habitat in a variety of ways. Churches can begin working with a local Habitat affiliate by providing prayer support, supplying volunteers for construction crews, providing space for Habitat meetings or for the affiliate office, preparing and serving meals for construction workers, making a financial contribution that may or may not be tied to a specific project, offering devotions at worksites.

Participating in the Day of Prayer and Building on Faith

September is the month in which Habitat focuses on churches. On the International Day of Prayer and Action for Human Habitat (observed during the third weekend of September each year) churches are asked to shape their worship services around the theme of serving God by serving others. Congregations are also asked to use in their worship service bulletin inserts containing a prayer for shelter. The purpose of the Day of Prayer is to raise awareness of the need for adequate shelter and to urge persons to respond to the problem of poverty housing by helping to build homes with their neighbors in need.

Churches can also participate in Building on Faith projects organized by local affiliates in September every year. All affiliates are invited to design a church-sponsored project for BUilding on Faith to involve as many congregations as possible and to show what impact the church can have when it devotes human and financial resources to help alleviate poverty housing.

House Building Opportunities

Churches can sponsor a Habitat home by raising the money and providing the labor for construction. Congregations can sponsor a home on their own, they can form partnerships to co-sponsor a project, or they can take responsibility for providing the funding and labor for one portion of construction.

In addition to building homes locally, churches also have the opportunity to partner with congregations in developing countries. Through HFHI’s Global Church Challenge, congregations in developed countries are partnered with congregations in developing countries to build Habitat homes. Churches can work on a project in a country where they have a missionary tie if Habitat has an affiliate in the area.

Churches can also help build homes worldwide by setting aside 10% of the money they raise for a local Habitat project to be used for construction of a home in another country. As in the church, this is called the tithe. Affiliates are asked to collect a tithe on all Habitat projects. These funds are sent to HFHI headquarters in Americus where they are used in developing countries where house construction is much cheaper.

In addition to working on specific construction projects, churches can also support local Habitat affiliates by having members serve on committees such as the family selection committee, family nurture committee and so forth.

If you would like more information about how you and your congregation can become Habitat partners, look in the telephone directory under “Habitat for Humanity” for the affiliate nearest you. If you do not find a listing for Habitat, call HFHI headquarters, 1-800-HABITAT.

Jubilee Focus on Habitat

Habitat for Humanity was a major focus at last year’s Jubilee training and encouragement workshop for Church of Christ congregations. Thousands of participants gathered in Nashville where volunteers from the celebration helped build a Habitat home. Offerings taken during the event also helped fund the home. Habitat for Humanity founder and president, Millard Fuller, spoke during the event.

Organizers hoped to encourage Church of Christ congregations to sponsor homes in their towns, and indeed, during the past year, several homes have been funded and built by Churches of Christ.

Wineskins Magazine

Millard Fuller is the founder and president of Habitat for Humanity International.

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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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