Wineskins Archive

January 6, 2014

Nameless Tinder – Kindling for a Revival (Nov – Dec 1993)

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by Harold Shank
November – December, 1993

Except for Lazarus and Bartimaeus, most of them don’t have names. Yet they were the unassuming kindling for a world-shaping revival.

Some we know by location: the two blind men at Jericho, the sightless man at Bethsaida, the sick man at the Sheep’s Gate pool, the demoniac in Gerasene.

Others we identify by their relatives. Peter’s mother-in-law, Jairus’ daughter, the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, the centurion’s servant.

Some defy simple description: the paralytic with four strong friends, the demon-filled son of a faithful dad at the foot of Mt. Tabor, the man in synagogue with a withered hand, the frightened woman with a hemorrhage on the streets of Capernaum.

Many we recognize only by their condition: “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.” Jesus discussed their situation with the wealthy clientele at a dinner party (Luke 14:13). he faxed a cryptic message about the same group John’s prison cell: ” … the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22).

Out of these nameless tinder came a roaring fire that swept across the Mediterranean world. Confronting a world of barbarism, slavery, cruelty, and inequality, masses of disenfranchised people followed Jesus in the largest peaceful revolution in human history. They ignited a blaze so hot that the heat reached the corridors of power. Few would have suspected world-wide change from such nondescript kindling.

I believe that any revival sparked in contemporary America will find the same fire-hungry tinder among the hurting, down-and-out people of our urban areas. The drug-infested ghettos, crime-filled alleys, and poverty-dominated high rises wait for a Christian spark. Inner cities reformed by Christ would provide the watching world with convincing evidence of God’s power. The heat of spiritual renewal among the poor would reach into areas now closed to the gospel.

Could such a revival happen in America? Can Christians recreate in our own day the kind of concern Jesus evidenced for the poor? Will spiritual fire swee through our cities? Three developments give us hope that revival may be on the way.

Aggressive Benevolence

The rapid spread of aggressive benevolence in Churches of Christ during the last decade reflects renewed interest in the poor. Aggressive benevolence refers to programs which actively seek to help impoverished people as opposed to serving only those who seek us out. Instead of keeping a closet of old clothes and canned goods in a remote corner of the building, large numbers of churches take the clothes and food directly to the poor. Rather than waiting for the down-and-out to come and beg, these churches preserve the dignity of the disenfranchised by asking them how they need to be helped. Those who are served participate in their own recovery.

Programs of aggressive benevolence have multiplied since the late 1970s. Determined efforts for victims of Hurricane Andrew or the flood victims in Iowa reflect a new assertiveness with regard to the unfortunate.

An impressive number of aggressive programs feed, house, and serve the disenfranchised, including these:

  • Dozens of Dallas churches feed hundreds of homeless people under a downtown freeway ramp each Sunday.
  • Christians in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota provide food monthly for homeless people in Minneapolis.
  • The 16th and Pile congregation runs a food co-op program for Clovis, New Mexico families at or below the poverty line.
  • Each week, about 60 from Seattle’s Northwest church feed the homeles people on a local street called Skid Row.
  • The Whitehall Church of Christ holds membership in the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Twice a week while recipients choose their own food, Whitehall members talk and listen.
  • The Food Room volunteers at Richland Hills in Fort Worth distributed 15,355 bags of food to 9,534 people in the first six months of 1993.
  • Nearly 400 low-income children in Lubbock, Texas, receive nourishing meals each weekend from the Carpenter’s Kitchen, sponsored by the Broadway Church of Christ.
  • Woodmont Hills’ Little Red Schoolhouse provides school supplies to hundreds of Nashville children too poor to buy paper and pencils for school.
  • The Highland School Store in Memphis has provided school supplies for 12,148 students since 1990.
  • Wichita’s Central church operates a winter shelter for homeless people. One month last winter, they provided 1,223 meals.
  • The Mid-County church in St. Louis regularly sends participants from its spiritual internship program into ghetto areas to clean toilets, paint houses, and improve inner-city life.
  • Teenagers from churches in six states have painted 99 houses in the poor areas of Memphis over the last five years.
  • Rolling closets in Nashville, Birmingham, Chattanooga, and Little Rock take clothing directly to inner-city residents.
  • Youth Hobby Shop in Nashville provides constructive programs for inner-city youth.
  • Teens from the Hermitage Road church in Richmond, Virginia, sponsor trips to parades and museums for the children of homeless mothers at the Women’s Shelter.
  • Last August, Memphis teenagers did chores, taught classes, and made friends at the Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch on Long Island, where two dozen homeless boys from New York City live.
  • In Canada, the Beamsville, Ontario church offers warm, comfortable housing and accepting friendship through a church-owned 36-unit housing complex located across the street from their building.

The list goes on! Hundreds of churches aggressivley seek the poor for Christ! Could this be evidence of a coming spiritual revival in America’s urban core?

Seeking Justice

Not only are Churches of Christ becoming more aggressive about compassion, but there is also evidence of efforts to seek justice. Biblical justice as articulated by prophets like Amos and Isaiah calls for the unfortunate to get their fair share of life. Instead of listening to voices that say the church should not be involved in causes of fairness and equality, many seek to let justice flow like a mighty river. Although most efforts still resemble a small stream, God may bless us with a stronger current in the future. Efforts at justice include these developments:

  • Women abused by their husbands often escape by leaving home. But rather than face homelessness, many return to increased abusiveness. The Richland Hills church in Fort Worth said, “No.” Using resources in the community, they offer abused women safe, low-cost, transitional shelter in houses foreclosed by Tarrant County banks. Through their Adopt-a-Family Partnership led by Jan Johnson, they have provided homes for 67 families. Rather than allow abuse to continue, these Christians call for justice.
  • Poor children in Tijuana, Mexico often miss out on basic necessities of life. One eight-year-old girl never fully recovered from polio. When she outgrew an old leg brace, she had to drop out of school Christians from the Malibu, California church said, “No.” Dr. Bill Stivers recognized the girl’s predicament and told the story to his Spanish and French classes at Pepperdine University A church-run clinic in the basement of the Anexa Morelos church building used the Pepperdine resources. This Tijuana girl now runs to school with her friends.
  • A few years ago, chronically unemployed and homeless people in Memphis had little future. Trapped in the poorest city in America, they had no one to help. Memphis churches said, “No.” Led by Wayne Reed, Ron Bergeron, Katherine Moore, and Verlon Harp, they forged a bold initiative with a Life Skills lab. They supported homeless people through a 13-week lab program which developed job-finding and -keeping skills, improved self-esteem, and explored spiritual values. Over 70 percent of the lab graduates are now fully self-supporting. Memphis now has a justice advocate for the chronically unemployed.

Efforts at seeking justice remain scattered and small, but are growing and successful. Along with aggressive benevolence, justice ministries point to a coming spiritual revival.

Spiritual Renewal

Although some Churches of Christ continue to give up on the inner-city and flee to the suburbs, other congregations have turned their hearts toward the city. The bold outreaches of aggressive benevolence and justice ministries do not exhaust the struggling movement to serve the poor. Inner-city ministries across the nation have challenged the ghettos by planting new congregations right in their midst. Lytle Thomas in Nashville, Ron Pittman in Birmingham, Brian Davis in Chattanooga, Benny Bittle in North Little Rock, Ron Sellers and Charlie Middlebrook in Houston, Anthony Wood in Memphis, Frank Lott and Roger Putman in Chicago, Kenneth Gilmore in Tampa, Joe Roberts and Charles Landreth in Dallas, Ron Wheeler and John Massie in San Antonio, Kinwood Devore in San Francisco, and no doubt others, have all planted new Churches of Christ in America’s inner cities in recent years. Most of these churches are growing, providing spiritual food for starved ghettos. All of them have the potential to transform the inner-city.

As these inner city Churches of Christ begin to remake the ghetto, all America will take notice. As transformed lives hit the streets, the sidewalks and alleys of the ghetto will never be the same.

  • Houston’s Ron Sellers tells about a Christian woman who met John at a homeless shelter. She invited him to church and afterwards home for dinner. John started attending a weekly Bible study, gave up his drugs, got a job as a carpenter’s helper, and was eventually baptized into Christ. Five years later, he graduate with honors at Abilene Christian University. Now he’s working with the church that found him, helping to find others.
  • Two men – one Hispanic, the other black – spent their lives in rival California gangs. Dueling led them to prison. During parole, they ended up in Fresh Start, a ministry of Churches of Christ in San Francisco. Kinwood DeVore reports that the two, baptized within a week of each other, are not only brothers, but evangelists for Christ.
  • Jeff Smith started riding the bus to Nashville’s Inner-City Church of Christ. The bus ride proved to be life changing. Having grown up in Nashville’s projects, Jeff turned to Christ, attended David Lipscomb University, and now works as part of the inner-city church team.

Flying Sparks

Multiply Houston’s John, the San Francisco duo, and Nashville’s Jeff by one hundred, and the spark ignites a flame. Extend the inner-city church plantings from a couple dozen cities to al 329 metropolitan areas in the United States, and the flame becomes a blaze. Start Life Skills labs in major urban areas, extend urban outreach into the inner cities, and the blaze will leap across the country.

Does the evidence point to spiritual revival in America? I’m optimistic. It’s not time to sit and wait. It’s time to jump up and work. It’s time to advocate for aggressive benevolence, not in 500 congregations but in 5,000. It’s time to develop justice ministries not just in six cities, but in 60. It’s time to plant missions for Christ across the street from every bar in America. It’s time to start new churches on every street corner where agents of evil now sell crack. It’s time to take America for Christ!

[Editor’s note: If you know of churches involved in aggressive benevolence, justice ministries, or inner-city church plantings, send the information to Harold Shank, 443 S. Highland, Memphis, Tennessee 38111, so that future articles can be more comprehensive.]Wineskins Magazine

Harold Shank

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