By Bill Mefford
This is part of a multi-week study of Acts and how we can continue to build a progressive Wesleyan movement that manifests God's Kingdom on earth in our local churches. Any study of the New Testament church will both critique where we are currently as a church as well as stir up visions for where God is leading us.
There are discussion questions below for you to use and discuss with your Sunday School class, youth group, Wesley Foundation group, or local network. Begin by reading the correct chapter in Acts and then the post below. End by answering the questions. Please let us know what happens at Bill@figtreerevolution.com and any new insights you gain so that we can share with others! Let's build the Wesleyan progressive movement together!
I remember working at an urban ministry years ago where I led weekend poverty simulations for visiting church groups. We took participants through a guided weekend of activities meant to create greater empathy and understanding for what the poor and homeless are forced to go through everyday. We wanted folks to return to their communities and enter into compassionate relationships with the poor.
I had two guys helping me run the weekend, one of whom was homeless at the time and one of whom had been homeless years before, but had been living in a mixed socio-economic community. I wanted the participants to hear directly from people who had lived - or were living - in poverty and homelessness. The interesting thing is that the formerly homeless man (I am not using their names because I didn't get permission to) had become socialized by his years of living something close to a middle-class lifestyle while the man currently living homeless suffered from mental illness, some substance abuse issues, and had major anger issues. He was hard to talk to sometime, but he was also passionate about people understanding poverty so I loved having him work the weekends with me.
We usually did 10-11 Poverty Simulations a year during the three years I was there and inevitably, almost without fail, during the course of the weekend I would get at least one leader from one of the church groups attending who would ask me to curtail the current homeless man's engagement with the participants. The leader(s) would tell me that they really enjoyed talking with the formerly homeless man, but they couldn't handle being around the current homeless man because he just had too many issues. He was simply unlovable.
Now, I have to confess, I actually loved these cringe-worthy moments. It became such a powerful moment to teach a lesson that the church desperately needs to learn: that our call is not to love the lovable, but the unlovable. Groups liked the formerly homeless man because he was easy to talk with; he was socialized for middle-class people so it wasn't awkward or hard. Oh, if only the poor and marginalized were more....like us. If only they were more lovable. THEN we would be more engaged around issues of justice, THEN we would be more incarnated among people directly impacted by poverty and injustice, THEN we would give a damn.
But it precisely those who are unlovable; those deemed by the rest of society as "undeserving" who are the very people we need to be incarnated among because that is who Jesus identifies with and who he is.
But we see how our middle-class churches have become so detached from the revolutionary New Testament church in that we like to talk about our ministry "to" poor people; ministries are overly individualistic in nature and never address the causes of poverty. These ministries sound nice, but they almost never result in concrete social change. Thus, the poor become objectified. They are used as props for the purpose of creating an image for a church that wants to be seen as caring for their community. Poverty continues, the delusion of the church "caring for its community" continues, detachment between the church and the most vulnerable in the community continues, faithlessness continues.
These churches are like the friends to the beggar in Acts 3 who take him every day to the temple so he can beg, but who do nothing to stop the cycle of violence and poverty that keeps him begging. Are they really his friends?
I remember leading a training at a conference for church planters a while back. We were spending a large amount of our time together talking about planting churches among the poor and this was making some of the church planters who normally work in middle to upper class communities a little fidgety. One church planter, feeling frustrated because so much emphasis was on the poor, attempted to justify his middle-class church plant's relationships with the poor by pointing out that every day a homeless person took the bus to a stop outside his church so he started calling him "Bus Stop." His point was that affluent churches can have relationships with poor people, but his story actually made the opposite point: that affluent churches are often so detached from vulnerable people that when they have any interaction at all the relationships are so superficial that we create nicknames for the poor, as if they were our pets and not equally contributing members of our communities.
Creating cute nicknames for poor people who we might happen to see regularly does not mean that we are incarnated among them or are working for and end to the causes that impoverish them in the first place.
And this is what distinguishes churches who are part of a progressive Wesleyan movement from churches that objectify the poor and maintain the current political,social, and economic status quo. The progressive Wesleyan movement passionately works to eradicate poverty. The progressive Wesleyan movement has no patience with objectifying poor persons through useless church programs and self-serving outreach ministries.
The healing that Peter and John perform on the beggar is very much like the numerous healings that Jesus conducts in the gospels. These are not just miraculous physical healings - though they are that and we as progressives must not discount the miraculous. Indeed, we must embrace it. Jesus' healings also include the social and economic restoration and reintegration of individuals. Jesus touched people who were physically broken as well as social marginalized and economically destitute and they became not just physically whole, they also became leaders in their communities, contributors to the common good, and messengers of God's love for all of creation. Jesus dismantled the vicious cycles of poverty.
The "friends" of the beggar who daily laid him down in front of the temple were no friends at all. And Peter and John, following the example of Jesus, refused to be accomplices to the continued impoverishment of the beggar. Jesus' call to ministry to announce good news to the poor in Luke 4 means that poverty is ended, oppression is eradicated, and marginalization is forever gone as Jesus chose to make his home living among those on the margins.
Jesus' call to ministry was lived out by Peter and John in this story and Jesus' call extends to us as well.
I know there are many progressive Wesleyans who are already engaged in the holy work of destroying poverty and oppression. I have seen so many folks following the footsteps of Jesus.
In fact, I have seen some this week while I was in Nashville. One of those people is Ingrid McIntyre who is the Executive Director of a homeless ministry in Nashville, called Open Table Nashville. (You can their story here.) I love the mission statement of Open Table. Get this, their mission is to disrupt cycles of poverty, journey with the marginalized, and educate folks about issues of homelessness. I love that! They care for the homeless, they are friends with the homeless (in fact, they refuse to call the people they work with "clients" and instead call them friends because that is who they are!), and their friendship is seen not in bringing them to the door of the temple every day so that they can beg. Their friendship is seen in walking side by side and working alongside the homeless to do justice; to smash the cycles that impoverish people and deny people access to affordable housing.
Yes, this is who we are. Let's celebrate the work of Open Table Nashville and so many other places. Let's work to ensure that our friendship with those who are victimized by the injustices in our world do not walk alone and are not just given a good seat in which to beg. Let's disrupt the cycles that lead to their oppression.
Questions to Discuss:
1) Are we friends with the poor? What are the ministries our church is engaged in and do those ministries include working to dismantle poverty and oppression or are we merely giving people a better seat from which to beg?
2) Looking at the ministries among the poor in our church, do the ministries we are engaged in include healing in the social and economic areas as well as physical? In other words, are our ministries designed to aid our friends to become contributing members of community and leaders?
3) If our church does not engage in ministries among the poor, are there ministries like Open Table Nashville in our area, city, state, or region? List 5 people who members of your group who could be sought out to learn what they are doing and how your class/church/group can learn from and partner with.