“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” [Philippians 2:5-6, NRSV] This, I believe, is one of the greatest biblical expressions of what ministry with the poor means. In this passage, Paul gives us an image of God’s identification with humanity in all its limitations and also how God took on that humanity to restore it.
So if our ministry as Christians is to model Jesus’s, (“Let the same mind be in you…”), what does it say that we have so much difficulty getting beyond mere charity to really being with people in poverty?
“In so many churches, what they call missions or working with the poor is simply donating,” United Methodist pastor Mike Slaughter says in the book The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015]. (23) If the measure of our ministry were clothes, kits, and shoeboxes, we’d have to say we’d arrived. But most of us know what we really long for is relationship.
We are, as United Methodists say in their most ubiquitous confessional prayer, “a church that has not loved its neighbors and has not heard the cry of the needy.” But Jacob Armstrong, the principal author of The New Adapters, feels this is “our greatest opportunity, because when we connect to the stated vision of Jesus, the church is unleashed…To do this we must move from inward-focused ministries and simply having ‘missions’ and ‘outreach’ as subsections to a church that sees all of its ministries as focusing on the poor, which includes everyone.” (15)
This is not a matter of glossing over the differences and affirming that “all lives matter.” It’s a way of seeing with the eyes of God and knowing that God not only doesn’t shun our poverty, but enters into it because our poverty is the best we have to offer. God sees us as we are and loves us all the more.
So Armstrong encourages churches to grasp the reality that “the gospel is not good news unless it is good news to the poor.” (15) So how can we see the poor around us—in our neighborhood, in our community, in the world beyond?
In small churches, we often pride ourselves on the ‘family feel’ of our congregations. Even churches despairing about declining attendance will often list their welcoming hospitality as one of their greatest strengths. But how far does that perceived welcome extend beyond the doors. When we are encountering people who find churches to be intimidating, are we able to see through their eyes?
Here’s an experiment: Find someone who doesn’t attend church and ask that person to talk about her/his experience of church. No need to try to convince them to change in the moment. Just listen and see if you can hear in their stories the deep desires of their hearts. What would it take to touch those needs? How are they the same as yours?
At the end of the experiment, you may have a glimpse of what church looks like through their eyes and that will be useful. More useful may be the relationship you have started to build with someone who is, like you, looking for a place to belong.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Beyond donation, find connection.