Christian Living

Spiritual Life

Church Growth in the Midst of Poverty

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)—Has the United Methodist Church abandoned its heritage of ministering to the poor?

Leaders of the denomination's Board of Global Ministries expected 75 people to gather in Nashville for a March 22-24 conference on "Evangelism and Church Growth in the Midst of Poverty." To their surprise, 175 crowded into a small assembly hall of an inner-city church for the opening session. The three-day event included speeches, workshops, worship, Bible study, times of sharing, and trips to various inner-city churches in the Nashville area.

If United Methodists are to share the Gospel effectively with poor people, they must drop theoretical language and learn to address an oral and electronic culture, said the Rev. Tex Sample, coordinator of the Network for the Study of U.S. Lifestyles. The retired seminary professor observed that anyone who expects to minister to the poor must talk about "believing and feeling" in contrast to "thinking and knowing." "It's the difference between 'knowing God' and 'knowing about God'," he explained.

Encouraging participants to use media to reach the poor, Sample showed a video of a Tina Turner concert that included pyrotechnics and audience participation. "Reminds you of the lectionary reading for the third Sunday in Kingdomtide doesn't it?" Sample joked.

Talking about where the poor are located, Sample said, "The powerful build places, but the poor set up spaces in the midst of those places." He said these spaces include honkytonks, the cantina and the beer joint, "places most of us don't frequent." He also noted that the poor claim spaces on walls in the form of graffiti, and live in spaces on open land. In these places, the author said the poor engage in festivals and acts of resistance against the powerful. He encouraged the church leaders to join the resistance and to participate in parties designed to "thumb our noses at power."

Addressing language issues, Sample said the poor use an "agonistic" language, or a language born of a difficult life. "Most of our pious language is based on Victorian language of the 19th century," he said. "These people are not going to talk about flatulence, feces and oitus. If you can't handle the language, go somewhere else to do your ministry."

Garlinda Burton, editor of Interpreter, the denomination's program magazine, congratulated the assembly for "at least talking about drawing our circle wider to include those whom the world would dismiss." She noted that too many United Methodists are proud of themselves for "presuming to decide who's out and who's in God's inner circle."

"It is my contention," said the editor, "that our efforts at a ministry on the margins stall because we are a people who want to believe that everyone is just the same below the surface."

An African American, Burton lamented the fact that some well-meaning white people sometimes say, "I don't think of you as black—I don't see color."

"That person and I might build a Habitat house together," said Burton, "and we can pray for one another, but it is difficult for us to come to the kind of Christian intimacy to which God calls us because that person is refusing to see and wrestle with his feelings about my real being and my life as a person of color. Part—not all—but part of who I am, part of how I understand the world, part of how I experience Jesus and part of the reason our church is divided racially in the first place is because I am black and that person is white. So for either of us to 'not see color,' especially for him, a member of the dominant racial group in our church and world, is for us not to see each other and so it is that much harder to find common ground."

Burton challenged the body to move from the polite "I don't see the difference" to acknowledge racial, class and economic differences. Recognizing the differences that relegate some to the margins of church and society will enable us to become "God's reconciling force in the world."

She told the group that any ministry of engagement with the poor must include "proximity, solidarity and visibility." Proximity, she said, means being with people, going where they live and work. Solidarity means speaking out with them in political, social and even theological debate. Visibility means bringing people "who look and smell and talk like them to the table as equal partners whether you're planning worship of figuring out how to spend grant money."

On the final morning, the Rev. Irving Cotto, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church, Camden, N.J., told the gathering about the National Plan for Hispanic Ministry. The plan, which is similar to denominational plans for other ethnic and racial groups, includes a 38-hour training opportunity for lay missioners who lead faith communities.

Cotto said these groups that meet in homes and neighborhoods sometimes decide to become chartered churches, but that is not their goal. Frequently, the groups simply exist as a place for worship, prayer, Bible study and a place to seek God's will about pressing issues. In Cotto's community, one of the primary concerns is immigration, for many fear losing their jobs and being deported. Cotto noted that such a justice issue is not necessarily a comfortable one, but "Gospel living has little to do with comfort." 

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