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Alright, one final blog post in regards to Rudy Rasmus’ book Touch: Pressing Against the Wounds of a Broken World.  It helps me to write out my interactions with books from time to time – forcing me to articulate thoughts that may otherwise remain vague and amorphous otherwise.  This third post on this book has to do with a passage I particularly found insightful regarding the church and missions to/in/with the community (read below for an explanation of the distinction between the three).  Rasmus writes:

According to Robert Linthicum in his book, Empowering the Poor, ministries can be characterized by their attitude toward “the least of these.”  Some churches have ministries “to” needy communities, some minister “in” those communities, and some minister “with” needy people.

Ministering “to” needy people is keeping them at arm’s length.  A suburban church may take clothes to a shelter and drop them off.  They expect the effort will help in some way, but they have very little contact with homeless people or abused women and children served by the shelter.  In some cases, though, ministering “to” is the best we can do.  For example, tens of thousands of churches sent money to help victims of the tsunami in Indonesia, Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka.  Thousands more assisted with relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans and other cities  along the Gulf Coast.  The vast majority of us can’t go there to build relationships with those in need, so sending supplies and funds is the best we can do.  In many cases, however, we need to move beyond ministering “to” a community to connecting “with” them.

Many churches minister “in” their communities.  The building is found in the town or city or countryside, but they see people outside the church as “them” instead of “us.”  They see their church as a haven from the injustice and heartache outside the church and they develop a fortress mentality.  If people come to them, the church will try to find them some help.  But if they don’t come, that’s fine too.

In Walking with the Poor, Bryant Myers advocates “transformational development,” which is the drive for a church to incorporate itself into the fiber of the community through relationships “with” people who live there.  Transformational development transcends the specifics of material and economic improvement and expands the effort to include the spiritual, emotional, social, and material empowerment of the whole person and the entire community.  I believe God has called us to minister “with” a community, to get out into the fabric of people’s lives and meet them where they are, to show the love of God in the midst of their joys and pain.  Instead of the church being a fortress to protect us from threatening people, the church is a family that cares for all of its people, the saved and the lost, the rich and poor, the clean and the smelly.  Churches that minister “with” their communities live in love, not in fear.

Let me begin by saying that I have been blessed to have served on many missions trips over the years, including trips to the Bahamas, Belize, Belgium, Brazil, Cuba, Egypt, Thailand, Turkey, and about a dozen trips to various places in the United States.  Additionally, I served as Missions Pastor for a church for 3 years and have an M.Div. in Missiology.  I say this, not to broast, but to provide a context for my comments.

It is my experience that we often have a difficult time with the call of God to embody/incarnate the Gospel to the world.  Missions is too often defined as going to do something for “those” people who don’t have life as good as we do.  Don’t misunderstand me, I think that it is a great thing for churches to send mission teams to build structures (churches, orphanages, houses, etc.) in poor areas around the world.  Too often, however, people in the middle class church of the U.S. have become “collector’s of mission experiences.”  We take off one week out of the year to “go and do missions.”  We take pictures, make scrap books, arrange the pictures in a collage, buy a few souvenirs and go back to business as usual – with those artifacts to look at a remember when we “had it rough” for a week.  Again, I don’t want to be misunderstood, these short-term missions experiences can be very valuable and are often “spiritual mile markers” or “mountain top experiences” for those that go.  This is great, but this alone is not fulfilling the Great Commission.

As followers of Jesus Christ, our goal should be to develop a heart that beats in rhythm with the heart of God.  Our life’s mission should reflect and resonate with the missio dei (Mission of God) in the world.  The scriptures resound with the claim that the church is “the body of Christ” (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-31).  When Jesus came in his humanity on earth, the scriptures say that in him “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).  The Church universal is the embodiment of Christ in the world today.  The Church is therefore called to live “incarnationally” – that is, to be the Gospel in the flesh.

Hold up this three-part mission description to life of Jesus.  Jesus didn’t live as an outsider, telling people how they should act – he demonstrated through his life how to live in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus didn’t stand back and refuse to get involved in people’s lives – he was intimate with those that the “religious” people saw as unclean and not acceptable company.  Jesus didn’t hold people at a distance – he ate meals with them, laughed with them, wept with them, and shared life with them.  Their concerns became his concerns as he embodied the Gospel – that the Kingdom of God was at hand.

This is our call as well and we will never be able to live incarnationally until we are ready to get our hands dirty, until we are ready to exchange the “come and see” attitude that characterizes many of our churches for a “go and be” attitude.  (Instead of inviting people to “come and see” what God is doing in your church, making the decision to “go and be” the hands and feet of Christ in your community.)

It’s great if I can volunteer my time to go to the homeless shelter once a month and feed the guys there.  But what are their names?  What are their stories?  Who are their families?  What are their dreams?  The ministry of the Church will be greatly diminished until we get to the point where we see more than another mouth to feed or utility bill to help pay.  We must see a brother, sister, mother, father, friend.  We must see the face of Jesus.  “What you did to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”