For the past 15 years, Gale and I have been very involved in serving the homeless and marginalized of our community. We have done neighborhood outreach in one of the toughest neighborhoods of our city. I co-founded a non-profit to rescue prepared foods from local area restaurants and place it in shelters and meal sites which feed those in need (Feed Spokane). Gale and I served on the board of a local men’s homeless shelter. And I spent two years (ending last December) on the four-person Leadership Team of the Spokane Homeless Coalition, coordinating the communication and networking of more than 700 individuals and 200 (+) agencies, churches and ministries serving the homeless and marginalized in our city.
The logical question at this point would be, “Why?” There are several answers to this question, including 1) because of our own journey through homelessness and marginalization nearly 20 years ago (long story for another time), 2) as a practical “incarnation” of our journey into organic church, 3) as a matter of simple obedience to Jesus commands in Matthew 25:31-46, and 4) as a matter of genuine discipleship in the Kingdom of God. But there’s more. With Jesus, there always is.
Several years ago I felt very strongly that I was hearing from the Lord that He wanted His Church to “take the Kingdom back to the streets.” And that deserves some reflection. The travails of the Evangelical Church in our Postmodern Culture are well documented (and in no small part self-inflicted). If you’re unaware of those travails, here’s a refresher; feel free to read Michael Gerson’s excellent article in The Atlantic (which I picked up in the Raleigh-Durham Airport on a recent trip to-and-from North Carolina) or the speech by Fuller Seminary President Dr. Mark Labberton at Wheaton College. There’s more, but hopefully, you get the point. If not, I can only assume you’ll ask to be removed from this email list . . . and that denial remains a river in Egypt in your world. We celebrate the growth of mega-churches and their expensive, resource-intensive programs while overall church involvement (note how I carefully avoided the “attendance” word) precipitously declines (meaning that we’re spending more and achieving less), the “NONES” phenomenon mushrooms and millennials walk away from the church and “Churchianity” as they have understood it. We celebrate small victories while experiencing stunning losses, often mistaking those losses for “victories” (see the two articles referenced above. In the interest of full disclosure, I did NOT vote for EITHER candidate in the last election). When you can’t tell the difference between a Pyrrhic Victory and an actual loss, you’re in trouble. We’re in trouble. And that trouble begins with our ability (or inability) to meaningfully define ourselves.
In lectures at Purdue University to Campus Crusade Staff (now Cru) in the early 1970s (think “the Jesus Movement” and the peak of Post-WW2 “Evangelicalism”) on the history of 20th Century Awakenings, Dr. J. Edwin Orr defined “Evangelicalism” as a Christian faith which has 1) a commitment to an evangelical authority (the Bible), 2) a commitment to an evangelical message (the necessity of salvation by grace through personal faith in Jesus Christ), and 3) a commitment to an evangelical impetus (the empowering and transforming work of the Holy Spirit). Needless to say, I believe these are “spot-on” and would be agreed upon by people ranging from John Wesley to Billy Graham (to you and me). But I also believe Orr missed a fourth one that is equally important: a commitment to good deeds and service to “the Least of These” on the part of every professing Christian laying claim to discipleship in the Kingdom of God.
There was a time when the Evangelical Church (i.e., those Christians and Churches characterized by Orr’s 3-fold description above) was known not only for the three characteristics given by Orr, but also for its deep – even sacrificial – commitment to embracing and serving the marginalized (i.e., “the least of these” as described in Matthew 25 and elsewhere). John Wesley and the early Methodists were legendary for their commitment to the poor and marginalized in 18th Century England, followed closely on by William and Catherine Booth (their son, Bramwell Booth, moved to America and founded the Volunteers Of America). That commitment among evangelicals began to change in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries during the polarizing debates between “liberals” and “fundamentalists.” I won’t bore you with a lot of history and explanation at this point. I’ve written about it in Chapter 2, “Whatever Happened To Incarnational Truth?” in my book, The Least Of These: The Role Of Good Deeds In A Jesus-Shaped Spirituality. If you want a scholarly account of what happened, see David O. Moberg’s 1977 book, The Great Reversal: Evangelism And Social Concern.
To oversimplify, in the years following World War Two, evangelicalism tried to keep Orr’s three defining characteristics while trading service to “the least of these” for politics and seeking “the greatest of these.” The capital of the Kingdom of Evangelicalism moved by default to Washington, D.C. (for believers in BOTH major political parties), and candidates for major political office became our new apostles, prophets and patron saints. We baptized our politics, politicized the Kingdom, doubled-down on our political agendas and marginalized Jesus and those who sought to be genuine disciples of the Kingdom (the one NOT headquartered in Washington, D.C.). Finally, the evangelical mountain of political activism labored and brought forth the two best candidates it could muster for the 2016 Presidential election and . . . well . . . you know the rest. And so does our Postmodern culture.
In one of his plays, British playwright and skeptic George Bernard Shaw put these words into the mouth of one of his characters, “You cannot build a marble mansion with a mixture of mud and manure.” He was right, and we should have listened. Our Postmodern culture has watched recent events – our political mud wrestling – and has posed the painful and obvious question: Is this what it means to be an “evangelical Christian” and a disciple of the Kingdom of God? No. No, it isn’t. But their confusion and wrong conclusion is understandable given what we have offered them. We promised them marble mansions; but we proceeded to build them with an unseemly mixture of Christianity, mud and manure. And to convince our generation, and those generations which may follow until Jesus returns, that what they have witnessed is a false vision of the Kingdom will require a profound re-boot.
“30 Days And 30 Ways Of Doing Good”
Returning to what I heard over a decade ago, I believe God is calling His available church to a profound re-boot. This re-boot will not come easily. It will cost us structures, programs, agendas and resources, forcing us into a complete reconsideration of our priorities and how we understand ourselves as a believing body of “disciples of the Kingdom” (in other words, a re-booted definition of what it means to be the church). This reboot will be organic in nature, Kingdom-oriented, discipleship focused and committed to living out our Kingdom values by seeking and serving the marginalized rather than by seeking and serving the politically powerful.
One of my contributions to this re-boot (in addition to my 3-Volume set on discipleship and the Kingdom of God), is a book we’ve just completed, entitled “30 Days And 30 Ways Of Doing Good.” As I mentioned earlier, Gale and I have been working among the homeless and marginalized for nearly 15 years. It simply embodies the practical out-working of our commitment to organic church. I spent the last two years (ending last December) on the four-person Leadership Team of the Spokane Homeless Coalition, working with an amazing network of ministries, shelters and social service agencies which serve the homeless and marginalized in our community. Last fall (October) I began soliciting articles on a wide variety of issues (homelessness, at-risk youth, hunger, poverty, marginalization, sex trafficking, foster care, and more) from some of the amazing people I worked with in the Coalition.
The result is a 31 Day guide through critical community issues with articles and suggested action items offered by people who do this work 24/7. In addition, I wrote a daily “Reflection” (think “devotional”) to accompany each Day’s reading. Think about a Church that decides to focus on important community issues for a season. The congregation could go through the book as a daily individual exercise; it could be discussed in Sunday School classes or small groups (something for your “Rooted” groups to do); and the Pastor could deliver a series of messages to highlight biblical commands to serve “the least of these” while encouraging everyone to find an issue that speaks to them and a ministry where they could get actively involved serving others and demonstrating the values of the Kingdom.
The stated goal of “30 Days And 30 Ways” is to “educate, motivate and inspire” people throughout our community to get involved in addressing the issues which affect our community. As I say in the book, “We cannot change what we do not love; we cannot love what we do not know; and cannot know what we are unwilling to invest the time required to educate ourselves about.” This book embodies my modest contribution toward educating, motivating and inspiring our community to “greater love and good deeds.”
But there’s more . . .
Looking forward, we are thinking of “30 Days And 30 Ways” as an on-going “work-in-progress” that can be revised with either an updated version (“The 2019 Spokane Edition”) or with a “Volume 2.” There are additional important issues, great stories of impacted lives, opportunities to serve and practical action items that could be shared with our community.
In addition, I believe Spokane has a positive story to tell about how a community can come together and collaborate to address critical issues which affect us all. For this reason, we’re looking at how to turn “30 Days And 30 Ways” into a template that can be taken to other communities, utilizing locally-produced articles, action items, etc. You can help us turn what is happening here in Spokane into an example of what could be done in other communities (Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, etc.) through cooperation, collaboration, and community involvement.
And, yes, there is an important place and role here for organic church. In the Kingdom of God, discipleship represents our daily embodiment of the values of the Kingdom, and of what we claim to believe about Jesus and the Kingdom. For example, as disciples of the Kingdom, do we genuinely believe that Jesus calls us to serve “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46), and that doing so (or failing to do so) has eternal consequences? It’s time for organic church practitioners (like you and me) to get out of our “house boxes” and sow the seed of the Kingdom out in the field of our communities. And, yes, it’s O.K. to sow the seed of the Kingdom and to simply allow God to be sovereign over how, when and where it all sprouts, grows and bears fruit. “And he said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.'” (Mark 4:26-29) As disciples of the Kingdom, our calling is obedience to the clear commands of Jesus to sow. It isn’t within our calling to control the outcome. God’s role is to be sovereign over the outcome of our obedience. He knows what He is doing in the Kingdom, especially when we don’t.
Reflection On Spiritual Awakening
Finally, some brief personal reflections on spiritual awakening. I’ve spent the past 20 years as an observer and amateur historian of spiritual awakenings, having written a book on the great Welsh Revival of 1904. I’m not a professional historian, just an amateur with 20 years of practice. During that time, I’ve discovered that prophesying the next “revival” or spiritual awakening has become somewhat of a cottage industry, ranking second in volume only to predicting the rapture (which I’ve observed for over 40 years). My observation of God’s dealings in spiritual awakenings tells me that His modus operandi is to begin some of His most profound visitations “outside the camp” among the marginalized. The Evangelical Awakening under Wesley began among coal miners and the lowest end of English society. The spiritual awakening under William and Katherine Booth (The Salvation Army) began among the poor and marginalized of London’s east end. The 2nd Great Awakening in America began on the frontier, initially led by a Presbyterian pastor named James McGready, whose claim to fame was being so ugly that children ran away in fear when they met him on the street. The Manhattan Prayer Revival began under the ministry of a lay businessman (Jeremiah Lamphere) in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan. The Welsh Revival of 1904 began under a 26-year old former coal miner and first-year bible school student named Evan Roberts and caught fire among the coal miners of South Wales. I could go on, but hopefully, you get the point. God’s visitations often – even usually – begin “outside the camp.” From Moses to us, God loves to meet hungry hearts “outside the camp” (Exodus 33:7).
My point is simple. If you’re expecting the fire of God to fall on our carefully crafted and controlled camp meetings, broadcast live and nightly on GodTV, you might want to prepare yourself for disappointment. I believe the history of God’s dealings offers us important signs of what He may intend to do in our own day. If we truly want to cry out with Isaiah for a divine visitation, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-2), then we shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed when He answers that prayer “outside the camp”; when His chosen landing spot for this coming visitation is a homeless shelter or a shelter for women fleeing abuse or sex trafficking, or among marginalized refugees. If the coming spiritual awakening finds Jesus walking the streets of your community in search of “the least of these,” will He find you serving among them?
And if not, what excuse will you offer to explain your absence?