“It was the most fun that I ever had in ministry. We were a community of the desperate.” These were the initial words that rolled off of the tongue of church planter and Wesleyan pastor Eric Hallett while he was recalling fondly the early years of a church that he and his wife Kimberly founded in Bangor, Maine back in the 1990s. The core members of this congregation consisted of recent transplants to Bangor, several persons struggling with addictions, some ex-convicts, and many who for a variety of reasons were simply struggling to make their way through the world. What did these persons have in common? To put it simply: They were desperate for the very things that the Gospel alone can truly deliver - they were desperate for God.
In Matthew’s Gospel, we encounter Jesus serving precisely these types of people. Let me draw on two examples. First, Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with the familiar words of the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The phrase “poor in spirit” suggests those who stand before God with empty hands without illusions of their own sufficiency, security, or standing. It is these whom Jesus pronounces as blessed because such persons who are desperate for God belong to the Kingdom of Heaven. If we in North America were to rewrite “poor in spirit” today, would we not be tempted to substitute confident, self-sufficient, well-adjusted, or middle-class? Second, Matthew records three acts of healing in 8:1-17. Jesus heals a leper, the servant of a Roman soldier, and Peter’s mother-in-law. We can easily miss the significance of this. All of these figures are outsiders in the religious milieu of ancient Judaism. Lepers were unclean and forced to live on the margins. Roman soldiers were visible symbols of a hated and oppressive foreign rule. Women, likewise, were marginalized. Yet it was Jesus’ ministry to these persons which Matthew seeks to highlight. Jesus sought to extend God’s saving power beyond the boundaries established by the privileged and powerful of his day. Consider Matthew 9:11-13: “When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ’sinners’?’ On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’” (NIV).
How are we doing today? In our strategies for growth and even in our denominational models for establishing new congregations we tend to target affluent areas, typically suburbs, and market our churches as places for consumers to have their “needs” met. Such environments are safe and confortable but often do not mobilize their members for Christ-centered ministry in the world. Momentum is created around visions of new buildings rather than around mission. We ask members primarily for their faithful giving so that we can build them impressive worship centers and offer even more congregational-based programming.
All of this can be a great temptation for us who are leaders in the church. Who among us would not want the opportunity to manage a large budget and lead a young congregation of upwardly mobile people. Don’t get me wrong here. Significant ministry can and does happen in such settings — many lives are changed. Furthermore, facilities are needed by most churches. But the question remains: Who will reach out to the desperate? Who will pay the price to reach the very sorts of persons to whom Jesus offered forgiveness and healing during his earthly ministry? Who will carry the Gospel to those whom society labels as insignificant, problematic, or unreachable? Are we equipped and prepared to serve the types of persons that Jesus called as his disciples and served during his earthly ministry?
May we have the courage to follow Jesus boldly to transition old congregations and/or establish new ones that are communities of the desperate - places of salvation, healing, and hope for those who are desperate for what only God can provide.
© 2005 Brian D. Russell