In this age of cancel culture, individuals, institutions, and groups are publicly shamed for demonstrating or even just affirming an unpopular opinion or cultural value. When mass disapproval of the behavior occurs, they are “cancelled.” If you participate in social media, you’ve seen this in action. At the very least, this leads to bad short-term publicity for the “offender”; long-term, it means a loss of influence. However, most of the time there’s just aimless outrage that’s over soon. Few of the people or groups that have been targeted experience long-term consequences.
The body of Christ is not immune to this, including those of us who work with the poor. I find too many are canceling the church. Some are quite vocal with their criticism and critique, and there is a place for that. But there also is a danger zone where criticism reaches such a fever pitch that it becomes crushing accusation. We need to be mindful of this, because Satan doesn’t need any help (Revelation 12:10). When I hear accusations, I always wonder what God thinks.
God can’t be pleased with this tendency toward accusation in our Christian culture.
After all, he calls the church his bride (Ephesians 5:25‑27). If you talk about my bride negatively, the first time I may be cordial and let it slide. The second time, I’ll let you know it’s not cool. The third time, those are fighting words. Crossing the line from critique to accusation leads to undervaluing the church and turning to things like politics playing a role it’s not built to play. This seems to be birthed out of disillusionment and/or an unclear view of the purpose of the church. Politics has its role, as it is a way to practice advocacy, but only the church is the way.
Someone comes in to try to save the hood. A devastating experience (or experiences) happens that leads that person to heartbreak. When the cape comes off, and the person figures out it can’t save the hood, they arrive at a spiritual crossroads. That’s where a war over what they know about the hood, the sovereignty of God, and the authority of the Bible takes place. Theirs is a collision between idealism and reality. And instead of choosing to work through the pain associated with ministry, they begin a slow slide into universalism or humanism.
You can’t do sustainable ministry unless you have a practical theology of the poor.
The church is all you have, and it’s all you need. Most would agree the normal church experience is nurturing, fulfilling, and nontoxic, even if imperfect. Not every church harms its flock. That’s why it’s a travesty to reject the church as an answer for the hood. Most who take the road toward humanism or universalism came in with a savior syndrome and were not grounded in what the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ really means.
It’s almost as if Jesus were a mascot for advocacy. My main pound-the-table point when I talk with people doing work in the hood is that the neighborhood doesn’t need more of you; it needs the faith you have in Christ. If the faith is not there, you will not last—nor will the ministry.
We won’t be able to fix all the brokenness we find. And we can’t save the hood by just pursuing the common good. There aren’t enough good intentions in us to overcome those we encounter. The only route to our survival is to live in the tension of embracing the limits of our human ability and trusting in God to handle the flat-out impossible situations that are constantly presented.
One of my favorite professors in seminary would always discuss the most important part of our ministry. It wasn’t strategy or skill sets, although those are important. It was the lost art of being with God. Our effectiveness in the hood requires that we be change agents. Change agents don’t like to be anything; we do. When you get a group of us in the room, debates are had, plans get written, and things get done. It’s all great, but we must be careful to do based on being with God.
A key verse for understanding this concept is 1 Peter 1:16: “Be holy, because I am holy.” Yet being holy isn’t something we can do. It’s something we must be. It’s the one thing that must happen every single day. When we think about how to make the world a better place, if we rely only on human ingenuity, we’re leaving our greatest weapon out of the mix—that is, the Holy Spirit.
WELCOME, HOLY SPIRIT
We describe God the Father as love and Jesus as the prince of peace. Love and peace make us feel good about things. But when we refer to the Holy Spirit, we use words like wind, fire, water—impersonal words. Yet the best way to describe the Holy Spirit is as a person. It’s important that we see the Holy Spirit as a person because a person has presence.
Understanding the Spirit as a person means you think he is real. Christ put a human face on the Spirit, as they are interdependent. The coming of the Holy Spirit changes everything because he is the personal presence of God. And the presence of God is what changes things.
That presence is labeled holiness. Holiness displays the character of God and sets one apart for service of God. When we are made holy, we gain the privilege of influencing situations for God’s glory. One example of a holy person is John the Baptist, who was set apart for God’s service. He was called a righteous and holy man (Mark 6:20). Notice that the description is of what he is, not of what he is doing. His lifestyle showed both that he was set apart and that he reflected who God is.
When we focus on being holy, doing ministry in the hood means guarding our hearts from sin by practicing self-care. We make sure that fellow believers hold us accountable for our actions. We know we can’t do it on your own and must actively collaborate with others. We know our job is to disciple people in the hood to bring out the best in them. We engage injustice for the sake of Christ. And we know that our small actions will lead to big impact. Being holy is being the church.
Adapted from Uncommon Church by Alvin Sanders. Copyright (c) 2020 by Alvin Edward Sanders Jr. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Alvin Sanders (PhD, Miami) is the president and CEO of World Impact. He previously served as a pastor, church planter, and denominational leader for the Evangelical Free Church of America, leading its All People Initiative. He is the author of Uncommon Church and Bridging the Diversity Gap.