How do you reach an impoverished neighborhood with the gospel?
A typical approach is to send in money occasionally. But poverty is actually far more complex than most people imagine. It takes on a variety of forms, and it stems from impossibly deep-seated assumptions, systems, and processes. It’s actually a huge misunderstanding of the problem to assume that poverty is primarily financial. Financial poverty is deeply connected to and very often caused by other forms of poverty, such as relational poverty and spiritual poverty.
So if you truly want to reach an impoverished neighborhood with the gospel, you have to first take stock of what kind of poverty has taken hold. And you need to be ready to respond—not just financially, but holistically. If you find relational poverty, are you prepared to offer yourself so that their relationships can be enriched? So that these human beings can see their value as human beings? So that you can learn to appreciate everything they have to offer each other and the surrounding society that views them as lazy and disgraced? Are you prepared to enter into their spiritual poverty and show them (not just tell them) the depths of the riches available to them in Christ?
It’s the depth and complexity of the problem and the high non-financial cost of truly addressing these needs that ensures poverty will remain around the world.
My geographical area is affluent. Everyone around me has more than they need. Way more. And yet there are pockets where poverty has an iron grip. In one of these pockets, in one particular neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, the people are what you’d call “working poor.” They have jobs, and they work hard. Yet their wages do nothing to bring them above the poverty line. This kind of poverty can’t be eradicated by telling the people to work harder, or even by sending in money. It requires incarnation.
When Jesus wanted to help human beings who were trapped in their cycle of need and deep-seated spiritual poverty, he did more than send us a message of hope. He did more than sending us laws or even forgiveness. He sent himself. He entered into our mess so that he could lead us out of it. Personally. Profoundly. We call this the “incarnation”—God took on flesh.
One of the churches that Eternity Bible College partners with is incarnating the gospel in this particular impoverished neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. They’re not inviting these people to join them for their suburban church services. They’re not sending in money or work crews. The leaders of this church moved into the neighborhood. Incarnation. The life of the working poor has become the life of these church planters. Church is in the neighborhood. The gospel is in the neighborhood. The gospel is not foreign, coming in from the outside. With this team of church planters, the gospel took on flesh and dwelt among the working poor.
This church will soon be hosting an event that is a great example of this approach. The church is called Living Stones/Piedras Vivas (the church is bilingual because the neighborhood is bilingual—incarnation), and the event is called La Luz. And there’s a way you can help them with it. One way that the church wants to help the poverty in the neighborhood is by providing the children of these working poor parents with the opportunity to play soccer. The local parks and rec department has had to raise its fees for soccer. This instantly excludes many of the neighborhood children from organized soccer, which means instantly increased relational poverty.
So Living Stones is doing two things to address this need. First, they are putting on a week-long soccer clinic for the neighborhood kids, taught by Division I collegiate coaches and players. This clinic will also give them opportunities for displaying and sharing the gospel, thus addressing the spiritual poverty. Second, they are raising money to give 100 scholarships to neighborhood kids so they can play in the soccer league. Members of Living Stones and their kids have been investing in this soccer league by playing and coaching, so allowing more neighborhood kids to participate is a means of addressing their needs on a number of levels.
Those of us who are living and serving in more affluent suburban contexts have a lot to learn about incarnation from churches like Living Stones. It may not mean hosting soccer clinics or offering scholarships (though it may). The important thing is that we deeply consider how to present the gospel in a clear way to the people God has placed around us. How do we portray the gospel with our lives, and not merely with our words?