The gospel commission has another side

Reaching the down and out is a crucial aspect of ministry outreach.

Rudi Maier, Ph.D., is associate professor of the Department of World Mission, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Most of the unreached people of the world are located in what missiologists call the "10/40 Window" that mass of land between 10 to 40 degrees north of the equator, stretching from northwest Africa through the Middle East and into Asia. Nearly 2.4 billion people (about half the world population) live in the 10/40 window. Eighty-two percent of the world's poorest people live here, with an annual income of less than $500 per person (compared to $12,500 elsewhere).

Missiologist Luis Bush writes: "As the Christian presence has expanded around the world, it appears that those people living in the 10/40 Window have suffered not only hunger and a low quality of life compared to the rest of humanity, but have also been kept from the transforming, life-giving, community changing power of the Gospel."1

The poor in the world

While much has been said and done (as indeed it should have) in recent years about the immense need to reach especially the poor and disadvantaged in this 10/40 window, we must not neglect another area of immense concern: reaching the poor in word and deed with the liberating power of the gospel wherever they are.

For many the idea of ministering to the disadvantaged in the countries in the 10/40 window has a sense of arresting drama about it. It captures the imagination. The fact is however, that quite aside from any 10/40 window, in the case of almost every one of us, the poor and disadvantaged may be living much closer to where we live without our actually thinking about it, let alone acting on it in any significant way.

It is virtually a truism of our time that every day the world is becoming much more complex and urbanized. Around the globe large numbers of people are moving from the rural areas into the urban centers the cities. Many who make these migrations do so because they are illiterate and poor and are searching for something better. As often as not, this movement only makes matters worse for them. Thus it may be said that the major cities of the world (and even in the smaller cities) have become places in which there are staggeringly large numbers who are down and out.

One quarter of the world's population is urban poor. Many of these people must live off the garbage of these vast populations. These people are poor physically and they are poor spiritually.

Metropolitan Mexico City, for example, has a population of over 18 million. That is larger than the individual population of 134 nations of the world. Squatter and slum communities have become the fact of life there, as in Manila where an estimated two million squatters are scattered across the city in 415 squatter communities, or Bangkok which has 1,042 slum neighborhoods. Similar circumstances exist in Cairo, Kolkata (Calcutta), Mumbai (Bombay), Jakarta, and many other cities of the world.

Western cities (well outside the 10/40 window) are no exception to poverty and homelessness. New York City has over 75,000 people who rummage through trash cans for food each day. Drive through the streets of downtown Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles on any night and you will see row upon row of homeless people sleeping on sidewalks. Less visible, but equally devastating, are such areas of human need as domestic violence, child abuse, prostitution, and drug and alcohol addiction.

Of course, extreme human need is not confined only to cities. Some 18 million poor and needy people live in refugee camps around the world. Millions in East Africa and elsewhere on the African continent are precariously poised on the verge of starvation as ravaging famine threat ens them.

The challenging question is How can we win these helpless, hopeless, masses of people for God and disciple them if we hardly minister to their physical need? Each one is a person to whom the church needs to respond. Jesus was touched by human need and responded to it with acts of mercy. He left us the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example of how He expects Christians to respond to human suffering and misfortune. As Christians, we can do no less than follow His example in word and deed.

Meeting real human needs

We are all familiar with Maslow's hierarchy of needs: material needs, social needs, and moral needs. Upon what level are we prepared to meet these needs in our ministry? No doubt we are prepared for the "high est one," the moral, dealing with the spiritual truths of love, righteousness, and grace. These are important, but we must be reminded of the starving man who told a missionary who wanted to share the gospel with him: "I can't hear you, I am too hungry."

To us Christians, especially those of us who have never felt the pinch of hunger or deep poverty, a person's spiritual needs may be the most press ing and obvious. However, we simply cannot effectively minister to the spiritual until we have dealt with the immediate needs the individual is feeling be that for food, shelter, medical care, or simple respect. This is especially true of these needs that are extreme and therefore, naturally, all-absorbing.

Meet these needs first and the per son is more likely to lend a listening ear to the gospel we have to share. There is the truest sense in which living the gospel through ministering to the whole person is by all means the most effective proclamation the gospel can have. Through this approach, not only do we have the chance to tell people about Jesus, we have the opportunity to actively portray His love for them.

We tend to see people only in terms of physical and spiritual need; we reduce people's problems to one or two types. But Christ ministered to people in all their needs. Clearly, the eternal salvation of people is our highest priority, but we must bring them the whole gospel. Salvation, in the biblical sense, has to do with all the dimensions of life.

In separating people's spiritual needs from their physical needs we all too easily make too sharp a distinction between evangelism and social concerns. Adventists often have a way of seeing themselves as ministering in the first of these spheres. Preachers definitely tend to limit their concern to eternal salvation. But broken, suffering, and lost people listen to people who meet them where they hurt; who meet them with real, palpable love.

I have often heard people in the church say, "Jesus told us the poor and the needy would always be with us; therefore, He does not want us to be too concerned about their condition. After all, no amount of effort is going to solve the problem." Saying this is to admit our failure to see Jesus as He actually was. He spent His life responding and ministering to an array of real human need. Of course He did not erase poverty, but that did not deter Him from reaching out in love and from actually meeting people where they were. Didn't Jesus say that in ministering to hungry, thirsty, naked people we would, in fact, be ministering to Him (Matt. 25:40, 45)? And didn't He strongly imply that these realities would indeed be our acid test in the final judgment (verses 31-45)?

Becoming part of the community

I remember my own ministry in Sri Lanka. We lived on a beautiful school campus, "Lakpahana," the "Light of Sri Lanka." I have seen many Lakpahanas around the world. Adventist schools and churches are established to be the light on a darkened globe. But we sometimes have a way of putting the bushel over our light the bushel of isolation, self-centeredness, and even self-righteousness.

At Lakpahana we wanted to make a difference to the people in our little community. The first and the most important step for us was to become a part of that community and the lives of the people who lived there.

Christian ministry begins with relationships. I remember sitting in a village council meeting under the coconut trees. We told the community leaders that we wanted to work together with them to solve some of their health problems. A village leader wanted to know if this was a new way we were using to make them Christians. No, I don't think that was a new way. It was an old and hugely effective way, especially if it is done out of disinterested love for the people served. This is a way Jesus had taught us, but which we often have forgotten. It is absolutely vital to the doing of authentic evangelism.

In becoming a part of the Lakpahana community, we saw the problems of the people, experienced their suffering and entered into it with them, searching with them for solutions. At the end of our stay, as I was walking with the headman through the village, we reviewed our work together work that built toilets and water systems, fed the hungry, and developed friendships. As we walked, he turned to me, and with the dignity that only a chief can have, told me that for 32 years he and his people had been afraid of us as Seventh-day Adventists, because they thought that we would make them and their children Christians. "But now we have seen Christianity/' he said, "and we like it."

We Christians give the impression that we're only interested in saving souls and building up our churches and institutions. We must dispel that notion by taking the love and com passion of Jesus to the poor and needy in this world. It's time for us to incarnate ourselves in the community where we live.

While we are most certainly all for evangelistic proclamation, the truth is that the world does not need more fancy evangelists trumpeting a mes sage of gospel truth mixed with a thin veneer of slick consumerism or manipulative strategy. What the world needs is an army of caring Christians who, through mercy and love, will demonstrate Christ to the poor and needy of this world, people who will sit and listen, who will respect the poor enough to learn from them, and who will respond to them in a way that affirms their dignity and value before God and their fellow human beings.

We are right in obeying the com mission of Jesus to go, teach, baptize, and disciple (Matt. 28:19, 20). Should we not be equally mindful of the command of Jesus to the young lawyer in the parable of the Good Samaritan, "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37) to do as the Samaritan did: to bind up the wounds of the suffering with our own hands, to care for the needy, to be involved with the life of our neighbors?

1 Luis Bush, "The AD 2000 & Beyond Movement: An Overview," AD 2000 and Beyond Handbook: A Church for Every People And the Gospel for Every Person by AD 2000, 1992, 1.

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Rudi Maier, Ph.D., is associate professor of the Department of World Mission, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

June 2002

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