How This Church Learned to Love Their Neighbors

The Bible’s call to alleviate poverty is clear. But all too often, the local church in America struggles to meaningfully address their neighbors’ needs. Because our society has defined poverty mainly as a material problem, many programs and poverty alleviation ministries only address family’s surface needs, such as housing or food, while overlooking the sustained and supportive relationships that lead to lasting transformation.

So how can churches better serve their neighbors? Here’s one tool:

ACTS is a church-based approach to alleviating material poverty through a ministry framework. It’s based on a reframed understanding of poverty, reshaped approaches to serving individuals impacted by poverty, and a commitment to a community restored to abundance. ACTS provides churches with tools to:

  • Understand poverty more holistically
  • Train and equip members of the congregation to respectfully and relationally engage in poverty alleviation ministry
  • Form alliances to address brokenness in the broader community

The following is an illustration of one church’s engagement with ACTS.  Knowing that each local church has its own unique story, ACTS provides a variety of training and coaching designed to help churches learn, grow or transform.

This is a story of a church that made the bold move to embrace their own poverty in order to become the presence of God’s love in their community.

Fellowship had been involved in global missions for decades, but they were not sure how to serve in their own community. God had called the church to bring the good news to the ends of the earth, yet they lived in the tension of not knowing exactly what to do to build His Kingdom in their own Jerusalem.  

Like many others, their community was plagued with pockets of economic poverty. Fellowship saw the tangible needs of the families living in their community. There was violence, hunger, unemployment, and hopelessness.

The members of that church knew that Jesus often fed the hungry, so they would do that. They started a food and clothing pantry. They worked hard to put together school supplies in the fall and adopt families for the holidays. They provided all of the material things the families could need.

However, they began to notice that although the people were getting groceries and school supplies and Christmas presents, no lasting change had taken place. In fact, their own sense of pride and superiority began to grow as they became frustrated, and they wondered if they weren’t seeing the whole picture.

After going through the Cost of Poverty Experience (COPE)—a poverty simulation—the members of Fellowship were gripped by the resilience of their neighbors in poverty. This experienced affirmed the need for material resources, yet they were beginning to see that there was so much more to the story.

Awakened by a desire to go deeper, small groups and adult bible studies began reading and studying When Helping Hurts to learn a biblical framework for understanding poverty. They began to learn that poverty was really a result of broken relationships with God, self, others, and the creation itself. They recognized this brokenness as shared because they all had their own broken places too. The hurt and pain around them was familiar, for they had all felt that at some time in their own lives. They began to realize that if they were to address spiritual, material, and other types of poverty, they had to humble themselves and learn to form new relationships.  

A core team of members had formed, fueled by a passion to see God’s Kingdom come to those experiencing poverty in their community. With both the engagement and support of their senior pastor, members of Fellowship began to look for ways to intentionally listen to each other and to their community. Having planted a campus in an under-resourced neighborhood, they began to shift their outreach events from “doing for” to listening and “doing with” their neighbors. They also conducted a survey with their congregation to learn more about their views of poverty as well as the gifts and passions for engaging their community.

At first, listening was like exercising a new muscle. The church members were conditioned to want to jump in and fix, and listening forced a new discipline and honest reflection. But through the process, they began to see the work of poverty alleviation as a form of holy currency exchange. They realized that those coming to their food pantry, participating in other material relief ministry and new neighbors who had joined the church had a lot to teach the members of Fellowship about the work of God’s grace and real faith in the midst of hardship.

Knowing that their human nature often lead them to judge, misunderstand, or be misunderstood, Fellowship worked hard to equip their congregation to develop cross cultural understanding and  humility. Topics like trauma, race, and class became a part of their dialogue and training calendar. Having trained many for cross-cultural ministry through short and long-term global missions work, Fellowship had previously struggled to equip members for cross-cultural relations in their own community. Doing so helped them to forge new relationships in mutually enriching ways: connecting single moms with a supportive women’s group, visiting new babies, offering job opportunities, partnering with the neighborhood school to provide mentors, and praying together for their community.

While a lot of energy at the church went into weekly services, Fellowship realized that relationships most often were happening outside of church hours. When a need would arise, a family needing support during a court trial or a child needing a mentor, they would be there to help. What they quickly learned was that despite different physical needs, their neighbors had the same core need that they did—connection. That even though long-standing members of their church had struggles of their own, the difference was that they had a community to support them through it.

Looking back, the pastor and members of Fellowship thought they would be bringing God to their neighborhood through their church.  What they discovered was that God had been at work in their neighborhood all along and His grace was allowing them to join Him in his great restoration story as they became the presence of His love in their community.

 

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Matt 6:10

 

 

About the Author

Marlo Fox serves as ACTS Leadership Team Member, facilitating the development of the ACTS resources for local churches through a collaborative process.