Redefining Ministry with the Poor: Three Cautions

Jason Williams, founder of the Aspire Movement, shares three cautions for those interested in leading congregations through a process of redefining ministry among the poor.

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Only God above could script a story like mine.

Growing up in the Washington, D.C. Metro area, my life was largely influenced by hip-hop culture, the go-go music scene and the crack epidemic. Fortunately for me, I could shoot basketball with the best of them and scored a Division I scholarship to George Mason University where I had a standout freshman season. The summer following my freshman year, reckless living caught up with me, and I was arrested and charged with three felonies for drug trafficking.

After a few more years of bad choices and serious consequences, I found myself surrendering to the Lord Jesus Christ in an African American, Pentecostal church in the poorest part of Birmingham, Alabama. As a white guy, I never once felt marginalized in that church. It was there that I grew in my faith and calling to impact urban youth who followed similar paths as mine. My calling eventually led me to take a position as Urban Missions Pastor at a predominately white, suburban and affluent church—also in Birmingham.

I have had the privilege to lead our church in urban ministry for the past six years. In my time, I have experienced moments of great encouragement as well as times of deep sorrow for how we as a church view urban ministry and outreach. My church preaches the Word of God faithfully, generously gives half of our enormous budget to missions, and is comprised of some of the most godly people I have ever known. But like every church, we have our warts and blind spots and some of those show up ever so glaringly in cross-cultural ministry.

There are numerous stories I could share, but I’d like to limit this to how we have dealt with the challenges to redefining our philosophy of ministering to the poor in our city. If I were to say that everyone in our congregation agrees on both principles and methodology I would be exaggerating. With over 5,000 members, the process of change is slow. It takes a lot of time and energy to help others come to an understanding of empowerment and to change the way we quantify success in outreach.

Having walked through changes in this area, God has taught me the following principles that I believe could help you navigate your organization through a redefinition of ministry to the poor:

Value the Process.

First, please remember that God's timing is not ours.

When the realization finally comes that some poverty alleviation methods may actually hurt the very people we wish to empower, we can feel that everyone else should immediately “get it.” This can be dangerous.  Just because we may have been enlightened and learned new methods, it doesn’t mean our people will automatically respond in similar fashion. In fact, if your church is large it may take years to work through downloading a new way of thinking.

There is a great need for patience and humility. While navigating change can be frustrating and painful, value the process of what God is doing in your own life. His design is to conform you into His image as much as it is for you to help others.

Beware of the Sacred Cow.

Every church has a "legacy ministry" - you know, something that was started by a well-respected saint and is treasured by the congregation. Sometimes leaders, armed with new convictions that certain methods are "toxic", take it upon themselves to be the one to “destroy” the legacy ministry as a show of how harmful it is. While it may make you feel good that you have ten reasons that the sacred cow should be destroyed like the golden calf, this approach can cause you to lose the very capital you need to see changes occur.

I would suggest instead that you grow up a parallel opportunity that addresses similar needs. When you do this, people will learn for themselves and come to their own conclusions. Change happens when people experience the ministry for themselves. While we can be articulate in teaching, nothing replaces the learning that occurs when their skin is in the game.

Differentiate the Mandate from the Methods.

Remember that methods are just methods, and they are neither concrete nor infallible. To move people along in this area, avoid making them feel dumb for how they have operated and thought about ministry. Instead, point out the good, lead with encouragement and remember methods differ from mandates. We have a mandate to reach the poor in Scripture, what we don’t have is a mandate on how that work should be done. Sure, there are certain principles but carefully focus on winning people as opposed to winning arguments. You may win battles and lose the war. 

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Jason Williams is the Urban Pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL. He founded the Aspire Movement, a mentoring program empowering at-risk urban youth. He is married to Dr. Jessica Williams and has 3 children. 

Posted on March 24, 2015 .