The True Riches of the Church

“With the way most plant churches among Muslims, we end up attracting only the rejects and the freaks,” said my friend with a scowl. “You’ll never start a movement that way.”

While spoken with some concerning overstatement, my friend’s comments were coming out of observations made within contemporary missiology, noting the largely ineffective traditional methods of church planting among Muslims. The shoe often fits. The congregations started by evangelical missionaries among Muslims have often attracted mostly the poor, the outcasts, and the mentally unstable. As the theory goes, most evangelical missionaries among Muslims have not focused enough on reaching the honorable leaders of the community – the patriarchs, chiefs, mullahs, and others. When these leaders are bypassed and the majority of attention is shown to those on the fringes of society, joining a movement to Jesus is prevented from being viewed as a real possibility by those in the mainstream of the culture – and especially by the leaders. And as I wrote in my previous post, these mental categories of “Not an option for people like me” or “It’s an option for people like me” really can make a practical difference in the mysterious interplay of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.

I feel this critique. It is true that those of us coming from the West often bypass the societal leaders of an honor-shame community. We often do this even without thinking about it. “Why should I go visit the mullah or the neighborhood strongman? Can’t I just move in and get to work building relationships?” I myself have not done the best job of honoring the community’s leaders through preemptive visits of respect. I am wired as a grassroots, bottom-up reform kind of guy. And sometimes I just forget. Other times, a part of me wants to ignore these domineering leader types just to mess with their sense of self-importance. Perhaps this is the red-blooded American in me that has inherited some distaste for hierarchy and classism? Yet there is wisdom in considering how showing honor to those in positions of authority helps us to have a good testimony (Rom 13:7), creates space for us to cause some trouble, and may even open the door for these leaders to embrace a costly belief in Jesus – and perhaps for others to follow them. I need to be more balanced in this area.

And yet whenever this conversation comes up, I hear this line from church history echo in my mind, “These are the true treasures of the church.” This sentence was spoken by Lawrence (Lorenzo – from Spain), archdeacon of Rome in the year 258. Emperor Valerian had issued an order to have all the leaders in the Roman church killed. And as the one in charge of the church finances, he had ordered Lawrence to turn over the church’s treasure, and he would be spared. Lawrence asked for three days and then slyly distributed all the church’s money to the poor. He then marched the poor, the crippled, and widows into the presence of the emperor and when asked about the church’s treasure, proclaimed, “Come out and see the wondrous riches of God.” He was, of course, then put to death. Tradition says that he was roasted on a fire and that he also had a witty sense of humor. “I’m well done, turn me over!” he is alleged to have said while being killed (thereby becoming the patron saint of the poor and of chefs at the same time). I like this guy.

When Deacon Lawrence proclaimed the poor and the broken as the true treasures of the church, he was echoing Paul.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ESV)

And he was echoing Jesus, who proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor, and who scandalously befriended the sinners, tax collectors, and the demonized rejects.

This area is yet another tension we face as missionaries. We do attract the outcasts. And some of them are remarkably broken. Broken people take a lot of time and investment and while on the slow road of healing can wound many others around them. They are not always the most stable foundation for a new church. I often beg God to bring us stable locals who will not implode our fledgling groups because of their deep trauma and broken pasts. Yes, we are all broken to some degree. And yet we live in a region of the world with very recent (and ancient) scars from war, dictators, genocide, sanctions, and other horrific experiences. It seems as if everyone here is traumatized in one way or another. And this makes church planting in this place at times seem utterly impossible.

What are we to do? An ideal approach would seek to minister to both the outcasts and the leaders, improbable as that initially seems. This much is clear – In the end, we must not hinder the “little children” from coming to Jesus. The kingdom of God belongs to them. It would be just like God to build the foundation of the church among my focus people group on the nobodies and rejects, just like Jesus did 2,000 years ago with his group of motley Galileans. Does this openness to the “rejects and freaks” hinder a movement from taking place? The research may claim this, but I doubt it. That’s just not how the kingdom of God works. If it does prove a hindrance to multiplication, then so be it. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. What genuine believer, after all, could actually choose a movement of Christians that is mainstream and respectable, but not open to the broken and the outcasts? Is this really a better alternative? If I have to choose, I will opt to gather with those who repulse the respectable.

On the last day I would rather stand with the orphans and the widows than with those this world honors. This simply seems to be the route more consistent with the heart of God as displayed in the ministry of Jesus. That may mean we end up less “effective” in the metrics of missiology. But does that really matter when the king returns? Rather, we would be wise to pay attention to how he characterizes the ministry of his true, known, followers: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it unto me” (Matt 20:40).

Photo by Jouwen Wang on Unsplash

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