For the City has had the privilege to speak with church leaders and local mission pastors from all over the country and the same question is always asked. The questions phrasing often changes, but the heart is the same: How do I motivate my church to care for the marginalized? For most churches the problem is a combination of time, lack of proximity to the marginalized, age, or simply sin. The reasons vary from church to church. What is always most surprising to us is that the solutions rarely take into consideration the most important and most basic truth.
Churches Often Don’t Care for the Marginalized Because...They Don't Want To
Though the header may sound provocative, the sad reality is that church members rarely do anything they don’t want to. Until this point is acknowledged, no social media campaign, sermon series, or small group curriculum will change a church member’s heart and mind. Christians do not serve their city, volunteer to serve in Sunday ministries, tithe, or take any steps in serving the church body or the marginalized because they don't want to. A lack of desire is such an obvious reason that it often goes overlooked.
When it comes to local mission, we know that people don't want to serve, so we try to make serving easier to say yes to. Instead of casting vision, sharing compelling stories, and help our people gain proximity to and perspective on the experiences of the marginalized, we simply lower the bar to local missionary engagement. Some of the ways we lower the bar to engage in local mission are:
- We tell our people mission is easier if you do it in a large group.
- Serving the marginalized can be done in one day and it will be fun!
- We make the signup process easy and ask very little of our people.
- We do everything we can to not make our people feel uncomfortable.
- After making the bar as low as possible and focusing on the comfort and convenience of our people we cheer and celebrate what a great sacrifice and achievement the day was.
Is this really the call Jesus has for His Church? Is this really what loving our neighbor should look like before he returns? We hope not. Before we can start moving to action steps we have to ask the most important question in understanding the problem.
Why don't people want to take action?
When it comes to local mission our For the City team is more and more convinced that Christians don't want to serve the marginalized because they don't care about them. Let’s demonstrate the point, if a pastor were to ask their church members, “do you care about the marginalized?” Most congregants will say, “yes,” and believe their answer is honest at least on a philosophical or ideological level. However, if that pastor were to ask a follow up question, “Can you share a few ways you are caring for the marginalized?” In all likelihood congregants will respond with a wide-eyed blank stare, or stutter through a non-answer as they anxiously look around. To be fair, the lack of care and empathy for the marginalized is a multifaceted issue. There are multiple factors contributing to Christians not wanting to care for the marginalized. Here are three:
1. Christians Lack Proximity to the Marginalized: Our society has made it easier than ever to live our entire lives without actually seeing or having to engage with the marginalized. As a result, most people can't imagine or empathize in any way with the experiences of the marginalized. Because of distance and a lack of proximity, it is almost impossible to care and empathize with the marginalized.
2. Christians Lack Clear Understanding of the Problems that Lead to Marginalization: Because of our lack of proximity to the marginalized the only narratives Christians often hear about these people groups are negative stereotypes or misinformation from cable news pundits.
3. Christians Don’t Know How to Help Without Hurting: Another reason Christians often don’t want to care for the marginalized is because moving toward the hurting is daunting. The complexities that come with engaging the marginalized is a massive web of tangles that is often overwhelming to the point of paralysis.
The Goal of the Local Missions Leader
Most often churches put the weight of understanding the marginalized, knowing how to untangle the webs of complexities, and creating clear pathways to engagement on the shoulders of the local mission pastor. Of course that’s along with running the youth group, leading small groups, or mobilizing Christians to international missions.
As difficult as it may feel, the goal of the local mission pastor should not be to make serving easier. The first and most important issue the local mission pastor must address is the hearts of their church members. The Goal of the Local Missions Leader is primarily to help people see and understand the marginalized. Before you ever “do” anything, you must first help your people “see” something the Holy Spirit won’t let their hearts and eyes unsee. Until this happens, no amount of well crafted strategy will lead to mass mobilization.
I get to serve as Executive Director of For the City. I wear a lot of hats around here, and my favorite is cultivating the skillset of each team member to create the things you need to meet the unique needs of your city. My wife Becca and I live with our three kids in East Austin, and I am passionate about helping the church engage in the margins of their cities.