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God’s mission strategy: Shaming the strong

by on April 1, 2011

I’ve been reading some red-hot words from Paul’s first letter to Corinth:

1:27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are…

God ignores the powerful, rich and wise of the world, and goes instead to the losers: the poor, the weak, the ignorant. They embrace his Son, while the strong laugh or spit at him. And so the meek inherit the kingdom.

In my tradition we do the opposite. We go for the influential, the rich and the educated. We habitually prioritise the upper middle classes, the university educated, the successful. We are constantly hanging around their door, hoping they’ll open up for us. We go begging them to make a little time for God in their busy schedule. We are addicted. Like the nerd at school who hangs around the cool kids, never accepted but always hopeful, we pester the professionals. They despise us, but we never give up hope!

For too long we’ve poured 90+% of our resources into this addiction. It’s a kind of prosperity gospel. Not that Jesus will make you rich: in our version you have to be fairly prosperous before you even get to hear about Jesus!

When are we going to notice that we’re not making any headway with the cool kids? They have not responded. They’re too busy. They don’t need us. They don’t love us. They don’t appreciate our attentions. More than any other group in society, the educated despise both us and the gospel of Jesus we try to tell them.

It’s time we kicked the habit.

If we had spent the past fifty years in Sydney following God’s mission plan in the gospel, imagine what Sydney would look like now. Picture the large, healthy churches in Bankstown, Macquarie Fields, Redfern, Dundas, Cabramatta. Churches committed to reaching the poor, churches who run ministries that connect with migrants, unemployed, elderly, divorced and lonely people. Churches that are generous with good works. Churches full of needy people, people grateful for friendship and love, people with time on their hands. People who aren’t put off by poor personal hygiene and stale-smokey flats. Churches that are a light on a hill in a dark place, drawing lost people to the grace of God in Jesus.

Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe it can still happen in our city. If we could just wake up to ourselves and start listening to the gospel of Jesus. If we could just get over our love-affair with the influential.

So here’s the challenge of the gospel. It’s God’s mission strategy in Christ. The way Paul tells it, it has two definite steps, both important.

Turn away from the successful.

Turn to the nobodies.

Shame the strong. Choose the weak.

Who’s up for it?

From → General

9 Comments
  1. Keith permalink

    Sounds good to me. I think Luke 14:12ff is interesting in this regard also.

  2. First — naturally — Amen. God give us strength.

    But what you have hear is also a strong diagnosis of Sydney Churches that needs some scrutiny.

    First — I know people who think that Sydney Churches do a terrible job with anyone influential — we borate them and tell them to stop doing what they are doing. I’m not saying thats true, but I know some people who are genuinely influential that think that we suck at reaching them!

    Second — there *are* churches in Bankstown, Macquarie Fields, Redfern, Dundas, and Cabramatta. That is the genius of the Anglican System (speaking as an Anglican here). Anglicans have for centuries applied this very verse to their heart and soul and so have created churches in each of those suburbs reaching people as you have outlined it (albeit with some level of frailty and weakness).

    Third — why do you think that these suburbs should have large churches in them if they had obeyed this Scripture? Isn’t that part of the problem? The point is that they are frail, weak etc. Cross-shaped. I reckon its possible to be Corinthian in that way. My mate runs a church in Dundas. And it is a great church – smallish– but it is fair to say that it emulates this verse!

    I’m not criticising. I think that this verse is key! And its not too late to start more of these weak and frail churches for Christs sake. But its already begun, and it began centuries ago!

    But LOVE your enthusiasm. And love trying to apply that verse!

    • Thanks for your comment, Justin. We welcome debate at Canterburychurchplant. Clarity about the state of things is a precious commodity, and so any corrective to our thoughts is appreciated. Thanks too for appreciating my enthusiasm, though I’m not sure if enthusiasm is much of a qualification for making diagnoses. Hardheadness might be more helpful!

      Not sure if you’ve really engaged with my main point about who we put the bulk of our efforts and resources into reaching. I wasn’t suggesting we only had churches in rich areas. It was a comment about our priorities and preferences. You don’t seem to pick up on that.

      You’ve given us a reassuring view of our churches’ approach towards Sydney’s poorer and less desirable areas. Sounds like we’re fairly much on track, and have been for centuries.

      It’s perhaps difficult to sense how hard that is to swallow for anyone who’s involved in one of these areas. Difficult, that is, if you haven’t spent much time there yourself. I can understand how from a distance it might seem that all is well. But even from there, the census and yearbook and churchlife data is available, and the story it tells about Sydney is disturbing in the extreme. What’s needed is data on the bigger picture, not individual instances, which may be atypical.

      It would make this a long comment if I were to provide even part of that data here. Let me just introduce a little of it, by asking a few questions:

      * how many more of our churches in marginalised areas need to close down before you’ll rethink your view? (ask Al at Dundas about the closed church at Telopea)

      * what does it mean that anglican church-members have been at the forefront of the ‘white flight’ syndrome that is still emptying needy areas of evangelical Christians? (check the census stats)

      * how much of our resources do we put into University ministry in Sydney, and how much into TAFE?

      * the churches across the Georges River are disintegrating at an alarming rate – why do you call this ‘cross-shaped’, and why is it that ‘cross-shaped’ looks so different in the rich areas?

      * what does it mean that our most gifted ministers in the past generation overwhelming have chosen churches in wealthier and whiter areas, instead of these small, ‘cross-shaped’ churches?

      These questions reflect just the tip of the data iceberg. I’ve spent the past two years trying to put together the facts, and seeing the reality on the ground. But I’m still trying to come to grips with the situation. I’d be interested in your thoughts about these questions, Justin.

  3. A couple of quick comments — God doesn’t ignore the powerful, rich and wise of the world. He certainly ‘goes for poor, the weak, the ignorant’. But Paul’s point is that ‘not *many* wise’ etc. So some wise and influential. Just not many.

    So that’s one quick response: we are *never* called to ‘Turn away from the successful.’. We are called to ‘Turn to the nobodies’, but not to ‘turn away from the successful’ . That’s God’s call – his judgement. And he freely invites the rich *and* the poor. But, if I read Jesus correctly, it is the rich who ignore him, not him who ignores the rich.

    So — thats worth saying.

    Second — I don’t deny that Sydney Churches have resourced the wealthier areas and the Universities. And this is surely something worth scrutinising. Maybe with the fire. Like the early churches, there were richer ones and poorer ones. No denying that. The comment is made by both Paul and John that the richer ones are in fact poorer, and the poorer ones are richer! And so perhaps a deep repentance needs to happen — which you appear to be calling for. And perhaps not perhaps.

    I pray for what you pray for.

    My point is simple: There are cross shaped churches there (just like the Canterbury Plant) — Small grateful people, rambling buildings, rambling people, the ‘nothings’. etc. In other words — they are the ones God sees. They are the ones God may yet use to shame the strong. Maybe they already are.

    I was responding to your comment that if we truly believed this passage, then Bankstown, Macquarie Fields, Redfern, Dundas, and Cabramatta would have big vibrant churches.

    I don’t think thats what Paul was saying.

    I think that Redfern (I know Matthew Johnson) is already a cross shaped. And God is using it in his way.

    May 1 Cor 1 be true for us.

    PS I spoke to Al through the closing of Telopea. Hard yards. Can I also say that the North Shore has church buildings that are derelict or closing up? Just worth saying.

    • Sounds like we are agreed at key points, Justin. Let’s keep praying for that radical change of heart in our churches.

      The thing about churches being large was just part of an imaginative exercise – I was wondering what Sydney would look like if our evangelical heartland was marginalised Sydney, not successful Sydney. You don’t seem to like the suggestion that churches resourced and orientated towards the poor would have attracted large numbers of needy people over fifty years. I think it’s likely they would. Moot point, because the experiment hasn’t been tried. Most of the resources went elsewhere.

      A remaining point of disagreement is about whether there are two sides to God’s strategy. You say:

      God doesn’t ignore the powerful, rich and wise of the world.

      I would say, ‘ignore’ doesn’t go far enough. According to Paul, God actively shames them and brings them to nothing. God chooses the weak – instead of the strong. This is their shaming. They grasped the world and devoured it, but in the end the meek inherit it instead. Jesus taught his disciples to apply this to their mission work: those who reject and ridicule the gospel, are not to be pursued and wooed forever. There comes a time to ‘shake the dust off your feet’ and move on. In fact Jesus calls his message ‘good news for the poor’. Paul acts this out over and over when he repeatedly turns his back on the privileged ‘insiders’ in the synagogue and goes to the ignorant Gentile idolators – and as he says ‘they will listen!’

      What complicates all this for us is that we ourselves come from the privileged classes…

  4. Hey jonathan

    Coming from the inner city which full of both the rich and poor I have loved your’s and Justin’s thoughts.

    Regarding ‘the experiment has never been tried,’ I remember reading up on RBS Hammond last year and discovered an evangelical anglican with a social conscience and burden to save souls and plant churches among both the rich and poor. By God’s grace he succeeded at both. In fact, it is pretty clear that the rich became the benefactors for fruitful ministry to the poor – exactly what you are advocating.

    • Toby! thanks for the comments, nice to know you’re out there reading…

      RBS Hammond is a hero of mine. He did more than the rest of the diocese put together to help the poor at a time of great need. And he did it in the name of Jesus. What a gospel man! Word and deed together.

      My comment about how we’ve never tried it was more at a city-wide level (as were all my comments in this post). There have been individual churches that have bucked the trend, thank God. But we’ve never tried what would happen if we as a city reversed our commitment to reaching the privileged and put most of our efforts into the un-privileged of Sydney. I’m trying to imagine what it would look like if our most talented ministers had gone west and south-west instead of north and south. Imagine if AFES focussed most of its efforts into TAFEs not Unis in sydney. Imagine if our dominant model for ministry was RBS Hammond at Barnies, and not Howard Guiness at Barnies. It’d be…like…

      …like Jesus.

      All the best in your inner city ministry, Tobes.

  5. ‘If we would fire a building, it is best to light it at the basement; so our Saviour, when he would save a world, and convert men of all classes, and all ranks, begins at the lowest rank, that the fire may burn upwards, knowing right well that what was received by the poor, will ultimately by his grace be received by the rich also.’

    C H Spurgeon – http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0114.htm (Preaching for the Poor, Matt 11:5)

    • Classic Spurgeon in every way! The colour, the naughtiness (firing a building!) the big heart for the poor. Brilliant!

      And completely the opposite to the ‘trickle-down’ strategy we use around here. Convert the powerful, and the weak will surely follow. Only the powerful don’t want to be converted, and the weak, well, no one much ever gets around to them.

      Lord send us many with Spurgeon’s heart to begin the massive task of reaching Sydney’s poor.

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