Outer Circle Churches (Part 5 of 6ish)

[As you can see, this is a multi-post theme and if you might find it helpful to begin at the beginning.]

Here are three more things that distinguish an Outer Circle Church.

An Outer Circle Church runs after the poor, not away from them.

I have some urban missionary friends who recently moved their house ministry from San Francisco across the bay to Oakland, California. These amazing people have an incarnational approach to community transformation, which means they’re committed to submerging themselves in and among the marginalized. And since their neighborhood has all but gentrified (gotten whiter and richer), they’re relocating to Oakland with the poor and the gang bangers that they’ve fallen in love with. What they’re doing is the antithesis of what many churches have done for decades in America. When the neighborhoods around their church facilities become poorer and more ethnically diverse they flee further into safer, more sanitized suburbs. But these guys, instead of running away from social outcasts, they’re chasing them! “Wait, we’ll go with you!” I love it!

Gentrification, where the rich gradually take over a poor neighborhood because the property is cheap and they can garner support from the local government as they clean up the urban blight. The underclass that they displace don’t cease to exist, they move somewhere they can almost afford, leaving their jobs and family support systems behind. In order for new people to move in, the old ones have to move over or move out, preferably way. Someone found a new place and some got displaced!

What this missionary team is doing is sort of the opposite of gentrification. They could have stayed and fit quite nicely into an increasingly upscale and lily-white neighborhood. Instead, they chose to leave the gentrifiers behind and go with their outer circle friends.

While gentrification is an inevitable reality, there are ways for the planners and engineers of it and participants in it to redevelop a neighborhood with compassion. I’m not smart enough or called to do urban development per se, but I call on you who are (i.e. smart and called) to use your informed heads and full hearts to go to an urban area, nearly any American city will do, and contribute to a love-driven and Christ-like gentrification.

In the meantime, don’t run away from, but run after the poor!

An Outer Circle Church doesn’t target or showcase the brightest and most beautiful.

I heard about a church that in order to keep up appearances and impress their typically moneyed television audiences, they literally shuffled the live audience around in order to put the best dressed and better looking people in the front where the cameras would pick them up when panning the audience! That makes me crazy! Maybe at the Academy Awards, but never in the Church!

Outer Circle Churches are equal opportunity families. You don’t have to be a fashion model or be dressed GQ to be on the worship team or make the announcements. This isn’t an American Idol competition. We exist for another purpose.

You probably agree with me on this already, but let me ask you, would you be embarrassed if, on the same day you finally got your neighbor to church, a dozen or so odorous homeless people also came for the first time and sat next to and in front of your guest? Would you give them an after-service disclaimer about it being an unusual occurrence, and that they should come back next week when “those people” won’t be there?

An Outer Circle Church isn’t trying to be the best church in town, but the best church they can be for their town.

Ash Barker, a missionary in one of Bangkok’s poorest neighborhoods, wrote: “In my experience, if there is a church based in a slum, it will nearly always be Pentecostal or charismatic.” He went on to cite some reasons for this, including how these churches tend to teach the priesthood of all believers and encourage all their members to do the work of Jesus. He also says that those churches practice an openness to the Spirit’s work of healing and miracles that the disadvantaged tend to need more than those with access to adequate health care. Being a charismatic myself, I like the sound of this so far. But then Barker went on to make some disturbing observations:

“As the charismatic and Pentecostal wing of the church grows, though, it seems to be seeking more respectability. Their recent move into right-wing politics, grand auditoriums, and celebrity leadership betrays it roots as a movement among the poor. Perhaps this is the inevitable life cycle from a movement to a monument that it once stood for. Many of the evangelical movements that began in the 19th century experienced this institutionalization and are now in steep decline. Yet, this gaining respectability and power by the charismatic church could be a huge loss to the poor. Indeed, it could be the beginning of the end, and the Spirit could move to more open groups, doing something new… again.”

Ouch!

I love what Pope Francis said recently, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Outer Circle Churches begin where Jesus began – at the bottom. He’s not the Messiah exclusive to the Middle Class. His is not a top-down kingdom, but bottom-up.

As much as I like it when a celebrity gives credit to God on national TV for their opportunities and abilities, I’m pretty sure that the testimony of how God has sustained the suffering persona non grata in their darkest hours has an even greater impact. The common person can relate to the sufferer more than the superstar any day.

We don’t need to be the best church in town, but the best church we can be for our town – a church in the heart of the community with the community at heart.

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