“If you engage in a geographically centered mission in an affluent area, how will you care for the poor and welcome them into your community?” — @BradAWatson
I saw that tweet right before bed and it kept me up most of the night. It's something I’ve wrestled with because I live and serve in an affluent community. How do you care for the poor and welcome them into your community if you live in a wealthy area?
The Bible tells us that God’s people are blessed so that they can be a blessing to others. That means our affluence should be used for influence.
The Biblical Mandate
God’s plan since the beginning has been to bless the world through his people. In the garden, Adam and Eve were told to be fruitful and multiply and to cultivate the world, making it a more perfect place (Gen. 1:28). God promised Abraham he would bless him and make him into a great nation, but that blessing was intended to flow into all the nations of the earth (Gen. 12:2-3). Abraham’s fruitfulness would be a blessing to his family, but it was primarily intended to become a blessing to all the families of the world.
This broader theme of blessing the world through one people carries over into God’s plan for Israel. At the same time, God’s heart for the poor is revealed throughout the Old Testament in passages such as Psalm 72:13, “He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.” More than the just the poor, we see God’s soft spot widened to include widows, orphans, refugees, and others, such as in Deuteronomy 10:18, “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.”
The fullest display of God’s heart for the poor was incarnated in Jesus, who was born into a poor family. His statements about caring the poor were provocative and shocking, like when he said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Lk. 6:20, 24). Jesus goes further to say that putting our money in earthly possessions is foolish when all of it will come to an end. Instead, Jesus says,
Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. – Luke 12:33
Perhaps Jesus’ most striking words about caring for the poor are found in Matthew 25:31-46, where he says that neglecting to care for the poor is the same as neglecting to care for him. Those who neglect the poor will then hear these words from Jesus,
Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. – Matthew 25:41-43
Clearly, Jesus expects his followers to use their blessings to bless others. For many of us, Jesus’ teaching should directly affect how we think about and use our affluence.
Own your affluence
Many of us don't think of ourselves as affluent. However, none of the worldwide statistics support this thinking.
At the same time, not everyone reading this is making ends meet, and I get that. I really do. I coordinate pastoral care and benevolence for my church, so I know people are struggling. Just because I live in an affluent area doesn't mean everyone around me is well off.
But for those of us who have a roof over our head, food in the fridge, and air conditioning keeping us comfortable, we need to own our affluence. Once we’ve done that, it’s time to start putting feet to our faith. Here are some ways to do that.
Spend time with the poor
If we want to care for the poor and invite them into our lives and communities, we have to spend time them. The biggest hurdle to caring for the poor in affluent areas is insulation—intentionally or unintentionally closing ourselves off. We don’t have to continue living this way this way though.
Even in a wealthy town like mine, there is almost always an organization, church, or non-profit that is serving the poor and working poor. Seek them out. Give them time and resources. Join their cause. As you read earlier, in Matthew 25 Jesus equated spending time with the poor to spending time with him.
We can't minister to people we don't understand. We can’t welcome people we don’t know. We must be serving the poor where they are.
Open your home
Here's something that would make a splash in your affluent neighborhood: invite a poor person or family to move into your home. Why don't more of us consider this?
Jesus' teaching is laden with instructions to care for the poor, minister to the down and out, and to be hospitable to the stranger. Particularly in the suburbs, many people have homes with extra bedrooms, bonus rooms, and basements, so why not use those homes for ministry?
The early church got a lot of things wrong, but this they got right. “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47 ESV).
Using houses as ministry bases has been a part of the church since the very beginning. Just because we live in an individualistic age doesn't mean we should be exempt from that history. Thankfully, we're living in a time where this ministry form is having a bit of a renaissance.
Move to the "poor part of town"
Here's another counter-cultural idea that would raise eyebrows in your affluent area: sell your house and move closer to the "poor part of town."
Every town and city has at least one area like this. In our affluence we actively avoid living close to these area citing crime, poor schools, and sagging real estate prices. These sound reasonable enough until you ask yourself if those would sound like good reasons to Jesus.
What kind of witness to the name of Jesus would it be if more believers sold their homes, moved closer to poverty, and used their affluence to enrich the lives of those around them?
A pretty compelling one if you ask me. And it sounds dangerously close to the early Christianity we all claim to long for.
Cultivate church gatherings that welcome the poor
Ask yourself: If I were to bring a poor person to church with me on Sunday, what would their experience be like? Would they stand out? Would they be welcomed? Would anyone talk to them? Would the service make sense to them?
These might be tough questions, depending on your answers, but we should be asking them. If we're surrounded by affluence, over time we'll only be able to relate to affluence, and everything we do will assume people come from the same background.
This mindset makes social diversity much more difficult and weakens our communities. Community thrives in diversity, not homogeneity. We should always be seeking to cultivate a community that welcomes people no matter where they fall on the income spectrum, particularly within the body of Christ.
James 2 harshly condemns partiality towards the rich over the poor when the church is gathered. If the poor aren’t welcome in the gathering of the body then there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the kingdom of God: “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5 ESV).
The Church should be marked by a counter-cultural blending of people; a people that no longer think in societal hierarchies or act according to cultural norms. The day of Pentecost brought together people from countries and people groups that actively hated each other, yet the world was turned upside down by the way they loved one another.
Could our churches facilitate this same counter-culture today?
Throw a party
In Luke 14:13, Jesus says we’ll be blessed when we invite people to our parties who can’t afford to pay us back. Why not throw a party for the poor in your area? Feed them a meal, give them space to rest and to laugh. Gather your friends or some churches and throw a banquet for the poor in your area where everything is free. Provide food, dental clinics, healthcare, and free clothing stores. Blessing people that way doesn’t make any sense according to the world, but it makes a lot of sense according to Jesus’ teaching.
Ecclesia Houston does something called a "simple feast" where they gather to share a pot-luck style meal with their homeless brothers and sisters. No money required, you just show up. Oh, and they do it every week.
Churches in wealthy areas often have facilities that are well-equipped to do this sort of thing. Why not use them to serve the poor and integrate them into the community?
The hardest part would be getting the word out to those who would benefit from it, but surely that's something that could be addressed through networking with other organizations and churches in your area.
Use your affluence for influence
When God blessed Israel, He had other nations in mind that He wanted to bless through them. Yes, it was about Israel enjoying the blessings too, but God was primarily interested in spreading His glory throughout the nations by blessing the world through Israel. The same is true of the Church today.
Owning our affluence should lead us to ask why we have resources. Why, out of all the places in the world, were you born in this country, and live in your town or city? It might just be that your affluence isn’t meant for you alone. Instead of seeing that affluence as something we should hold on to, it’s time to start seeing it as something we should give away.
Use your affluence for influence. But use it for the right kind of influence – the kind that brings flourishing and healing to our towns and city. The kind of influence that lifts up those around you and makes everyone better.
Grayson Pope is a husband and father of three. He serves as Pastor of Community at his church in Charlotte, NC and is currently pursuing a MACS at The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Grayson's Passion is to equip believers for everyday discipleship to Jesus.