A foundational belief that I have which informs every facet of the ministry God has called me to is that the gospel transforms people and places, for the fame of Jesus and the benefit of the city. Throughout the last 16 years or so, for me, this has included the gospel expressed through both word and deed, sometimes with an emphasis on one or the other, sometimes with an attempt at simultaneous duality.
When the rubber meets the road, the question seemingly keeps coming back to, “What does transformation look like?” What does it do for people in both physical and spiritual ways? I think the spiritual in this case is actually easier, as the bible tends to spell it out with more detail. The old becomes new, and the new isn’t a better version of the old, but an entirely new creation; one with a new identity, a new ministry and a new message (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). The complication then, lends itself to the physical. In other words, what does transformation of the heart, flesh itself out as, in the person and in the place in which the person exists?
Even if not an answer, I may have found some insight. The little drawing above (credited to Noel Castellanos, President of Christian Community Development Association, @NoelCCDA) has given me, at least some insight to the equation. While it might not have provided a slew of really good answers, it feels like it’s moved me toward the right questions. That’s a start. Let me see if I can explain it a little, and start to digest some of its implications.
Incarnation – The gospel, of course, starts with incarnation – God coming to dwell with us, in our mess, in our brokenness. We, in turn, express the same ministry that Jesus has given us in incarnational ways. Once we “incarnate” ourselves within a particular community, or industry, or whatever, it should reverberate out in at least 4 distinct areas which lead to transformation, not only of the person (spiritual), but also of the place (physical).
First is in Proclaimation and Formation. No transformative movement can take place without the simultaneous proclaimation of the gospel (word and deed) and formation of the disciple (through training and life-on-life discipleship). The local church is okay at this; but most of us stop here, assuming some sort of trickle-down-transformation.
Second is in Compassion. This is where the gospel itself meets real needs. If the gospel can redeem people through heart regeneration, then it can also redeem places through city and/or community transformation. The emphasis here is transformation. That’s the old becoming new. It’s the old way and reality dying, and the new one coming to life. The really tough part here is figuring out how to not get stuck on our work with the poor, for instance, taking place in such a way that they always remain recipients. That is, true gospel-oriented Compassion ministry should be transformative, not transactional. This is a difficult code to crack, and takes an emence amount of dedication on the part of those participating in Compassion ministry. To be transparent, my brain has taken up residence here and is trying to figure out what this looks like for the particular place I’m in at the moment. I’m losing sleep trying to figure out this secquence of moving the state of Compassion from band-aids to “unleashing the power of the poor”. Giving credit to Claude Alexander, you can see a glimpse of this sequence in a story found in Acts 3:5-8. They Proclaimed the gospel, they Reclaimed the man from his afflication, and they Incorporated him into the process. He became a part of the team. All three of these steps are profoundly important.
Third is Development. The example to look at here is found in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah, and the work that he mobilized people into, didn’t just ignite a people in their awareness and understanding of God; it renewed a city, making the city a better place to live. Again, the gospel doesn’t stop at renewing people, it moves forward to renew places.
Last is the Confrontation of Injustice. Ah, here is where it goes next level. Confrontation of Injustice means a concerted effort, not just to relieve the effects of poverty, but includes clear action against its cause. In this context, emergency assistance can’t end with food and clothing. It has to start there, and move towards alleviating the need for assistance with food and clothing, through education, job training, skills development and a host of other emphases. How can the church address the effects of need, and not go after the cause itself? I don’t believe a holistic application of the gospel, in people and in places, would allow this. For this to work, we have to think beyond programs and toward relationships.
Within each of these categories must be movement toward the others. Proclamation and formation can’t end with benching players in the church, but must move them towards Compassion. Compassion for the person must also involve Compassion for the place, in the form of Development. And Development cannot stop there, but must press into a Confrontation of Injustice that focuses not only on the effects, but also the causes of poverty. Then the cycle continues on towards more Proclaimation, Formation and so on.
As usual, I propose more questions than answers. Much prayer and thought are needed, along with the churches in a city to band together as a united front and express the gospel throughout the entire body; from the mouthpiece all the way down to the hands and the feet that care for and walk alongside her city.