"There are no unsacred places. There are only sacred places and desecrated places."
- Wendell Berry
A ministry of presence is a requirement for serving alongside the poor. We must come near to those we desire to serve. We must touch them, and they us. It is not until their problems become our problems that we will ever truly be able to minister. Not in the sense that we care about them so much that their problems burden us emotionally, but rather in the sense that the problems we face in our lives are the same ones they face in theirs. When we suffer the violence of living with corrupt or absent police officers, when our property values drop because of corrupt banking practices, when our schools are failing and our jobs are gone, then we will be trusted to minister.
We will be trusted because we understand. We will be trusted because we have come close enough for the dirt to rub off on us. The cost of ministry is the suffering we experience when we recognize that poverty is a spiritual disease that cannot be healed by “throwing our possessions over a wall at the poor on the other side.”21 The cost of ministry is the suffering we experience when we become poor in order to reach the poor.22 Identification with those whom we serve is inherent to Kingdom ministry. Without walls to protect us, but without walls to divide us,23 we will have come close enough for the Kingdom to rub off of us. Indeed we have become so close that we have become one; no longer ‘my neighborhood’ or ‘your neighborhood’ but rather ‘our neighborhood.’
HOW to HAMMER NAILS
Presence, Interdependence, and Identification
“[T]o ‘do justice’ means to go to places where the fabric of shalom has broken down, where the weaker members of societies are falling through the fabric, and to repair it. This happens when we concentrate on and meet the needs of the poor. How can we do that? The only way to reweave and strengthen the fabric is by weaving yourself into it. Reweaving shalom means to sacrificially thread, lace, and press your time, goods, power, and resource into the lives and needs of others.”
It would seem odd to teach someone how to use a hammer to drive nails when they were already proficient at using a hammer to pull them. It should seem equally odd to teach someone how to serve the poor when they have been a disciple for some long while. Jesus was famously asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He responded with a story of ‘good Jews’ who encountered a destitute and injured man and passed by on the other side, and a Samaritan who responded with compassionate action.20 How might Jesus respond to a world in which ‘good Christians’ don’t even walk the same road as the destitute and injured, and so never have to confront the choices they have made to ‘pass by on the other side?’
The Vineyard emphasizes a balanced rhythm of proclamation and demonstration; teaching people about the Kingdom, and introducing people to the effective power of the King. This however, is done without hype; the power of the Spirit of God is not relegated to special people, special buildings, or special methods or words. The Kingdom of God is breaking through in the lives of ordinary people as they do ordinary things: 1) Ministry in under-resourced communities cannot be contained in weekly gatherings; deep needs and urgent requests bubble over into routine daily activities. The Vineyard teaches people to expect God to move in precisely those places, and equips ‘ordinary saints’ to address those needs as and when they arise. 2) The depth and breadth of devastation that exists in impoverished communities cannot be met solely by ‘social justice’ oriented work (although this too is indispensable); the Spirit must intervene to deliver, heal, convict, empower, and save. 3) Those who engage in ministry among the poor will themselves suffer from ‘secondary trauma’ that requires the ongoing operation of the Spirit’s activity to address. 4) Impoverished communities are the frequent victims of empty promises from the business community, politicians, and churches. “Power-for-a-purpose” praxis creates space for God to be real without any need to ‘hype it up;’ God does indeed move, but does so to accomplish actual transformation. The Vineyard intends to offer ‘power without hype’ instead of ‘hype without power.’
“Everybody Gets to Play”
The Vineyard Movement has taken the ‘Priesthood of All Believers’ to a new level of practical emphasis as we equip church members for ministry outside of the four walls of the church (“the meat is on the street”); and as we give away leadership and authority to those within our churches: 1) The central spiritual realities of poverty are impotence, the attendant shame and despair, the disintegration of the family, and the subsequent coping mechanisms of violence and addiction. The impartation of power, authority, and honor is at the heart of what is needed to heal impoverished communities. 2) Letting broken people engage in ministry is a recipe for disaster, but it is the kind of disaster that Jesus created when he recruited His disciples.17 This Vineyard practice gives us the theoretical orientation, practical framework, and shared experience, to effectively navigate the chaotic process of empowering individuals in impoverished communities.
Intimate WorshipThe tangible experience of the Presence of God as we gather to worship Him is a hallmark of Vineyard praxis: 1) Among economically and socially stable communities the passion generated by experiencing God in such a tangible way can often be harnessed towards directing people into ministry to the broken individuals on the outskirts of their lives; “let worship be the fuel for mission’s flame.”18 In under-resourced communities the situation is reversed; the tangible Presence of God is the indispensable source of sustenance and hope for those overwhelmed by a desperate culture, and the brokenness that cannot be avoided. 2) Urban culture places a high value on music with strong emotional content. While there might need to be some translation from typical Vineyard worship forms into a more culturally appropriate form for the urban setting, the underlying Vineyard values in worship provide a strong platform for cultural relevance.
Vineyard church planting strategies have a long tradition of bi-vocational pastors. This is a radical advantage in ministry among the poor as a temporary planting strategy, but also as a permanent funding strategy for ministry: 1) Under-resourced communities have an inherent mistrust of those they perceive as ‘wealthy.’ Bi-vocational leadership demonstrates a degree of financial struggle on the part of the pastor that assuages this mistrust. 2) Bi-vocational leadership eases the burden on impoverished communities of raising the funds for pastoral salaries. 3) Bi-vocational leadership frees up resources for other ministry endeavors; this is a boon in any setting, but especially in under-resourced communities. 4) Bi-vocational leadership aids pastors in understanding the life and culture of those they are attempting to minister to.
Centered Set EcclesiologyThe Vineyard posture towards outsiders is radically hospitable; “belong before you believe.” Individuals are welcomed into body life ‘as they are’ without any doctrinal or behavioral hurdles erected as prerequisites to participation. This is essential to ministry in impoverished communities in the following ways: 1) Poverty arises from, and contributes to, a disordered life; a bounded-set ecclesiology would either exclude such individuals (by requiring people to jump hurdles they could not yet jump) or incentivise hypocrisy (by prompting people to hide their aberrant behaviors when around others). 2) A “ministry of presence” is implicit within such a model of church life; when we embrace a centered-set model we become focused on ‘being with people.’ This is a requirement for the highly placed-based culture of immobility that arises within under-resourced communities. 3) Urban poverty is marked by racial diversity, spiritual pluralism, and multiculturalism of every kind; the Vineyard ecclesiology (with a posture of hospitality towards those who don’t ‘look the part’) enables us to navigate such turbulence.
The Main and the Plain
The Vineyard has historically de-emphasized theological oddities, unnecessary controversy, confusing topics, and arcane or obscure texts and teachings; opting instead for a practical emphasis on the clear and obvious teaching from Jesus, and the broad narrative of Scripture as a whole: 1) This often brings a credibility to Vineyard teaching in any cultural setting, but this is uniquely important in communities where there is little value for highly intellectual and irrelevant theology. Impoverished communities need to engage with the fundamental realities of the Kingdom, the ‘meat and potatoes’ of repentance and redemption, discipleship and deliverance, faith and freedom.
“Doing What the Father is Doing”Spirit-Led ministry is a practical emphasis in the Vineyard both in personal ministry (ie the Spirit giving me unction for personal guidance) and in community life (the Spirit giving direction to the strategic direction of Church life and ministry): 1) Life and ministry in impoverished communities is marked by instability and a dearth of economic, social, spiritual, and mental resources. Flexibility and ingenuity are essential characteristics for a thriving ministry in such a setting; particularly in entrepreneurial initiative, collaborative partnerships, and creative resourcing strategies. 2) The culture of urban poverty (as well as immigrant and refugee populations typically present in such places) tends toward relational orientation, as opposed to task orientation. The Vineyard operates with a similar ‘relaxed’ orientation. 3) This also breeds a ‘pragmatism’ that aids ministry in under-resourced communities; there is less likelihood of wasting precious resources on initiatives that aren’t bearing fruit.