Ministry with a Small Church of the Anawim
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The audience then were people near and dear to Jesus’s heart. The identity of these people who gathered to hear the master tell them how kingdom inhabitants would look, think, and act, is something I learned only recently. They were the Anawim (Ah-Nah-Weem), the Hebrew word for those who had been left behind.
Who were the Anawim? They were the descendants of the ones who had no value to Israel’s captors. They were the infirm, the handicapped, the very old and the very young, the ugly, the poor and destitute. They had little to no value and, because of their infirmities and age, they were left behind to die the agonizing death of starvation. Yet they survived. And they multiplied, though their social standing seldom rose above “less than” status. Others didn’t value them, but Jesus did. So much so that his kingdom was their kingdom.
Recognizing the audience gives new meaning to the biblical narrative and God’s plans and purposes for the church. The good news is no longer taught as a means of gathering and building treasures on earth but becomes what it was always meant to be: a victory message that death has finally been defeated. Jesus delivered that message to those who, even today, are seen as having little or no value in society.
My friend Tim walks with a gait and has spasmodic arm and hand movements that are reminiscent of someone with cerebral palsy. Sometimes it seems that he might topple over were it not for some unseen force that keeps him upright. He is extremely intelligent despite the brain damage resulting from a car accident two decades ago.
Tim once had the whole world ahead of him, with a life similar to most other middle-class young adults: a house, a wife, a child on the way, a car, a job. and several good friends. The American dream. Until the day he let a friend drive his car. A quick jerk of the steering wheel at a high speed, and life as Tim knew it was over. Multiple times during the three months he spent in a coma, his family was called to his bedside for fear that he would soon pass away. But he survived.
Tim has been single now for many years and lives in a small travel trailer with an uncle who cares for him. His son plays college baseball on a scholarship. Tim doesn’t talk much about what happened to his marriage or his life. He has been on disability for two decades; a fixed income that pays the rent on an RV lot and little else.
Tim is one of several people I’ve met who fall into the category of “sheltered homeless.” They are people living on the edge with little hope of ever having anything better. And for the majority of these people, what shelter they have will disappear by this time next year. The rising cost of housing will take its toll, and those on fixed incomes will find themselves among the thousands of others living on the streets.
Throughout Scripture it is clear that God has a special affinity for the poor, the downtrodden, the castaways, the left behind, the Anawim. In Matt. 5:3 Jesus calls them blessed, recipients of the kingdom of heaven, and in Luke 4:18 he declares that he was anointed to preach good news to the poor and to proclaim liberty to the oppressed, the Anawim. In Matt. 25:31-46 Jesus explains that we will be judged based on how we treat those of lesser means—whatever we do (or don’t do) to the poor among us, we do (or don’t do) to him. And 1 John says that we cannot say we love God if we, having all that we need, close our hearts against our brothers and sisters who are without. And therein lies the dilemma.
At a time when smaller churches in this nation struggle to stay alive, one has to wonder why. I believe the reasons are complex yet simple: far too many of us are trying to serve two masters. Regardless of Jesus’s statement that we cannot serve God and money. Too many Christians have built up treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy. They’ve accepted a false gospel of prosperity as being the truth to convince themselves of the legitimacy of their idolatrous ways.
Far too many Christians are striving to service a debt created by their desire to have the best of everything. Status, prestige, and social rank have taken priority over the plight of the people living in tents, under freeway overpasses, and inside dumpsters. Far too many Christians can’t help because they have become indentured slaves to their master: money.
I’ve asked hundreds of people to help us through donations and time as we work to serve the Lord by serving the Anawim of this nation. Frequently their response is something like, “We’d love to help but don’t have the money to spare. But we’ll pray for you.” Yet as I look at the material wealth they have built around themselves, I see the lie for what it is.
I believe the primary reason so many congregations are experiencing decline and death is because we, like the first-century churches, have forgotten our first love: God. Though the argument of “we do love God!” will always be raised in defiance, the rebuttal is quite clear in 1 John: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”
The church of the living God cannot die. But the church of the prosperity gospel, the church of “The American Dream,” seldom lasts for more than a few generations. Is your church struggling to keep the doors open? Could it be that the problem is that you’ve forgotten your first love?
Jesus said, “Go and sell all that you have. Give the proceeds to the poor. And come follow me.” It comes down to asking ourselves a very basic question: “Did Jesus mean what he said?” If so, then we’re doing church wrong. Eternal life is free to all who are willing to pay the price.