“forget about evangelism”

“Forget about evangelism,” Larry told us.

I was shocked. Jim blurted, “I cant!”

“Well, you’re a good Campbellite,” Larry said.

Jim Clark (Director, Christian Service Center), Chrissy and I were meeting with Larry James, CEO of Central Dallas Ministries. We drove over to tour and learn from one of the most effective and cutting-edge justice ministries in evangelical Christian circles. CDM started as a clothes closet run by white suburbanites, and now their clothes closet &emdash; which is run by folks from the neighborhood who utilize the non-profit’s services &emdash; is the smallest thing they do for Dallas’ poor. The clothes closet expanded to medical and dental clinics, law offices, a community center, a church, and two affordable housing units (with one more on the way), among other things. Larry said things started rolling for CDM when he asked the people of the neighborhood what their needs were instead of assuming he knew.

But when Jim asked Larry about the synthesis of justice and evangelism, Larry’s answer surprised us.

“You’re not going to like this answer, but forget about evangelism.”

Gerald Britt, the executive director of CDM, was sitting in on our conversation with, and apparently noticed that Jim and I were struggling with Larry’s statement.

“Evangelism is best done in relationships,” Gerald chimed in. He added that many who want to serve the poor simply assume that because someone is in poverty, they don’t know Jesus. Larry added that in all the years he has worked at Central Dallas Ministries, he had maybe encountered five people who didn’t “claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior.” Admittedly, this definition of “knowing Jesus” is broad, Larry said, but the principle is generally true: We think that if someone is poor, they can’t be a Christian (and sometimes even think that they are poor because they aren’t a Christian).

They have a point. We aren’t rushing down to our Kiwanis Club or school board meetings with tracks and Bibles to “evangelize our middle- and upper-class friends.” I also understand where Larry and Gerald are coming from with regards to forgetting about evangelism. I don’t think they are advocating forgetting about being the incarnation of Jesus with people, but suggesting we forget about “doing evangelism” the way we’ve done it. They are advocating a focus on community formation, from which discipleship can occur. Larry found that when the locals from the neighborhood began running his food pantry, a community formed. He said that the church CDM started tripled in size when they gave the pantry to the community because people felt like they were “at church” all week.

Sometimes I think all we (meaning many Christian non-profit agencies “serving the poor”) are doing is congratulating ourselves for “serving the poor,” unconcerned with their everyday plight or walking with them as friends. We lock them in their holding cell while they wait “to be seen.” We secretly resent many of them for continuing to return to our agencies for help. We distrust them, fearing that they will make off with something that isn’t theirs or worse, assault one of our volunteers. When it comes down to it, many of us view the poor as less than human. But we still love to decorate our corkboard with all the newspaper clippings that inform our town of all the good we’re doing.

I don’t think Larry wasn’t saying “forget about God” or “don’t say anything about Jesus.” He was saying that when “evangelism” (in the traditional, “I have something to offer you” sense) is the focus, we will always be at arm’s length from the people Jesus loves most. When we look at people who might have a little less than we do in terms of their needs (what they are missing), we’ll never notice their assets (what they have to offer).

So here’s a recipe for “evangelism” that seems to be working in Dallas:

Create community. Make friends. Love the poor. This is the way of Jesus.

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