Sunday, February 25, 2024

Five Things We Will Not Do

by Ben Hein
356 views 10 minute read

Every time we treat someone with dignity rather than shame, respect rather than disregard, concern rather than exploitation, kindness rather than brutality, and careful attention rather than turning away, we are doing things that are the reverse of trauma and evil.
-Dr. Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power

Not self-justification, which means the use of domination and force, but justification by grace, and therefore service, should govern the Christian community.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

As we expand our ministry vision for a new church plant on the Near Westside of Indianapolis, we are finding that some of our most deeply held convictions are colliding with certain assumptions and expectations within the White evangelical subculture. Not all our differences are a matter of right and wrong, of course. However, we think it unfortunate that so many of our convictions have been misunderstood or even resisted.

We want to invite you into our journey as we grow an imagination for what cross-cultural, urban ministry might (or ought to) look like. This article explains some of our convictions with five commitments to things we will not do in our ministry. While it is only a snapshot of where we are and how we got here, consider these ideas an invitation into conversation and accountability as this new church grows and takes shape.

We will not speak in ways that take dignity away from our neighbors.

As I’ve listened to missionaries and church planters over the years, I have become well-acquainted with presentations which use the struggles and injustices of a community to motivate giving and support for the ministry. Such messages might sound something like this

“Look at all that is wrong in our community. Look at the violence. We have drugs. Here is everything wrong with our families. And where are the churches? They’re clearly not doing a good enough job. Our community needs Christians who are willing to make a difference. What are you willing to give to make this ministry possible?”

These messages have become normalized, even expected, in our White evangelical subcultures. We don’t think they should be.

There is a place, of course, for speaking to the curses of sin on a community. We need prayer for our people and places. Burdens must be shared. Common causes must be taken up. All of this is right and good.

However, when our motivations become tied to using guilt for giving, we are stealing dignity from our neighbors to make a name for ourselves. Our words give the impression that there is little beauty in our community, little to value, little to love. But if Jesus made our places and created our neighbors in his image, then there is always much to celebrate!

When you hear us speak of the Near Westside of Indianapolis, we want you to hear about the places and people who Jesus loves. We want to tell you about our hidden art alley, the restoration of Belmont Beach, and the best sunrises you’ll find in the whole city. We want to tell you about the empanadas at Che Chori’s, the fresh produce at Carniceria Guanajato, and the great meal you’ll have at Lete’s Injera and Café. We want you to hear stories of strength and resilience from our neighbors.

In short, because we believe that Jesus created and treasures the Near Westside, we will use our words to speak life and beauty into our community, not death and woe. We cannot be ambassadors of reconciliation when we rob people of their God-given dignity and value.

We will not exploit other’s personal stories. 

In 1855, the abolitionist John Fee estimated that ministers of the gospel and Protestant church members owned 660,563 slaves. In fact, it was not just individual Christians who owned slaves, but local churches as institutions owned slaves for the purpose of paying the ministers’ salaries through their labors. This relieved congregants of the responsibility of paying tithes and offerings themselves (Kwon and Thompson, Reparations, 117). Christians could avoid getting involved in the ministry by unjustly exploiting the bodies of slaves to make church life comfortable.

A common expectation in fundraising is that stories of lives changed in the ministry will be shared as evidence for a fruitful ministry. Such stories move hearts, as pictures of individuals are put on screens and intimate details of lives are shared.

We understand that there is a place and time for giving testimony to what Jesus is doing. However, we are uncomfortable when such intimate details are attached to giving asks and ministry branding. These stories belong to the individuals themselves, not to spectators and random audiences. Even when permission to share stories is sought, the undue pressure it can give – especially to new converts or those who are used to being exploited – isn’t worth it.

Furthermore, in a diverse context like ours, such sharing of intimate stories cannot be separated from the legacy of White Christians who have used Black and Brown bodies for their own profits. As much as we are able, we will put an end to this legacy. Our neighbors are not for sale.

We will be very slow to publicly share personal details of those we minister to in our communities. We will not showcase pictures of our neighbors online or in presentations. If you want to know more details about our ministry, come join us or take us at our word. We know this will make funding more challenging. So be it.

As one of my mentors recently told me, “You don’t need to pimp people on a screen for money.” We won’t do it.

We will not put down other churches.

At a recent prayer gathering for our church plant, I cautioned our supporters that we can never adopt a prideful, egotistic attitude about our ministry. Jesus doesn’t need us on the Near Westside, but has graciously invited us in. Even as we pray for our ministry, we should expect that Jesus will answer our prayers through other churches instead of us. When he does, he will be just as worthy of praise and celebration. We must never begin to think that we are better or more important than any other ministry.

We’re tired of churches and pastors who make a living out of putting other churches down. Church plants too often make a name for themselves by telling people how they’re going to do things different and better than the existing churches in their community. What a bunch of godless nonsense!

In the context of predominantly White churches speaking ill of ethnic minority churches, such attitudes are laced with a kind of White supremacy which dismisses the faith and contributions of those who we have sinfully disregarded for far too long.

We know that putting down other churches is an easy sell, but we won’t do it. We’re going to strive for a posture of humility, seeking to learn from those who have been here long before us. We’re going to pray earnestly for the other churches in our community and celebrate their ministries as much as our own. The Apostle Paul knew how to plant churches and strengthen existing ones (Acts 15:41). We want out presence to do the same. True revival and renewal on the Near Westside of Indianapolis will at least be marked by greater unity and love among our churches.

We’ll never get there when we’re using put downs for profit.

We will not make people both a means and an end.

As we develop our core values for the ministry, one value you might expect to see is something related to being a diverse, multi-ethnic, or cross-cultural church. We have intentionally decided not to use such language to describe our ministry values.

We’ve found that while many predominantly White churches have the best of intentions in being multi-ethnic/inter-cultural, these desires are often stated without a clear vision of how to get there. As such, the fact of being multi-ethnic becomes both a means and end, as if we can achieve diversity simply by saying we’re diverse. At worst, this can create a culture where BIPOC church members are used to present a certain image of a church which is different from the reality.

In addition, we recognize that this language would be incredibly offensive to many of our neighbors. We would be arrogant to think we could not only be new residents in the neighborhood trying to start a church, but that we could also quickly bring everyone together under some new cross-cultural umbrella without earning trust, building relationships, and investing in our community for the long haul.

We believe that a truly multi-ethnic/inter-cultural church is the result of a just, patient, loving ministry which seeks the good of all those who live in the community. There is no doubt that this is one of our deepest desires for our church. However, if God should choose to bless the ministry in this way, it will be the slow, patient fruit of a just people loving their community.

Anything less is a counterfeit.

We will not make it all about our brand.

I’ll be the first to admit that Redeemer for the Near Westside is not the best ministry name. It’s a mouthful that even I don’t enjoy saying! More significantly, people often confuse us simply for Redeemer Near Westside, a satellite campus of Redeemer downtown. This often gives the impression that we will be nothing more than an extension which copies the existing Redeemer church in its entirety.

There is no doubt that we did not make the best marketing decision. This too was intentional! Our current ministry name, mouthful aside, communicates exactly who we are: a ministry sent by Redeemer downtown for the Near Westside. This is not a church name, and we have no plans to select a name for our church any time soon.

Our hope is that a new church will naturally grow out of our ministry efforts in our community. As people from the neighborhood join this ministry, they will take ownership of the church: its values, its philosophy, and even its name. We intend for the future members of our church to name the church. After all, it will belong to them.

A name may seem like a small thing, but this has been just one way for us to communicate – and remind ourselves – that this ministry isn’t about us. It’s all about Jesus and what he is doing for the Near Westside!

We don’t want a brand and snazzy marketing. We don’t want our neighbors to first find out about us because we’ve worked hard to get our name out there. We believe that before anything else, Christians in a community must first be known by their service. This necessitates a patient, long-term ministry model with emphasis on building trust and mutual care.

We’re not here to make a name for ourselves, we want to show you Jesus!

These convictions are, at their root, built on the beliefs of what it looks like to love our neighbor in our particular context. They are not perfect, and we will not hold them perfectly. Our hope is that by them we might make a love known which flows out of the heart that Jesus has for our community.

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