Christians throughout the world devote their lives to fulfill the Great Commission. With deep love and faithful endurance, followers of Christ obey his command to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19, 20). We go into the world with a message of salvation and reconciliation for all people groups.
Discipling Is a Process
Discipling is a process. It is a continual turning and transformation from our selfish desires and worldly passions to what is now our greatest desire, to fully follow our Savior with love and devotion. We become a new creation and are to be made into a new person. We come to believe the good news and at baptism we are born again. We begin a new relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As new creations we must learn how to live our new life. We turn from our old ways of living and form new patterns of thinking and new behaviors of responding. We grow in our relationship with the Lord and learn to walk in his will and obey his commands.
God Cares for the Poor
But how does the Great Commission guide the average American Christian in making disciples among the urban poor? We know God loves the poor and extends his grace to them to save, redeem, and strengthen. God’s concern for the poor is seen throughout Scripture. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat” (Isaiah 25:4). We are to be pure and right in our attitude toward the poor, for “Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker” (Proverbs 17:5a). We are to imitate our heavenly Father and his compassion. One characteristic of a noble wife is that “she opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy” (Proverbs 31:20).
During his ministry on earth Jesus displayed amazing signs of his Messiahship. He pointed out to the disciples of John the Baptist the things they had seen and heard: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Luke 7:22). Notice one hallmark of Christ’s ministry was that “the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Let us also proclaim the good news to the poor.
The book of Acts makes reference to Tabitha, a disciple who “was always doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36). James strongly challenged the church not to show favoritism to the rich at the expense of the poor. Our culture often makes a distinction of worth between the haves and the have nots. The church is not to do this. When we treat the poor as less valuable than others, James wrote, “Have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:4). None of us wants to be guilty of such evil thinking. James continued, “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (v. 5). We are not to see with the eyes of the world but with the eyes of the Lord. The poor of this world are fellow heirs with us and will be for eternity.
We know the ethnos (all nations) of the Great Commission includes the poor. The apostle Paul was given the task of going to the Gentiles. “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along” (Galatians 2:10). Paul was eager to keep on remembering the poor. We also should be eager to reach out to the poor with the good news.
A Unique People Group
As we go and make disciples of the poor we should realize that the poor are a different people group made up of different cultural standards and expectations. Some Christian workers have come to the inner city and suffered culture shock. We easily observe physical differences between an inner-city community and a suburban neighborhood. Other differences are not so easily seen. The inner city is a different world.
The urban poor share life experiences that produce certain cultural traits. We need to be aware of these characteristics as we seek to disciple those living in poverty.
Many people who live in the inner city face crisis after crisis. Often the world around them strips them of personal worth. This produces a culture that is person oriented, communication that is direct and upfront, and emotions and feelings that control one’s life. Respect, loyalty, and fairness are foundational for positive interaction. Any subtle action perceived as disrespect or favoritism will harm relationships. The sincerity of our hearts softens the hearts of those we want to reach. The urban poor’s intense need for physical and emotional safety has produced a people who quickly learn to read another person. This developed trait is usually quite accurate. These powerful patterns of behavior shape their interactions with those around them.
Understanding this mindset and lifestyle can help us to be more effective in discipling the urban poor. The urban poor value relationships where they can find dignity, meaning, and respect. We must interact in a way that meets these needs.
Opportunities for Discipleship
Discipleship is a process with many levels so there are many opportunities. Jesus plainly gave us responsibility to care for the poor. We are to provide food for the hungry and clothes for those in need. We’re called to visit the sick and those who are in prison. Discipleship can be a part of caring for the poor. A Seattle-based ministry not only provides meals for the urban poor, it provides workers who sit with those who are being served. They carry on conversation to build relationships. A church that distributes bags of food and clothing to the poor also provides chairs for recipients to sit on as they wait. They offer snacks and coffee, Christian music, and friendly, caring people to talk with. Through conversation and modeling the compassion of Jesus they are making disciples and honoring cultural standards.
Traditional strategies employed by churches in worldwide missions can be applied to the cross-cultural work of discipling the poor as well. A church near an urban center can reach out to the poor close by. A church in the suburbs can partner with a church that is already making disciples among the poor. Our church, State Avenue Church of Christ, is located in a poverty stricken area of Cincinnati. We work with Christians who’ve had no prior experience with the inner city but are now making a tremendous impact helping us fulfill the Great Commission among the urban poor. They have come with a passion and a commitment to reach out and have developed solid relationships with the people they serve.
There are many opportunities to build relationships with the poor. One can mentor in schools and prisons, and through big brother/big sister programs. Recreation centers, playgrounds, and coaching opportunities can pave the way for building relationships with the poor. Opportunities abound to volunteer in urban poor centers. Some Christians have chosen careers that place them in proximity to the urban poor. The opportunities are limitless.
With a humble heart and deep resolve, we are to carry the gospel and make disciples among the poor. Jesus has promised, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b).”
Jamie Carmichael has been volunteering and leading ministry with State Avenue Church of Christ in Cincinnati, Ohio for more than 40 years. He is a retired teacher with Cincinnati Public Schools.