Jesus says, in Matthew 16, “On this rock I will build my assembly, AND THE GATES OF HELL WILL NOT WITHSTAND IT” (emphasis, mine).
This statement/agenda is rarely far from my mind. It tells me that Jesus is amassing an elite force of special operatives (made up, ironically, of humble broken people) to go storming the Gates of Hell! And that storming the Gates of Hell IS THE MISSION.
So I find it doubly ironic, then, when I witness (sometimes even participating with) the assembly trying so hard to fit in with the “dominate culture”. Not living “peaceably” with in it, but becoming absorbed by it. The elite special ops doing that are traitors in the fight. I cannot imagine any generals or presidents in the American armed forces tolerating such treason for one minute, but I can imagine a Great God of Grace showing mercy and hoping against hope that these usurpers will get it straight again (like King David grieving the rebellion of his son Absalom). And that gives me hope, but I find the continued, rebellious, presumptive indulgence of his mercy by these special ops to be alarming.
There is a sense in which attempting to change this situation is where so much of the conflict in my ministry is generated. I belong to a church that accommodates and indulges the outer culture as a matter of good business. Believe it or not, I joined the church of Lubbock years ago, and together we stormed the Gates of Hell… for a while. And we prevailed too! But we must have had other ideas about prevailing because then the church read When Helping Hurts and very purposely pulled the plug on all the wonderful work we were doing and began accommodating the culture. Thus I began confronting the church, and thus the conflict. We have gotten away from the mission.
“Gates of Hell”… just sitting there waiting to collapse at the first sign of our charge. Yeah… we have a mission there.
You know what? In addition to the many Scriptures that have both direct and indirect bearing on how God wants us to treat the poor, the broken, and vulnerable among us, I can’t help but think that “hell”, to the American cultural mindset (both “secular” and religious), very nearly finds its ground zero in homelessness. To be “homeless” is basically the opposite of realizing “the American Dream”. It is, rather, the American nightmare.
I figure I am likely the first to draw those particular phenoms into this particular orb for my readers, but I expect that once they are illuminated with this light, my readers will quickly think: That makes good sense!
But the real stretch of the imagination is this: What if the little beachhead of “dominate culture” we have let in among us, that bit of pride and privilege – that ever-shrinking bit of theological and prophetic imagination – we circle our wagons around (and believe me, we circle the wagons, I know this first hand!) is yet another manifestation of the Gates of Hell? Yeah, the Gates of Hell found in our own hearts!
Think about it.
Well… enough with all the esoteric background. I really want to talk about Agent Z and his summer internship in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have the pleasure to visit with him on the phone from time to time, and he came home again briefly last week on a mission to baptize his younger step brother, which also gives me a chance to visit with him. However, he is not one to sit down and write very often, despite his attempt at blogging. I hope he will come back to his blog soon, and possibly tell the story in his own words – which I presume would be more accurate than mine. But in the meantime, you get my version which is very obviously filtered through my vantage ground, experiences, and hopes. Nevertheless, I have asked him various probing questions in order to establish the story, and so I expect my version will reflect the facts.
Upon arriving in ABQ, Agent Z was immediately struck by the prominence of street homeless people visible at nearly every turn. We discussed how that unlike Lubbock, ABQ sits at the intersection of two major interstate highways that directly connect LA to Chicago and Denver, and that there are railroads as well. Also New Mexico overall is one of the poorer states in the union, and we noted that features such as this help explain the difference he so readily found.
But that was just Agent Z’s observation driving into town. When he arrived at work to meet up with his supervisors and begin the task of “ministry” – ministry, sure, but ministry as outlined by his academic agendas – this concern seemed lacking. The stated objective is “youth & family” ministry, which is worthwhile alright, but he couldn’t help but notice there were no homeless people attending worship with this church. And being sensitive to such matters, Z began looking for opportunities to incorporate homeless outreach into the stated focus area.
Yay for Agent Z!
But of course… too bad for the church. In a city with far more homeless people, how is it that the church has not reached at least a few of them? I mean if these elite special ops are empowered by the Spirit of Jesus, this should be a forgone conclusion. No?
And then Z tells me that the church property sits adjacent to a freeway, and that just two yards (six feet) or so off the church property line, the freeway goes through an underpass… an underpass playing host to a group of homeless people!
Are you getting this???
Agent Z is describing a group of homeless people living their grubby, aimless lives (assuming they are aimless) just two yards – the length of a man – away from the place where Jesus meets with the two or three (and more!) who gather in his name several times a week! Yet… for whatever reason, none of these homeless people have yet to be “reached”. And there is no sign that the church has any interest in trying.
Z took a short stroll down to the encampment, and there he met two young men, one by the name of Brandon and the other by the name of Tyler. Z greeted these guys and offered blessing. But being the humble intern, he did not presume to urge these men into the church that hosts him too. And I gotta say, if you really want to have a successful internship, you really need to take care not to rush into sticky situations with your host church! Much conflict, and your name is mud back at school, and quickly throughout the “brotherhood” too. Z decided to err on the side of self-preservative caution.
However, in short order, Z was tasked with helping to host a special event at a church gathering for the youth and families that was supposed to involve a large crowd and was intended to feed them sandwiches. But, what do you know? The turnout was light. Really light. And there was a LOT of food left over.
(Holy Spirit empowering the mission???)
As you can imagine, the offer was made for Z, a strapping young man, to eat an extra sandwich and take a few for later too. Z took that idea and ran with it. He bagged up a heap of sandwiches and took them to the encampment taking shelter in the underpass just six feet away from the church property! Seriously, RIGHT AT THE DOOR STEP!!! And you can bet, this got noticed!
(I’m gonna say yeah! Holy Spirit empowering the mission!!!)
So far, Z has managed to parlay this risky move into a new assignment suggested by one of those in leadership that he help critique some of the church’s outreach ventures in an effort to improve them! And beyond that, Z has managed to get Brandon and Tyler’s names on the official prayer request list for the whole church.
That’s right. You got it. Agent Z now has this whole church praying for Brandon and Tyler by name!
Sadly, Brandon and Tyler have now disappeared and Agent Z has no current contact with them. This is sad, alright. But the church is praying for them by name (and now you can too, if you would like). Of course there is more that can be done. And no… this does not strike me as storming the gates…. Not, if by that we mean storming the Gates of Homeless Hell. But it is a start. Agent Z is finding a way to affect change with finesse – so far. Baby steps, though they may be, he is playing a role in changing the course of the church in ABQ.
However, on the other hand… If we think of the Gates of Hell being that ever-shrinking theological and prophetic imagination trapped behind circled wagons of a defensive “dominate culture” the church has subtly given its allegiance to, then probably Agent Z has unleashed a major assault. And hopefully a robust repentance will blow the gates wide open to a full on heavenly invasion! Praying for the homeless by name almost feels like a Trojan Horse tactical maneuver.
Well, it’s really Agent Z’s story to tell. And I hope he does. But this is my version, based on what I see and hear. And of course, I am very pleased to tell it!
Fat Beggars School of Prophets has been interstate for a long time, actually, but feedback of this kind and at this level has thus far proven scarce. And, like I said, I hope Agent Z will get back on the blog and make his own report from behind enemy lines. But in the meantime, you have my version. And I hope you will find inspiration where you are to join God’s special ops in the mission to storm the Gates of Hell!