I believe there is a difference between being a church that serves the poor and being a poor church that serves the community. You can’t become the latter until you transition through the former. If your goal is to be the kind of church that is comprised of the marginalized, the poor, the disenfranchised, the stranger, the alien, the rejected, the neglected, and anyone else who desires to live the life of Jesus then Brandon Hatmaker’s book, Barefoot Church: Serving the Least in a Consumer Culture, is a great tool to have on your shelf (or e-reader).
He identifies a common theme among believers and churches, “They want to do something of more significance, but they don’t even know where to start.” (15) Sharing his own story he offers insights into the process of leaving everything for the sake of the kingdom and practical advice on “where to start.”
Serving the least of these is more than social justice; it is deeply rooted in the church’s DNA and touches the deepest aspects of the church’s life. “Isaiah reminds us that serving the poor validates our worship (Isaiah 1) and fasting (Isaiah 58), James reminds us that serving the poor gives evidence of our faith (James 4), and Jesus reminds us that serving the poor is some how linked to our eternity (Matthew 25).” (48)
Guiding the body into this way of living requires exposing the need, experiencing the need and engaging the need. Perhaps the best way to expose the need is through the preaching of the Bible. The text will always expose a real need. As the needs are exposed, leaders can help guide members into simple means of experiencing the needs. The goal is for these experiences to move us beyond sympathy and into the realm of compassion. As we are filled with compassion then members must be given permission and authority to engage the needs as the Holy Spirit leads. (50ff)
While serving the least can begin as a program and leadership designed event, it cannot remain there. Serving the least must become incarnational. In other words, members of the body of Christ need to move into their neighborhoods and engage the needs. This is best done in community (i.e. Wesley’s class meetings). Such a movement will require a community of disciples who are proactive, spiritually disciplined, holistic in their faith, countercultural, view church as essential, biblically informed, and know how to share their faith. (101)
One important way Austin New Church has engaged their city is through partnering with local non-profit organizations. While this is a controversial issue amongst many church leaders, Hatmaker offers the following justification: non-profits typically have a great reputation in the community; they are experts in their field of work; partnership with them offers a new posture for the church; non-profit partnership is an easily reproducible strategy; they need volunteers more often than they need money; they have more non-Christians involved than Christians; they provide a platform to serve selflessly. (133ff)
Finally, the book talks about measuring success in a new way. Serving the least of these can often be anti-traditional-success-metrics. Hatmaker offers several new metrics of success: number of adoptions people in the church have made or contributed to; number of classes for special needs children and adults; number of former convicted felons serving in the church; number of calls from community leaders asking the church’s advice; number of organizations using the church building; number of emergency finance meetings that take place to reroute money to community ministry; aount of dollars saved by local schools because the church has painted the walls; number of people serving in the community during the church’s normal worship hours; number of nonreligious school professors worshiping with you; number of churches your church planted in a ten-mile radius of your own church; and measuring the intangibles of the faith – love, peace and joy in particular. (162ff)
Hatmaker concludes with these challenging words, “The church is a collection of Christians either living on mission or avoiding the responsibility.” (191)
I think the book’s greatest value rests more in encouraging believers, particularly leaders in the church, that being the body of Christ means so much and that being so much more is possible. While it does not give us all the answers or a simple checklist of to-dos, it does gives us a tangible place to start. Will we live on mission or avoid our responsibility to serve the least of these?