Populating Slum Communities to Reduce Them: Some Challenges

There are a number of encouragements regarding Christians who are rising to meet the complex challenge of a world in which slums are growing at three times the rate of global population. Oddly enough, I think that helping to populate slum communities with Chist-following catalysts will ultimately help reduce slums on our planet. Urban poor communities can't be changed from the outside. But there are some sobering challenges to recruiting the right people to slum communties. I see at least three barriers in calling men and women of faith to relocate or remain in slum communities.

Class Division

We live in a class-divided world. Perhaps humans have always lived in class division, but the current manifestation of class division seems to be deepening and widening. 99.9% of the global population possesses less than 20% of the world’s wealth while the other .1% enjoys more than 80%.[1] This gap between rich and poor can make mobilization difficult. In order to call both rich and poor to address the spiritual, material and emotional damages of slum communities, some kind of relationship is needed between the haves and have nots. The rich, who are often out of touch with the situation among the poor, are likely to misunderstand the reasons for global urban poverty or to underestimate the need. Those in poor communities also need the encouragement, advocacy and resources of being in relationship to the rich in order to return or remain in their communities. The deep chasm between the rich and poor presents a challenge to mobilization. We simply can’t work together in a healthy way when we are relegated to our existing cocoons of excess and deprivation.

In addition, mission agencies have for too long presented a truncated gospel. This may be due, at least in part, to the division between rich and poor. Many western Protestant mission agencies have historically been run by and populated with missionaries who come from middle class or wealthy backgrounds and have not understood adequately God’s mission to not only bring people, but systems and structures under the authority of his Son. Protestant mission agencies and missionaries have sometimes assumed conversion and church planting is all that is needed in order to bring transformation to poor communities. Many in poor communities, for their part, have accepted this class division as well. Father Paul Uwemedimo, a missionary friend of mine among the poor, said that in Nigeria, a poor community expects that their priest or religious worker will live in relative luxury as a point of community pride.

Prosperity Gospel and Consumerism

The prosperity gospel and its western counterpart, consumerism, are deceiving Christian communities into believing that the pursuit of wealth and possessions is acceptable among believers. Western believers have been sold a sufferless Christianity which suggests that following Jesus does not involve sacrifice or hardship. We have assumed that ministry among the poor, when it occurs, should be done from a comfortable distance. In addition, a messianic complex can make it difficult to recruit young people who are convinced that they are the answers to the world’s problems rather than the risen Christ. It is way easier to take on the role of Angelina Jolie than Mother Teresa. The call to incarnational ministry among our poor friends has never been so counter-cultural in a comfort-obsessed western church. Likewise, in many poor communities in the majority world, the call to remain or return to a slum as an agent of the kingdom runs against the grain of Christian teaching which suggests that God wants his people to possess large amounts of personal wealth. While it is true that God’s heart is for sufficiency, even abundance among all those made in his image, the emphasis on possessing large amounts of private wealth has obscured God’s intent for communities to enjoy shalom. Whether due to theologically errant teaching or cultural pressure to assimilate, a large obstacle to recruiting believers to walk alongside poor communities is the love of money.

Recruiting the Right People

Many believers living in poor communities should seek greater financial stability, education, and life as a kingdom ambassador in the world of government, business, academia or the sciences. While all are called to radical hospitality, concern for the marginalized, giving generously and being satisfied with daily bread, not all are called to remain in slum communities or return to them after they have been able to move out. In contrast, many who have grown up in relative affluence must pursue a simpler lifestyle and grow tender-hearted toward those who survive on much less, but not all affluent believers are called to relocate long term to a developing world barrio. Recruiting the right leader to live and serve full-time among the world’s destitute can be difficult. Some whom we might not expect to be called and equipped to leadership in urban poor areas may grow into the very person a poor community needs, while others who seem an “obvious” fit for service among the urban poor may end up causing unnecessary harm to themselves or others because they simply were not cut out for leadership among our poor neighbors. The process of careful discernment and calling within the church and youth or mission organisations, and the need to create safe testing places and times for believers to discern a call, is critical.

Next I will look at some calls to action to help release more people to live and serve among the 1-2 billion living in slum communities.

[1]Henry, James, "The Price of Offshore Revisited: New Estimates for Missing Global Private Wealth, Income, Inequality, and Lost Taxes" Press Release, Tax Justice Network, July 2012, 5, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Global_Distribution_of_Wealth_v3.jpgaaccessed on 5 March 2013. 

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