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Jesus on the Margins

Heather Evans leads the Eat, Pray, Love fresh expression for Grace United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Grace UM Church.

Heather Evans leads the Eat, Pray, Love fresh expression for Grace United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Grace UM Church.

By Jorge Acevedo-

Leadership guru Jim Collins teaches that smart and successful companies practice the genius of the “and” instead of the tyranny of the “or.” He believes that in choosing between seemingly contradictory concepts – focusing on this or that – leads to missed opportunities.

Should the product be low cost or high quality? Should a company be bold or conservative? Collins and his team at Stanford discovered that the best companies find a way to embrace the positive aspects of both sides of a dichotomy, and instead of choosing, they find a way to have both.

As followers of Jesus in the Wesleyan way, we practice this principle of the genius of the “and” in our understanding and living out of the life of faith. Think about some of the apparent choices some in Christianity might want us to make: Is it grace or is it truth? Is it faith or is it works? Is it radical welcome or is it radical Gospel? Is it orthodoxy or is it orthopraxy? Is it love of God or love of neighbor?

When we in the Wesleyan stream get it right, we refuse to be sequestered to one corner or another, but instead choose the robust middle way, which we understand as the way of Jesus.

We Methodists believe in holding in tension both works of piety and works of mercy. Faith expressed without a robust expression of both in the life of an individual follower of Jesus or a local church is incomplete and unbiblical in our understanding of what it means to live in Christ. For us faith is lived best when as a follower of Jesus. I work on my prayer life and work to end human trafficking. My local church is being faithful to the way of Jesus when our hands are lifted high in transcending worship and our hands are reaching low to work with the poor.

This was part of the genius of the Wesleys and the early Methodists. Early Methodists searched for innovative places and ways to find “ports of entry” where the Holy Spirit went before them to share the Good News of Jesus. Some of the early Methodist “ports of entry” included an amazing diversity of fresh expressions such as field preaching, literacy efforts, medical care for the sick, homes for orphans and widows, care for the physically handicapped and chronically ill, opposition to slavery, inexpensive mass publications, and economic development projects for the poor.

Wesley and the early Methodists resisted making the Gospel and salvation simply a ticket out of hell. “By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven,” wrote John Wesley, “but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy and truth” (The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 8, page 47).

For Wesley and his spiritual progeny, salvation cannot be limited to deliverance from the penalty of sin, but also includes deliverance from the power of sin. At Grace Church where I am privileged to serve, we tell our people that Jesus not only wants to rescue you from the hell you are headed to, but also the hell you are living in.

As a pastor in one local United Methodist congregation in Southwest Florida for 20 years, I have had the awesome privilege of watching a hard-working, blue-collar congregation live richly and deeply into this lush Wesleyan DNA.

Ministry with the Poor. One of the hallmarks of the early Methodists was the way they invested their limited resources in creating places for people on the margins of society to receive the ministry of Jesus. The Industrial Revolution in England moved masses of people into living conditions that were catastrophic for that time. The invention of the steam engine and other laborsaving devices only heightened unemployment. The English attitude toward poverty was that it was the fault of the poor and carried a stigma of divine punishment.

Into this cultural milieu, listen to what John Wesley wrote about his ministry with and for the poor some 20 years after Aldersgate (Journal, November 17, 1759): “It is well a few of the rich and noble are called. Oh, that God would increase their number! But I should rejoice (were it the will of God) if it were done by the ministry of others.  If I must choose, I should still (as I have done hitherto) preach the gospel to the poor.”

At Grace Church, Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan has helped us think about two kinds of ministry with and for the poor. You’ll remember that in Jesus’ story, the half-breed Samaritan saw the beaten Jew and was moved with compassion. So much so that he bandaged him up, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn. This was a first century Palestinian ambulance and hospital! The Samaritan met the poor man’s immediate need. He offered the man “aid.”

At Grace Church, we believe that Jesus meant it when he said, “When I was hungry, you fed me.” We have many immediate aid ministries like food, clothing, pet, and medical ministries. These ministries bandage the wounded of our county and garner us relational capital to share the Gospel.

But Jesus’ story doesn’t end there because the Samaritan’s compassion for this man was not fully expressed. The kind man returned and promised to pay for his expenses until the man could get back up on his feet. The Good Samaritan was committed to the beaten Jew’s on-going “advancement.”

For us, advancement ministries are those ministries that move people from dependence and reliance to independence and freedom. Ministries like GED, recovery ministries and Jobs for Life, a ministry that assists the un-employed and under-employed to become more employable help people advance.

Our most recent and exciting ministry for and with the poor is the adopting of the largest pocket of poverty in our county, the Suncoast community. It’s the second largest trailer park in America with an under-performing school in it. A few years ago, we began an after school children’s program. Last year, we sent 50 reading mentors to the school in this community. This past month, we launched a fresh expression of incarnational dinner church that we call “Eat, Love, and Pray” on Thursday nights. In its first month, we saw 339 participants (136 different people) and two first-time commitments to Jesus. This is a working poor community that is experiencing the love of Jesus through the Body of Christ in their neighborhood, not at our church facility.

Ministry with the Addicted. Another of the geniuses of the early Methodist movement was how its interconnected groups served as a tool to grow people

The Rev. Jorge Acevedo addresses the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Photo by Steve Beard.

The Rev. Jorge Acevedo addresses the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Photo by Steve Beard.

in grace. The group model of the early Methodists included:

• United Societies: large groups for instruction and worship

• Class meetings: 10-12 people for spiritual growth

• Bands: same gender groups of about 6 persons who were committed grow in love, holiness and purity of intention

There was also a fourth group called the “penitent bands.” In his book John Wesley’s Class Meeting, Dr. D. Michael Henderson writes the following about penitent bands: “This final group of Wesley’s system was specifically designed for those who lacked the will power or personal discipline to live up to the behavioral demands of the class meeting but still had a desire to overcome personal problems. The target population of the entire Methodist system was ‘the dregs of English society,’ some of whom had serious social dysfunctions.  The primary goal of the penitent band was to restore its members to the mainstream of society and its regular channels of growth. The penitent bands met on Saturday nights, designed to keep them out of their ‘old haunts.’ The minister in charge was assigned the responsibility to help them deal with their problems, especially alcoholism. The group was rigorous in format and stringent in means of personal reform; similar to today’s Alcoholics Anonymous.”

In my estimation, many United Methodist churches are guilty of what I call “spiritual malpractice.” That is, they offer Jesus the Healer without offering the people, places, and processes for people to heal. My seminary professor, Dr. Fred Van Tatenhove, told his students, “Don’t take the lid off the trashcan if you are not willing to help people clean it out!” Churches can be faithful to the evangelistic call to know Jesus as the Forgiver, Healer, and Leader of their lives, but then stop short of helping that new relationship take root inside the battered life of the fledging Christ-follower.

A few years ago, I was part of a team that addressed a conference at Asbury Theological Seminary on Addictions, Recovery, and Holiness. Dr. Dale Ryan, director of the Institute for Recovery Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, argued that addictions are the number one cause of death globally according to the World Health Organizations statistics on mortality. Hidden behind much suicide, heart disease, and accidental deaths are precious persons who were lost in a life of addictions.

Every one of us knows multiple people – maybe close family – who are struggling and even dying of addictions. My wife Cheryl and I have lived through a hellish decade with our son Nathan’s struggle with addictions and mental illness.

Grace Church has a profound commitment to healing people in our community who are addicted through our recovery ministries. On any given week, we host 25 traditional recovery groups, two full-scale Celebrate Recovery ministries, and an evening of same gender six-month-long step studies. In total on any given week at all our campuses, we will have 600 people or more in recovery meetings. Additionally, we take a meeting into a detox center every Thursday.

After 17 years of this kind of “penitent band” ministry, I can unequivocally say that it has changed my life, my family, our church, and our community. Just a few weeks ago, I hugged three different people after speaking at a Celebrate Recovery service. John who is a drug addict had received his one-year chip. A year ago, he was in jail and dying. Today, he is reunited with his wife and beginning to step into some simple leadership in our ministry. I also got to hug Patti after receiving her eight-year chip. Eight years ago, Patti sold her body for crack cocaine. That night, she was a stunning trophy of God’s healing and redeeming grace. The last person I hugged was Amanda. She was 90 days sober and 20 years ago, I baptized her as a baby at the same altar where that night I was embracing her. Only God!

Frankly, this is my new addiction – watching Jesus put lives back together. I can’t get enough of it.

Ministry with the Marginalized. One of the early Methodist bases for works of piety and works mercy was the Foundry in London. The main room of the building was large enough to seat 1500 people. At one time, the Foundry had been a place for casting cannons. After a serious explosion in 1716, the weapons operation moved to Woolwich. The Foundry remained damaged and unused until 1738 when John Wesley either rented or purchased it and organized the Methodist Society there.

In addition to worship services, other ministries occurred on the premises such as a school for marginalized children and the dispensing of money from a loan fund for poor people to help prevent them from paying exorbitant interest to others (think microloans). This is what early Methodists did.

Several years ago, God opened a door for our church to minister to persons with special needs and their families – a marginalized and “unreached people group” in our community. We discovered that the divorce rate among families with special needs children is significantly higher than the national average. Mothers with children with special needs typically die earlier. We also learned that there are limited community resources in Florida after a person with special needs turns 22 years old.

In response, we first began a Sunday morning “buddy” program that integrated younger children with special needs into our children’s ministry. Then we began a monthly 3-hour respite program for families with children of special needs. But the most exciting ministry we began was a ministry called Exceptional Entrepreneurs (EE). This ministry had a vision to create employment and training opportunities for young adults. And it has exploded.

This ministry is a safe place where persons with special needs learn to make products that are sold. Several of the students receive a paycheck. Bible studies are a regular part of this fresh expression of church. About two years ago one of the volunteers was led to Christ and baptized on a Sunday morning. Several of our EE students began to ask questions about being baptized themselves. One evening I met with the students and their families to talk about being baptized and following Jesus and later that month, we baptized four of them.

As I drove home that morning after their baptisms, I told the Lord, “Take me because it can’t get any better than this!”

This passion for the poor, addicted, and marginalized is who we are as Methodists. This is our spiritual DNA. It’s in our blood. This is who we are and what we do as the people called Methodists.

Jorge Acevedo is the lead pastor at Grace Church, a multi-site United Methodist congregation in Southwest Florida with six campuses. Grace Chuirch is recognized as having one of the largest and most effective recovery ministries in America. This article is adapted from Rev. Acevedo’s address at the Wesleyan Covenant Association gathering in Chicago on October 7, 2016.

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