Blog Series: “Lost In Translation”
Using Paul’s engagement with the Athenians in Acts 17 as a backdrop, we are reflecting on the many gaps, disconnections, and misalignments we see across the landscape of ministry, along with some hopeful and constructive suggestions for how to respond faithfully.
Acts 17 gives us a glimpse into the incredible impact of the ministry of the earliest disciples.
Paul and Silas had just arrived in Thessalonica and were teaching in its synagogue. Even as some were persuaded by their message, others resisted. An angry mob formed in the marketplace and drug some of the disciples before the city authorities, accusing them of “turning the world upside down” (v. 6)
With little financial means, and not a trace of political support or cultural clout, the disciples had already developed a reputation for making a real and significant difference in their communities. In these early days of the church, the gospel had not yet been tamed.
Also striking is what the disciples were turning upside down. The Greek word translated “world” is oikoumenā, from which we get the English word economy. Unlike the more typical Greek term for world (kosmos), oikoumenā refers to the administrative world, and with it financial institutions, taxes, public policy, social systems, and so forth. The message of the Gospel wasn’t just turning upside down religious beliefs; it was toppling the systems and structures of the economy.
And this is exactly what angered the mob in Thessalonica. Worship a resurrected Messiah? Sure, no problem. Just don’t mess with the economy.
The earliest disciples were convinced that what was so good about the good news was not just the promise of forgiveness of sins or the offer of eternal life in heaven. The goodness of the Gospel was rooted in the promise of an oikoumenā redeemed and restored on this side of the sweet by and by. This meant things like fair wages, reasonable taxes, limits on charging interest, the periodic cancellation of debts, equal access to land, freedom from relentless work, and robust provisions for the economically vulnerable – all of which the Old Testament spells out in detail.
That God is in the business of overturning the oikoumenā has always been part of the Christian story. In Luke 1, Mary expectantly prays to a God who,
“has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
… has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.” (vv. 52-53)
Thirty years and 3 chapters later, Jesus begins his public ministry with a sermon at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. His opening line, which is drawn from Isaiah 61:1, encapsulates his missional self-understanding:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)
Magnetized by Jesus’ teaching and witness, the earliest church lived in radical solidarity with the poor, establishing a community in which “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34).
How different things are today. Most churches preach a message of good news for the well-educated upper middle class. Exhibit A would be fallen Hillsong pastor Brian Houston’s book, You Need More Money. But the problem isn’t just with prosperity gospel megachurch preachers. Liberal and evangelical churches of all varieties have come to enculturate a Gospel devoid of good news for the poor.
And it shows. Those experiencing poverty are rarely to be found in American churches. Studies show that the working class is attending church less and less and that U.S. religion is rapidly becoming a social club for the upper class. This is happening at a time when America’s poverty problem is escalating.
In his penetrating 2023 book Poverty, By America, Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond points out that the disparity in wealth in America has been increasing since the 1980s, and is now one of the defining features of neoliberalism. In the past 50 years, those in the top 10% of annual earned income saw their wealth increase fivefold. Over the same time period, those in the lowest 10% saw their savings go from $0 to -$1,000. In the world’s wealthiest nation, 43 million Americans are under the government established poverty line – a meager $30,000 for a family of 4. Factor in race and things are even worse. In 2022, the median black household income was only 61% of median white household income.
Globally, one quarter of the world’s population is currently experiencing a level of poverty worse than what the poorest of the poor faced during the early Middle Ages. The three richest humans currently have more accumulated wealth than the 48 poorest countries combined. There is more wealth disparity today than at any other moment in human history.
It’s time for the church to speak up.
As always, the answer is not to launch a program or issue an overture. We have to get back to preaching the gospel – the very gospel that Jesus described as being good news for the poor. Let me be clear, this is not an elaborate outreach strategy to get blue collar workers back in the pews. It’s a matter of the integrity of our witness.
What if we actually started preaching a gospel that contained good news for the poor? What if we took what the Bible has to say about economics and poverty as seriously as we do what the Bible has to say about justification, baptism, heaven, and prayer? What if we started talking about the fact that Jesus himself was poor and likely homeless? What if we displayed in our churches a more historically accurate depiction of Jesus, such as the image below from the Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz?
If we did this, who might start showing up? How might we think differently about our messages and our values? Where might this lead us in terms of our sense of calling and connection to our community?
What would it take for you to develop a reputation for being a pastor who is in the business of turning the world upside down?