During pre-COVID-19 times, raising funds to go on international mission trips has been popular in America’s culture of Christianity, and rightfully so. But there are mission fields that are often neglected within our own country, in neighborhoods that surround us. This isn’t news to many. But one of those types of fields may be surprising: low-income communities. I say this because one thing that I have noticed as an African American male who has lived in different types of neighborhoods is the alarming number of differences in the church experience for low-income communities as compared to suburban areas.
The struggles in low-income neighborhoods
Various factors, including racism, have led to the fact that many of these low-income communities are made up mainly of people of color. And these poverty-stricken communities often have a culture that includes generational cycles of violence, physical/sexual abuse, broken families, and less educational opportunities and recreational resources. Millions of children are born into these communities, and for them to attain certain forms of success in life they will be forced to overcome tremendous adversity But this reality has additional implications as well. Ultimately, this means that many people of color in our country have to navigate more complicated stumbling blocks in order to come to know Christ.
While salvation works the same for everyone—we repent of our sins and trust in Jesus—opportunities to hear the gospel or grow in faith aren’t the same everywhere. For example, working at churches in low-income neighborhoods doesn’t normally come with a large paycheck, or any paycheck at all. Another example is that these communities are often made up of older churches without large youth groups, or budgets for student ministry. And for these and other reasons, many children in these areas never establish a strong connection with a church and are therefore unlikely to attend church after entering adulthood.
This is not to say that such neighborhoods are neglected entirely. There are many ministries and nonprofit organizations that come to mind that do a great job of bringing the gospel to and meeting the needs of those in these communities. But even so, why isn’t it more common for us as the body of Christ to serve in such areas? Why does it seem that so many churches overlook the opportunities, present in their own communities, to minister to those around them?
We don’t have to wait for an international missions trip to disciple or minister to people who don’t look like us. As believers, we should be intentional about seeking people of all nations and backgrounds. If we truly want our churches to reflect the church in heaven, we must seek diversity in our discipleship, not just in color, but in the many things within the make-up of human beings that cause us to be diverse.
The Great Commission calls us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). This is a command to take the gospel to all people. We don’t have to wait for an international missions trip to disciple or minister to people who don’t look like us. As believers, we should be intentional about seeking people of all nations and backgrounds. If we truly want our churches to reflect the church in heaven, we must seek diversity in our discipleship, not just in color, but in the many things within the make-up of human beings that cause us to be diverse.
The gospel opportunity gap
I firmly believe there is a large opportunity gap when it comes to reaching low-income communities with the gospel, and this particularly affects many people of color in our country. I call this the gospel opportunity gap. Jesus is able to save anyone, anywhere, but we should not let the location where a person is born determine their ability to receive the gospel. Right now there are areas (and people) in front of us that are in need of our attention.
More affluent churches or those represented by majority-culture shouldn’t assume they can “solve the problems” of those in low-income communities. But they can minister in these communities by sharing the gospel and meeting needs, especially by partnering with those already doing ministry in these locations. Instead of deflecting, ignoring, or simply being afraid, we must find a way to be the church in these areas and to support church-based ministries in the communities. The struggles churches experience in low-income communities versus middle-to-high-income ones include weaker discipleship models, fewer resources, and fledgling finances—to name a few.
Yes, the gospel opportunity gap is strong in many places outside of our country. But it also exists in places that could be within a 30-60 mile radius of where you live. Christians, let’s start figuring what we can begin doing to adequately serve these areas. It may require extra sacrifices, it may cause us to go out of our way to add a bus route, it may inspire us to create a new church plant, it may be something that never benefits our churches financially, or it may simply look like committed discipleship. But it is important to see these efforts as investments into communities that are in desperate need of the life-altering presence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.