Friday, February 26, 2010

Among The People

Well, I'm closing in on my first month as a Walmart employee. I can't begin to describe to you how different it is to work there as opposed to my former jobs in ministry. Corporate bureaucracy, rules, and having to clock out for lunch at a certain time are all very different from what I'm used to. Since I'm a Customer Service Manager, I'm in constant contact with people, both other employees and customers, all day long. Throughout the day I usually have at least one moment, sometimes many, where I realize just how out of touch I've been with the way real people live and work. I've been a pastor for a long time now, but I've never lived and worked among the "real people". I pray that my current situation opens my eyes to unique ways and opportunities to shepherd.

Here is a reality I have been exposed to over the last month:

It's very difficult, if not impossible, to understand how to care for the poor and vulnerable if you are not poor and vulnerable too. Have you ever had to depend on government assistance to pay for groceries or receive health care for your children? Until you understand the embarrassment and have received the judgmental stares, it will be very hard to truly care for those that do.

In the church world, especially student ministry, the phrase "incarnational ministry" gets thrown around a lot. The phrase describes a philosophy of ministry where a group focuses on a deeply relational strategy to reach and serve people. As you might know, the incarnation is a theological term describing the supernatural act of God becoming human and living among the people. So, it makes sense that we would try to model our ministries in a similar fashion. I know I've used it to describe my efforts in student ministry many times in the past. What doesn't make sense is how often we forget the full consequences of God's incarnation. It ended in torture, a cross, and death. Take a look at what Phil. 2:6-8 has to say:

6 He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. 7 Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! 8 Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death - and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.
THE MESSAGE: The Bible in Contemporary Language copyright 2002 by Eugene Peterson

If we are going to talk the talk of an incarnational ministry then there are a couple of things we should expect along the way. First, we have to empty ourselves and sacrifice our status and all that we have and hold dear. We must humble ourselves so that we can truly understand the people God has sent us to minister to. Then, we must prepare for the suffering that will come. Expect hurt. Expect trials. True incarnational ministry will not end with just deepened relationships. It will in fact, take your life.

I don't like where God has my family right now. I don't like not being comfortable. I don't like not knowing if we can afford the next month's expenses. I don't like having to clock in and be told when I can and can't go to lunch. My list of "don't likes" seems to grow by the minute these days. But, my ability to be content and peaceful also seems to be growing. What God is doing in me and my family's life is irrelevant to my likes and dislikes. He has placed me right in the middle of this messed up world by messing up my own world. He is in the process of emptying me of all that I thought I needed and cared about. The trials and hurt, and there's certainly more to come, are nothing more than the result of transitioning from living outside or above the people, to moving right into their neighborhood.

Any thoughts? What does, or would, it take for you to follow the path of living an incarnational lifestyle?


  1. Thought provoking post. May God bless your efforts to serve Him.

    To live incarnationally, do we have to get a job at Wal-mart (or more menial as a ditch-digger)? Do we have to find a low-paying job in order to "be with the people?"

    If we are seeking to lower ourselves as low as possible, why not go to Saudi Arabia, preach the gospel, and then get beaten, imprisoned, or executed? I'm being extreme here but trying to understand where you are coming from.

    I believe that God calls us to be Christ-like, which may involve, say, taking vows of poverty (and even also of chastity and obedience), which is one kind of call or vocation. But there is also a call to marriage and family life, and we as husbands and fathers have the duty to provide for our families. If I get the idea in my head that I can only serve Christ in an incarnational way by getting a low-paying job at Wal-mart and I fail to provide for my family, it seems to me that our intellect and reason are not being well-used here.

    This all sound much more critical than I actually feel about this; I'm playing to some degree the other side's advocate. I would give you the benefit of the doubt that God has asked you to voluntarily get a poor job (even when you could presumably get a better one) so you can identify and understand others better, but I present these counter-arguments because I'm interested in how you would respond to them.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts. Take walmart, ditch digging, and me out of the equation. There's loopholes in every point. The main point is to live differently. As a father, what standard is set to provide for our family? Is it to keep up with the Jones'? Upper-middle class America? Is there intellect and reason behind the massive accumulation of stuff and debt? Living incarnationally has more to do with completely emptying yourself of higher status and living among the people.

    I find it hard to believe that pastors pulling down big time salaries are incarnational in their ministry. Another interesting tidbit. Think of how the "home" used to be a central part of community. Now, we view our homes as private kingdoms with 8foot fences all around.

    I'm trudging my way through this stuff. So, your counter-arguments don't bother me at all. I especially don't know what this looks like to each individual specifically. My way is not the only way.

    We are raising support, as missionaries, so my walmart income is not our only source. That's just an fyi.

  3. Keep your chin up Brian. At least you are out there trying. Many millions of americans don't even want to try. They want to live off the government tit.

    One thing to keep in mind here is that even the poorest people in america financially are better off than many other millions of people around the world. This nation was truly blessed for a long time. Unfortunately, those days are over and the steady decline of standard of living in America will continue because of the criminals in washington and the destruction of capitalism.

    Also, keep in mind, wealth is not measured by money. Keep you focus on friends and family and always doing the right thing. We are all going to get back to a simpler way of life pretty soon and dollars won't mean a thing.

  4. This reminds me of Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. And I loved that book.

    I think what you are doing is bold, crazy and creative, which are traits I also happen to think fit Jesus, generally. I admire you for "providing" for your family something deeper and longer lasting than a trust-fund.

    There is always, though, that part knows that you have the ability and social status to do something else. But that is the difficulty with solidarity, and I remember Henri Nouwen discussing this in his memoirs from Latin America.

    I have a friend who bought a house and became a pastor in the roughest part of town in Birmingham ( and takes a similar with-the-people rather than to-the-people approach to ministry. It was really tough his first few years, but his work has paid off. I think people appreciate being stood with and empowered rather than being subjects of charity.

    Anyway, I think what you are doing is terrific and I wish you only the best encouragement.

    Basically, you just put the flesh and bones to the things I am writing about this Lent (and the things I'm still reluctant to put flesh and bones to!).

  5. I spent years working at various churches. I found the church staff to be really out of touch with how real people lived. We always wanted them to do a billion church activities on their days off, but weren't willing to come to the church on ours to make it easier for them. We were out of touch with the normal pressures of their lives in so many ways.

    Now I teach music for a living and have a more productive ministry in the process of being a part of people's lives. I bring the things I've learned along the way with me now when I do ministry in the traditional church context. Even though it's always tough for me to make ends meet, I have a richer life and now have much more of a sense of all of us being in it together. I also have much more compassion and tenderness for others who are struggling. I have a feeling your job at Walmart will make you a better equipped pastor as well... and the people you minister to will reap the benefits of all you are learning along the way. Bless you for being willing to do what it takes to be able to also do ministry.

  6. love it brian. thanks for sharing your wisdom and sharing how you have been able to work and live in the middle of this all. thank you for opening my eyes that i may not be "in touch" with people as much as i'd like to think i am sometimes.

    God is clearly working through you in all this, and im stoked to see it as iit unfolds.

  7. Hi, found you via Rachel Evans link.

    Extremely well-expressed post.
    I am a pastor who always thought (feared/hoped)my inevitable marketplace job would be something like Wal Mart or St. Arbuck's...but now I am trivocational, and all three paychecks come from Christian institutions! Whatever the presenting reasons for us pastors getting "other" jobs, I really believe it is so we wind up way more in touch with the "real world"...

    Loved looking at your church website..feels like our church..Blessings