Open Hearts, Open Doors
The Matthew 25 Church
by Wilfredo De Jesús
What is the message, the mission, and method of a Pentecostal Matthew 25 church?
By Wilfredo De Jesús
I should have known better. I had lived around addicts and prostitutes for years, but I did not really notice them. When I met Marisol, her eyes were blank and lifeless, and my eyes were opened. She had been on the streets for years making enough money to buy heroin for her next hit. In the beginning, it was easy. She explained, “I was going through withdrawals, so I was desperate to get money to get high again.” A friend took Marisol to a street corner and told her, “Just stand here and look pretty. Someone will pick you up.” And someone did. Soon her life revolved around her new career and the ever-deepening, poisonous whirlpool of addiction and sex.
We try to avoid people like Marisol. They smell bad, and they might pollute our kids, our cars … and our churches. A few encounters like my meeting with Marisol shattered my heart. I had to do something. I told one of our staff members, “Go down the street and hire five prostitutes for an hour. Pay them whatever they charge. Put them in the church van and bring them back here to me.” She did what I asked. Before she came back, my wife, Elizabeth, and I put a linen tablecloth on a table in one of the rooms in our church. We got delicious food, lit candles, arranged flowers, and brought out our best china. When the five women walked in the door, they were stunned. I welcomed them and invited them to have a seat at the table. As they began to eat, Elizabeth sang a beautiful song, and we gave each one a lovely red rose. I told them that Jesus sees each of them as a gorgeous, precious rose. These street-hardened women melted. They cried; they laughed; and they hugged us. One looked at Elizabeth and said through her tears, “No one has ever treated us like this. Thank you so much.” As they got back in the van, they reached into their purses and pockets to give us the money we had paid them for the hour.
This was the beginning of our church's ministry to prostitutes. In the years since that dinner, God has changed many lives — including mine. Our church did not have open doors to these women until God shattered my heart with grief … and then filled it with His compassion and love.
Comfortable. Peaceful. Clean. Safe. Pleasant. Convenient. The powerful combination of human nature and the promise of the American dream creates an expectation of a lifestyle that minimizes risk and maximizes pleasure. Many in our country have moved away from cities to suburbs and towns to get away from people who might threaten their sense of security. It makes sense. Who in his or her right mind looks for trouble or puts their family in harm's way?
But that's not the message, the mission, or the method of a Pentecostal Matthew 25 church.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not talking down to “you people” who are “hypocrites.” I was one of the most needy, confused, awkward young men in the world. I was one of “them.” After I met Christ during a summer youth program sponsored by the city, I became involved in the life of the church. But somehow, I stopped seeing the desperate needs in the lives all around me. Marisol was a wake-up call, God's blaring trumpet to get my attention. My life — and our church — has not been the same since. We started living out what it means to be a Pentecostal Matthew 25 church.
TWO MOTIVATIONS: EXAMPLE AND PROMISE
One irony of the modern Pentecostal church is that our hearts and our actions differ from the One we call Lord. Jesus hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners. In their culture, these were not marginal people. They were despised, hated, and rejected by the proud religious people who were sure they were better — much better — than these outcasts. But Jesus was “a friend of sinners.” When we get glimpses of His interaction with them in the Gospels, we realize He did not just teach them from behind a pulpit and tell them to repent. And He did not merely nod to recognize them when He walked past them on the road. He did not just tolerate them. He loved them. He genuinely, deeply, tenderly, tenaciously loved them. And they knew it.
Shortly before the soldiers arrested Jesus, and the Jewish leaders falsely tried, condemned, and executed Him, He gave people clear and powerful instructions about His kingdom. Someday, He explained, every person will stand before the King of glory to give an account. Their actions will reveal the content of their hearts. Jesus told them: “ ‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
‘The King will reply, “I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” ' ” (Matthew 25:34–40).
In some churches and communities, the categories of people Jesus listed are hidden or extremely rare. Countless families have moved away from places where they would have to face those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, and sick, as well as immigrants and convicted criminals. But caring for the disadvantaged has always been on God's heart. The Scriptures are full of God's pleas and directives to provide mercy and justice for outcasts and misfits — primarily widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor. (See Deuteronomy 10:17; Psalm 146:7–9; Micah 6:8; and Zechariah 7:10,11.) In Ruth 2:4–10, Boaz protects Ruth, a hated and vulnerable Moabite woman, and he provides for her without enabling her.
In Jesus' parable, care for the needy demonstrated that the Great Commandment had taken root in the King's servants' lives and was bearing fruit. The compassionate people were showing they love God with all their hearts by selflessly loving others who could give them nothing in return. That's the motive and measure of Pentecostal compassion and the nature of a Pentecostal Matthew 25 church.
In Crazy Love, author and pastor Francis Chan observes, “People who are obsessed with Jesus aren't consumed with their personal safety and comfort above all else. Obsessed people care more about God's kingdom coming to this earth than their own lives being shielded from pain or distress.”1
Jesus goes a step farther than any of the Old Testament directives to care for those in need. He said — both thrilling and threatening — that He identified so closely with helpless people that our actions toward them are actually toward Jesus himself. The promised reward is not some abstract thing when we get to heaven. Our reward is the King's delight. When God's grace melts and molds our hearts by the Spirit's love and power, we follow Jesus' example to care for “the least of these.” And Jesus made himself the ultimate “least of these” by stepping out of the glory of heaven to be mocked, ridiculed, and murdered for us. When Pentecostal churches care for the disadvantaged in their communities, they are caring for Him, too … and He notices.
TO THE STREETS
Without a plan, a strategy, and some courage, the power of these beautiful and inspiring Scripture passages can fade very quickly. We are not blessed if we only feel compassion for hurting, needy people; we are blessed if we do something to help them. Let me make a few suggestions.
Get data from the Census Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce, nonprofit organizations, or other agencies to uncover the hidden people in your community. Or just drive around the neighborhoods. Ask God to open your eyes to see addicts, poor people, immigrants, the mentally ill, single moms, pregnant teenagers, prostitutes, pimps, and all kinds of other people we usually avoid. In every town, city, and suburb, people (even those in gated neighborhoods) live within a few minutes' drive of trailer parks, rundown apartment buildings, and houses bulging with far too many people for the number of rooms and beds. The statistics are alarming. For example, 27 million people are enslaved through human trafficking around the world — mostly girls who are 12 to 14 years old. The FBI estimates that 293,000 children in our country are at risk to be exploited in the sex slave trade.2 In America, 46.2 million people (15 percent of the population) live under the poverty line.3 A recent study showed that 23.5 million people in our country needed treatment for drug or alcohol abuse.4 The National Task Force on Prostitution estimates that over a million women in the United States have worked as prostitutes, and most of them are addicted to drugs.5
Sometimes we notice those who are down and out, but not with compassion in our hearts and tears in our eyes. Many of us have deeply rooted prejudices. Subconsciously, but powerfully, we have divided the world between “us” and “them.” We are suspicious of people who do not dress like us, talk with an accent (or do not speak English at all), smell funny, and eat strange foods. We are afraid “those people” will move into our neighborhoods, ruin our schools, take our jobs, and consume the services we pay for in taxes. If we feel threatened by them, we bark accusations. If we do not feel threatened, we just ignore them.
Invest in them
Needy people represent Jesus Christ. What is He worth? What are they worth? We can invest in them in countless ways, spontaneously and strategically.
In his workout, a pastor ran on a path near his house. Every day he passed an old man sitting on a bench. The man looked Hispanic, and he appeared to be very poor. After months of running past him, the Lord prompted the pastor to stop, sit next to the man on the bench, and engage him in conversation. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that lasted for a decade. They ate many breakfasts together, had wonderful talks, and became genuine friends. The pastor explained, “If I'd kept running by him every day, I would have missed out on one of the greatest blessings of my life. We had almost nothing in common, but love formed a bridge between us.”
We invest in needy people by taking the initiative to start a conversation, show some love, and be a friend. If we make them feel like projects (and we can check them off after we have talked to them or given them a few dollars), we will run them off and ruin the relationship. But if we patiently get to know them — and let them get to know us — amazing things can happen.
Pentecostal churches do not have unlimited resources, but all of us can adjust our budget and time to care for people Jesus loves. At our church, we made compassion-focused programs the heart of our ministry. We created The Dream Center where God could rekindle hope in the hearts of hopeless women. Our program has three stages and takes 2 years to complete. Today, over 300 women have come and gone through our doors. The results are miraculous. These precious women have gotten off drugs, left the streets, regained their sanity, and found freedom and purpose in a new identity as daughters of the King. They have learned to trust again, and shattered relationships have been restored. These women have learned skills so they can be employed in productive jobs.
You and your church may not create a Dream Center, but you can do something that changes lives. It takes an investment of time and money; but, even more, an investment of love and courage. It is never easy to step into the lives of broken people, but we need to remember where we would be if Jesus had not stepped into our broken lives.
Motives are powerful but slippery. When we move into the lives of hurting people, we need to analyze carefully our reasons for investing in them. We may have many motivations: some noble, some selfish; some relatively pure, some complicated. Far too often, people give a few dollars or spend a little time to relieve a nagging sense of guilt, not to genuinely care for those in need. In an article in Christianity Today, Bruce Wydick evaluated worldwide child-sponsorship programs. His concluding warning fits all our compassion-driven efforts:
“The key to ending poverty resides in the capacity of human beings — and their view of their own capacity — to facilitate positive change. Indeed, every time we provide something for someone else in need, we send a subtle message to them that we believe they are incapable of providing for themselves. While some interventions are necessary, especially in the area of health, they come at a cost of reinforcing an inferiority complex among the poor. Good development organizations understand this.”6
At our church, we work hard to care for broken, wounded, needy people, but we never want to steal their dignity and responsibility from them. Instead, our goal is to impart strength, not dependency; to enflame desire, not to promote passivity; to point people to the wonder, love, and power of Christ, not to try to take the glory for ourselves.
Do you want to be a Matthew 25 leader and a Matthew 25 church? Ask Jesus to break your heart for the forgotten and despised people in your community. When He does, you will be ready to step into their lives with a powerful blend of humility, wisdom, and strength. The Spirit is looking for leaders like this. Are you one of them?
1. Francis Chan, Crazy Love (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 2008), 133.
2. Amanda Walker-Rodriguez and Rodney Hill, “Human Sex Trafficking,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, The Federal Bureau of Investigation, www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/march_2011/human_sex_trafficking [accessed 8 July 2013].
3. DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, U.S. Census Bureau, “Current Population Reports, P60–243, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011,” U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 2012, http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p60-243.pdf [accessed 8 July 2013.]
4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings,” NSDUH Series H–44, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 12–4713. Rockville, Maryland: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2012. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ondcp/policy-and-research/nsduhresults2011.pdf [accessed 8 July 2013].
5. Eve Hall, “A Focus on Prostitution,” www.compassioncoalition.org/slgprostitutionafocus.htm [accessed 8 July 2013].
6. Bruce Wydick, “Want to Change the World? Sponsor a Child,” Christianity Today, June 2013, 25. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/june/want-to-change-world-sponsor-child.html [accessed 8 July 2013].