Significantly decreasing Memphis’ poverty rate will require the combined efforts of national, state and local governments as well as profits/not-for-profits and faith groups/churches. Let’s however, narrow the focus for a moment to faith groups. Specifically, to churches. What can Memphis-area churches do about Memphis-area poverty?
Broad answers may come from what some have called the “Jerusalem Experiment.” (John Stott, The Message of Acts, 107). First-century Jerusalem, like 21st century Memphis, was a city filled with various socioeconomic classes: (Richard Bauckham, editor, The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting: Volume 4)
- The wealthy upper class consisted largely of Jewish religious leaders (including the High Priestly families) and nobility. Most of their wealth came from through the ownership of land/estates.
- The lower class consisted of craftsmen and small merchants, many of whom scratched out a living near the Temple: bakers, weavers, goldsmiths, washers, merchants of ointments, money changers, carpenters, masons and skilled laborers. Lower class merchants also sold wares in the multiple markets of Jerusalem. The city was known for its jewelry, spinning, weaving, shoe making, oil, pottery, and other goods. Unskilled laborers worked the fields and olive groves in and around Jerusalem. They were also employed as watchmen, watching over animals, children, the sick or the city gates. Still others worked as bathhouse attendants, manure gatherers and messengers.
- At the bottom of the socioeconomic class were the outcasts. These were slaves, beggars, those in unapproved occupations (e.g., prostitutes, dung collectors, donkey drivers, gamblers), the diseased, and those from questionable births. They were the poor and the needy.
Those highest on the economic ladder lived nearest to the city-center. Those lowest on the economic ladder lived in the outskirts, if they had dwellings at all. Thus, just like Memphis, first-century Jerusalem was filled with the poor. Just like Memphis, in first-century Jerusalem the poor lived in identifiable geographical areas.
Into this context stepped the early church. And Luke, one of the church’s earliest journalists, reported this surprising line about the church in Jerusalem: “There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:35). It’s an astounding claim. There were no poor in the church in this city filled with poor.
What did this mean? It did not mean the church consisted only of the upper class. Luke isn’t reporting that only the elite were allowed into Jerusalem church. It’s clear that the church was filled with needy persons–only they did not remain needy (we know this because Luke goes on to explain how these needy persons were helped by the church). The church had many unskilled day laborers and outcasts–people lacking the skills, social standing and opportunity to earn a living wage. They were drawn to the church. They were welcomed by the church. They were served by the church. When Luke wrote “There was not a needy person among them” he’s not saying the poor were barred from or ignored by the church. Just the opposite. The poor filled the Jerusalem church (so much so that in Acts 6 Luke reports that the church had to create new administrative structures to see to the overwhelming needs of the many poor).
Their presence in the early church in Jerusalem raises a prophetic question for the contemporary church in Memphis–are the poor welcome and present in our churches? Would Luke write about our churches that “There was not a needy person among them”? Only would he describe us in this way because it was true in a pathetic way–true in the sense that we rarely sought out or welcomed the poor of Memphis in our churches? At its most basic, the Jerusalem Experiment challenges Memphis-area churches to allow the Spirit to recreate them into communities where the poorest find a home.
But not only were the needy welcomed in the early church in Jerusalem, they were lifted out of their poverty. That’s what the account in Acts 4 describes. There were no needy in the church because the church lifted each poor person out of poverty. Specifically, it was reported that house-owners and land-owners in the church (yes, the early church also sought out and welcomed the upper class) voluntarily sold land or houses and authorized the church to use the funds to help the poor.
Luke, our reporter, states that this generosity permeated every class in the church: “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own” (Acts 4:32). John Stott comments that, in fact and in law, the Jerusalem Christians continued to own goods but, in heart and in mind, they thought of their possessions as being available to help the needy. (John Stott, The Message of the Book of Acts, 107.)
This experiment in abolishing poverty in Jerusalem on a case-by-case basis was carried on by the church for three centuries in many cities (Everett Ferguson, Early Christian Speak, Revised Edition, 2-7-210):
- For example, Aristides wrote of the early church: “They love one another. They do not overlook the widow, and they save the orphan. He who has ministers ungrudgingly to him who does not have…And whenever they see one of their poor has died, each one of them according to his ability contributes ungrudgingly and they bury him…And if there is any that is a slave or a poor man, they fast two or three days and what they were going to set before themselves they send to them…”
- Clement of Rome wrote: “We know many among us who have given themselves into bondage in order that they might ransom others. Many delivered themselves into slavery and taking their price provided food for others.”
- And Tertullian wrote, “These contributions are the trust funds of piety. For they are not spent on banquets, drinking parties, or dining clubs; but for feeding and burying the poor, for boys and girls destitute of property and parents; and further for old people confined to the house, and victims of shipwreck; and any who are in the minds, who are exiled to an island, or who are in prison merely on account of God’s church.”
Year after year, in city after city, it could be said of the churches that “There was not a needy person among them” because they adopted a posture of generosity, relinquishing whatever they could whenever they could to alleviate the suffering of others.
The online Yellow Pages lists about 1,600 churches in the Memphis-area. Barna Inc. finds that about 350,000 attend a church in metro-Memphis on a given week. What if every one of those 1,600 Memphis churches engaged in a Jerusalem Experiment of their own? What if every one of those 350,000 church-attenders participated in his/her church’s Jerusalem Experiment. And what if we began with children? The Urban Child Institute reports that 7,000 children in suburban Shelby County and 65,000 children in Memphis live in poverty? What if we started with them? What if one day it could be said (positively) of the Memphis-area churches “There was not a needy person among them”? Would poverty be eliminated? No. But we’d take a radical step forward.