The Jerusalem Experiment

April 3, 2014 in Question of the Week by Chris Altrock

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.


Aging an adventure

March 1, 2014 in Featured Question of the Week, Growing Older, Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers by David Comperry

Every stage of life has its pains and difficulties; but every stage has its blessings and opportunities as well. I believe the key to living joyfully as you grow older is to recognize each day as a gift from God and a chance to discover the blessings hidden in it. When you have a purpose in each day, and that purpose is to share the love of God with others, aging becomes less of a burden and more of an adventure, less something to be feared and more a reality to be embraced.


A spiritual life

March 1, 2014 in Featured Question of the Week, Growing Older, Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers by Bob McBride

David O. McKay, past president and prophet of the Church:

“The only thing which places man above the beasts of the field is his possession of spiritual gifts. Man’s earthly existence is but a test as to whether he will concentrate his efforts, his mind, his soul upon things which contribute to the comfort and gratification of his physical instincts and passions, or whether he will make as his life’s end and purpose the acquisition of spiritual qualities.”


A lifelong student

March 1, 2014 in Featured Question of the Week, Growing Older, Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers by Burton Carley

At any age, I urge the congregation to practice memento mori (“Remember that you will die.”) As for aging, what is inevitable for the body is not for the spirit, which may always keep the mind of the student.


Less stuff, more giving, God

March 1, 2014 in Featured Question of the Week, Growing Older, Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers by Sonia Walker

Living longer challenges us to think about aging based on one’s health status, social adaptability, financial and social resources, rather than the number of years lived.

I see the art of living longer with quality like nested Russian dolls.

Meet mine: Pursue self-care, de-clutter trash and treasures, be forgiving of self and others, give generously, share life with whomever God sends, reclaim or deepen your relationship with creation and Creator, let go and let God surround you with love.


Love people, not things

March 1, 2014 in Featured Question of the Week, Growing Older, Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers by Mark Matheny

My wife, Emily, and I had a marvelous mentor early on in our relationship: Rev. J.L. Niell. He worked long after his first retirement as a campus minister and lived into his 90s with great joie de vivre. I remember that one of his many kind of personal proverbs was something like “Do not love things, love people.”

Now that I’m quite a bit older myself, I try to remember that, and like our hero J.L., to spend time listening and paying attention to children and youths as they look to futures beyond our generation.


Only old once

March 1, 2014 in Featured Question of the Week, Growing Older, Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers by Will Jones

I learned from my grandmother, Lelia Jones, to laugh at yourself no matter what. One of Dr. Seuss’ last books was her favorite, and she read from it at her 90th birthday: “You’re Only Old Once. “ In true Seussian rhyme and form, it provides a humorous account of aging in our culture, especially in regard to medical care. I like the way it ends: “When at last we are sure you’ve been properly pilled, then a few paper forms must be properly filled — so that you and your heirs may be properly billed. And you’ll know, once your necktie’s back under your chin … you’re in pretty good shape for the shape you are in!”


Help thy neighbor

March 1, 2014 in Featured Question of the Week, Growing Older, Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers by Sally Jones Heinz

We all naturally have resistance to yielding some of our independence and accepting help for things we once could do by ourselves. But especially in an increasingly complex society, it is wise to focus on the things we can do and also to make use of resources that connect us with others — not just our comfortable circle of friends and family, but also people and organizations we may have never known.

Gracefully giving up our need to control all aspects of our lives opens us up to new opportunities to share our gifts with others and to stimulate new vitality for ourselves.

Recent research from the Plough Foundation shows:

Neighbors can play a major role in helping one another, a win-win situation with no cost to governmental agencies or charities;

In Shelby County, 83 percent of seniors said they and their neighbors routinely help one another with errands or chores; and

Approximately 90 percent of seniors feel their neighbors are honest, trustworthy and willing to help.


Don’t rust out; burn out

March 1, 2014 in Featured Question of the Week, Growing Older, Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers by Matt Anzivino

My 82-year-old mother taught herself how to play the piano at 70. She walks 3 miles every day. She averages 145 in bowling. She golfs, ministers at the neighborhood nursing home every week, as well as the local prison. I could go on and on. She certainly lives up to her advice: “Don’t rust out; burn out!”


Better, not bitter

March 1, 2014 in Featured Question of the Week, Growing Older, Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers by Brandon Porter

Psalms 37:25: “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.” This implies that getting old is a blessing. So my advice to those of us who are blessed to be 55 and older: Don’t get bitter; get better.