Today Jake & I visited a new church in the area. I was ok with it until the pastor went off on a tangent about missions. He said he did not believe in “short-term mission trips” here and there, scattered, but instead believes a church should adopt an area and go back, year after year, to build relationships with the people and pastors and educators and so forth. I fully support that. He said the church hadn’t picked an area yet, but he suspected it would be a certain South American country, because there is a church of that nationality that meets on their campus, and that would be a fantastic resource for them: these people would know their way around, would have connections, and could teach them the language. I started to get concerned, because if a church body hasn’t agreed on something like this a pastor doesn’t have any business announcing his personal opinion from the pulpit. That’s cause for “discipline” in an elder-led church. But then he said, very passionately, “And we’re not gonna go to the Southlake [wealthy] area! We’re gonna go to the poorest part, to some hellhole where people need the gospel…” and I checked out. Because I was PISSED. OFF.

Somehow American Christians have bought into this idea that working among the poor is somehow more noble, more spiritual, than working among the middle class, or the wealthy. Maybe it’s the modern Protestant version of penance, I don’t know. Or maybe we just flipped what the church was doing in James, and are now showing preference to the poor – which is still sin. But there’s this idea that poor people need Jesus more than rich ones, and so those who give up everything to go live in an inner city – or, even more impressively, a slum – are doing more for God’s kingdom than my friends who are struggling to make ends meet in the suburbs. Where, I would point out, God has clearly placed them, at least for now. This theme of “go join the poor” is popular at their church too, and every time someone says something to the effect of “If you’re not living in the ghetto you’re not in God’s will” they’re like, “BUT WHAT IF GOD CALLS YOU TO THE SUBURBS?” What will happen there when the salt and light flees for a more hip locale?

I don’t think it’s bad to go to a poverty-stricken area, either for repeated short-term trips or for a lifetime – but if you are doing it because you think that somehow the souls of the poor matter more to Jesus than the souls of the rich, then I would strongly suggest you reconsider because it looks suspiciously like you are trying to earn greater favor with God, to rack up more brownie points by doing something “difficult,” or because you get more points for a poor person’s salvation. And I also think that picking a place for your church to partner with based solely on its level of poverty looks suspiciously like poverty tourism.

While we’re on the subject of things being “difficult,” I submit that a “hellhole,” as this pastor so eloquently put it, may in fact be an easier mission field than one where people do not have such visible, pressing needs. When you are locked in a daily struggle for food – and I mean ANY food, not just getting a store to triple your coupon – someone coming along and telling you that the Almighty God cares about you and can provide for your needs, that sounds really appealing. (And on a side note: trusting God to provide one’s physical needs does not, in fact, constitute salvation. I am merely saying when life is physically difficult, you are acutely aware that you need all the help you can get.) But when someone is perfectly able to meet their own needs, thankyouverymuch, you are faced with the problem of convincing them of their spiritual poverty. When someone literally lives in a garbage dump, I would assume they have a better framework for understanding “This is how you are on the inside, without Jesus” than the guy who has a flatscreen and a car that gives him directions and a phone that can tell him what clothes to wear based on the weather forecast. How do you explain spiritual destitution to someone with a thousand channels in their cable package and some horrifyingly expensive reds in their custom wine rack?

(Note: I am by no means demeaning mission work in impoverished areas. I am trying to illustrate that different types of mission efforts are difficult in different ways. Working among the poor might be physically difficult but spiritually rewarding, while working among the more wealthy might be physically easy but spiritually difficult. Jesus Himself said, after meeting with the rich young man, that it is particularly difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. But He also loved the young man, and He also said that it IS possible – even for the wealthy – to enter God’s kingdom.)

Yes, people who live in a hellhole need the gospel. But so do people who live in expensive apartments. And so do people who have 74 acres in the country, and so do members of the royal family, and so do single moms, and so do your next door neighbors…it’s everyone. We will all be equally empty-handed when we stand before God. All people need the gospel, and their income doesn’t change the value of their souls.