Strategy Shift

By Paul Lawler


All over the world, people are moving into cities.  As this trend continues to take on momentum, many American cities are experiencing a renaissance.  My hometown of Birmingham is not an exception. This city is experiencing an emergence of refurbished high-rise apartments, beautifully designed green spaces, trendy restaurants and a brand new sports stadium.[i]  As the city center buzzes with new life, more people continue to move into the city.

While urban renewal remains a robust trend throughout North America, the renewal does not translate into solving all the problems of our inner cities.  Vast areas with overwhelming, chronic needs remain.  Poverty, drugs, prostitution, addiction, and violent crime continue to thrive.  Behind it all stands a long line of broken lives. 

For years I have witnessed churches struggle in expressing vibrant, holistic ministry among the poor.  There is much activity, but little holistic strategy for alleviating poverty. A church builds a Habitat House on the west end of town one year, only to build another Habitat House on the north end two years later. A church has a food drive for the local mission once a year, while several groups in the church serve meals at the soup kitchen several times per year. While these are good and beneficial steps, many of our approaches are random and fail to produce life-giving relationships with the poor. Thus, we fail to yield sustainable fruit.  This falsely teaches the saints that, by default, we are somehow fulfilling God’s intention in how we might engage the poor for the sake of God’s shalom and for the sake of the gospel. 

When an army is called to duty and asked to win a war, well-trained Generals engage in extensive strategy and planning sessions.  There is deep analysis of what has and has not worked in the past.  Blended with a full-orbed strategy and an iron-willed resolve, this is how wars are won.

The Scriptures state: “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.  Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3-4). In seeking to do justice for the weak, the fatherless, the afflicted and the destitute, great wisdom is required along with prayerful reflection and intentional strategies.

Many years ago the servant leadership team of Christ Church Birmingham began asking some deep questions regarding how we engage and serve the poor.  Our servant leadership team began praying, searching the Scriptures and seeking wisdom.  In addition to the Scriptures, we searched out Wesleyan patterns of engaging the poor.  We also sought out men like Robert Lupton and John Perkins, who have served effectively among the poor for many decades.  We spent time with them, asking them questions and reading their books.  Through this cumulative process, we began formulating a strategy for serving the poor in a manner strategically aimed at breaking cycles of poverty.  We have come to realize that there is a vast difference between community betterment (which meets basic human needs) and community development (which empowers the poor to rise out of cycles of poverty with dignity).[ii] 

Because poverty is complex and generational, we continue to embrace a multi-faceted strategy that aligns with community development goals. Here are 7 ways that our church family is seeking to serve the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely in our city:


Cycles of poverty are generational.  If the cycles of poverty are to be broken, it will involve engaging people on a consistent basis, over the long haul, in a manner through which the potential for life-transformation is made possible. Because of this, Christ Church Birmingham made a 25-year church-wide commitment to a very specific neighborhood in our inner city.


The average reading level for a high school graduate in our target area is fifth grade.  Thus, we tutor in the elementary schools.  We are seeking to be relationally invested and break the generational cycles of illiteracy. We also pray regularly for the teachers and students in these schools. 


Studies indicate communities have a greater chance of thriving where a critical mass of persons own the homes in which they live.  But many inner city houses, which are rented out at exorbitant prices, are not suitable to live in.  In response to this, we formed a non-profit corporation that purchases dilapidated houses, refurbishes them, and makes them available for persons who are ready to take the next step toward home ownership.  That non-profit, known as the East Lake Initiative, has since gone on to develop an even more, full-orbed strategy of community development.


Any thriving community has a safe place to buy groceries, sit at a restaurant or coffee shop, or buy clothes.  The business center in the area we serve contains empty storefronts, an adult theater, and much blight.   Years ago, several Christ-following entrepreneurs within our church family opened a business designed to spark the development of shalom and community in this inner city business district.  This business, known as East 59, serves as a venue to foster community and as a spark of economic development in our target area.


The great revivals of John Wesley did not begin among the prosperous, but among the poor.  With Wesley’s realization that the people of the prosperous Church of England would not respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ, Wesley took the gospel to the poor.  He preached to the poor outside the coal mines because he found people in that area to be receptive.

Wesley did not operate in a dichotomy of meeting physical needs without commitment to the deepest spiritual need among people.  As the Christ-following Methodist E. Stanley Jones once said, “An individual gospel without a social gospel is a soul without a body, and a social gospel without an individual gospel is a body without a soul.  One is a ghost and the other is a corpse.”  Thus, our commitment to ministry among the poor is wed with a commitment of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In our Birmingham strategy, we recognize there are already churches in the inner city in which the gospel of Jesus Christ is regularly shared.  We encourage persons to connect with life-giving, indigenous churches found in their own neighborhood.  While not a formal church, Christ Church has also launched a non-traditional Fresh Expression of church in our target area designed to lead people to Christ and develop them into persons who will glorify God, treasure Jesus Christ, love others and make disciples of all peoples.


We currently have several Christ Church Birmingham families who left the suburbs and moved into the inner city a number of years ago to live among the urban poor. Many think this is out of the ordinary, but let us remember this is central in our history as Christ-following Methodists. John Wesley encouraged his ministers[iii] to live among the poor.

In this vein, John Perkins advocates a threefold strategy in ministry to the poor.  He calls it the three “R’s”:  Reconciliation (based on the gospel, being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ and being reconciled to one another), Redistribution (reference to equipping people to develop life skills that serve to lift a person out of poverty), and Relocation (For servants of Christ to be willing to relocate and live among the urban poor). 


We clearly recognize that God was at work in our target area long before we began serving there. We seek to collaborate with other indigenous churches in our target area and have formed many ongoing partnerships with congregations of different cultural backgrounds.  We recognize there are many ongoing, vibrant expressions of Kingdom ministry in which we encourage people to participate.

As people and communities continue to prosper, people are moving into the cities.  However, let us, as Christ-following Methodists, remember John Wesley’s life and admonition.  “As he (John Wesley) grew old and Methodism became larger and more prosperous, Wesley deeply feared a growing complacency toward poverty. He warned of this in one of his last essays. He wrote: ‘For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently, they increase in goods. Hence they proportionally increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away.’”[iv]

May we, by God’s grace, respond prayerfully, responsibly, and strategically in serving the poor in our cities.

Paul Lawler is the Lead-Pastor of Christ Church UMC, and founder of The Immersion School, a discipleship training center in Birmingham, Alabama.  He and his wife, MJ, have four children and one daughter-in-law.  In addition to serving as a pastor, Paul and his brother, Dallas area businessman, Patrick Lawler, founded the Patricia B. Hammonds Girl’s Home for 60 orphans at high risk for human trafficking in Thailand. The home is operated through the international ministry of the Compassionate Hope Foundation.  They are currently laboring to build a second home in Thailand for 50 orphans vulnerable to being trafficked. Paul also serves on the North Alabama Conference Discipleship Team. He often tweets Kingdom thoughts at @plawler111


[ii] For more on the distinctions of community development verses community betterment, see the writings of Dr. Robert Lupton, as well as the organization called, FCS:

[iii] In Wesley’s day, a “minister” was not what we know today as a highly “professionalized clergy-person,” but was a person who had been trained and developed for ministry through the classes, bands and societies.  These ministers choose to live among the poor for the sake of the relational development necessary for the gospel and for discipleship.  In each respective community, they would form new classes, bands and societies for discipleship.  As Christ was formed in the people in each target area, many began living responsible lives.  As lives were transformed by the gospel, many began to rise out of the poverty that had bound them.