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The Greatest Commission

World leaders met in New York last week to discuss the progress of global efforts to reduce poverty, hunger and disease.


World leaders met in New York last week to discuss the progress of global efforts to reduce poverty, hunger and disease. It was a reminder that even as Americans face financial turmoil there are millions of people around the world who face the life and death financial crisis of extreme poverty.

Just prior to these meetings, Micah Challenge USA publicly released a letter to “The Church in the United States,” written by senior evangelical leaders in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The letter challenges what the authors see as the lack of Christian protest against America’s failure to live up to its promises to fight global poverty. It is a prophetic call, from ministers on the front lines in the fight against poverty, for Americans to remember the poorest of the poor even as we face financial worries of our own.

While the Wall Street crisis dominates the news, a world hunger crisis threatens to throw an additional 70 million people into desperate poverty this year; such as our neighbors in Haiti, who made headlines as thousands of women and children were forced to eat dirt to survive. Even though nearly every nation on earth, including the US, committed to the Millennium Development Goals to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015, poverty in places like sub-Saharan Africa has actually increased over the last several years while foreign aid to fight poverty has decreased.

The greatest victories of the Church have often been victories over our own moral failings, like the abolition of slavery. Today, one of the greatest moral failures for US churches is that while Christian growth in places like Africa has fast outpaced church growth in America, the gap between rich Americans and impoverished Africans has also grown. The question we have to ask ourselves is that, in trying to save Africa, have we begun to lose our own souls? How we deal with this issue is the great moral calling of the new generation of Christian leaders.

The reality is that while U.S. churches have been very generous in giving to global mission or humanitarian efforts over the last 30 years, there has been no organized Christian movement against global poverty in the way William Wilberforce mobilized Christians against slavery in the British Empire or churches stood as the moral force behind the sweeping social change of the civil rights movement. In a world where the difference between poor and rich is often as arbitrary as one’s skin color or nationality, and where poverty is a form of bondage or death for millions, it cannot be that extreme poverty isn’t worthy of the same moral outrage as slavery or segregation.

Ironically, it is our own religiosity that has been our biggest stumbling block. We have let the evangelical mission to save the world get in the way of our ability to actually change it. The Great Commission, the call to disciple all nations, has overshadowed the Greatest Commandment, the call to love both God and neighbor. This is the result of a generation of Christian mission that has put spiritual conversion, or evangelism, in competition with social change. What we need today is a new, missional generation led by what might be called “The Greatest Commission,” or the belief that true spiritual conversion cannot be separated from social change. Greatest Commission evangelicals would believe that planting churches is important, but also insist that these churches must play a role in creating communities that are more just, prosperous and compassionate.

Justice, mercy and humility are not words generally heard during a presidential debate or an evangelistic crusade. Yet, when the biblical prophet Micah wanted to give advice to the religious and political leaders of his day these are the words he used to describe the course of action they should take (Micah 6:8). The interesting thing is that Micah lived in an era marked by both stark poverty and remarkable wealth, not so different from the world we face today. That’s why the prophet’s words are behind the Micah Challenge, a growing coalition of “greatest commission” churches and organizations who want to change the world. Started by the World Evangelical Alliance, an alliance of 420 million believers worldwide, the Micah Challenge campaign is currently active in 40 countries, including the US. The goal is to make advocacy for the poor an integral part of evangelical mission and to hold both church and government leaders accountable to the promise to halve extreme poverty by 2015.

Keeping our promises to the poor, especially in the midst of our own financial worries, is going to take sense of mission from the Church. It is going to take an organized movement of Christians pursuing the “greatest commission,” asking ourselves the question: “How does God want to use me to change the world?”

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It will mean building churches that transform communities, but it will also mean becoming advocates for the poor by holding our political leaders accountable to their promises to dramatically reduce hunger, poverty and disease by 2015.

As the recent letter from our Christian brothers and sisters reminds us, the world is waiting. In the words of the Micah Challenge Call to transform poverty: “This is a moment in history of unique potential, when the stated intentions of world leaders echo something of the mind of the Biblical prophets and the teachings of Jesus concerning the poor, and when we have the means to dramatically reduce poverty.”

The Micah Challenge is issueing a letter to the future president. You can read it here and sign your name to the letter to help encourage our next president to make the Micah Challenge a global priority.

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