–October of 1996
From the River to the Rhine
I grew up in the country. My boyhood days were making memories on a lazy little farm in the Deep South. I was awakened in the morning by the sound or a crowing rooster or a bawling calf. I spent hours walking barefoot behind my father’s plow as he turned up the soft cool earth, readying it for the spring garden. I have played the day away in the gurgling, pristine waters of a forest stream, while birds darted about and squirrels chattered angrily at the sight of an intruder. The grand finale to such a storybook day was when family gathered around the front porch for the evening, each taking his place on a rocking chair on the porch swing. The cool night breeze would bear the music of a distant whippoorwill, the crickets chirped wildly, while the flickering light of fireflies provided us with our own dazzling fireworks display. Conversation would gradually begin to be interrupted by yawns, and Mother would give the order that sent us scampering away to bed.
Few outsiders ever invaded our private world. Anyone driving by on the main thoroughfare in front of our place was most often someone we knew. Any car turning up our lane caused an immediate rush to the front door or window by inquisitive kids to see who our rare visitors might be. I grew up in a quiet tranquil world.
I now live in the heart of a bustling metropolis. The sounds of traffic and commerce fill the air. People dash about with jobs to perform and deadlines to meet. Recently while driving off our hilltop campus into the heart of downtown, my heart began to long for the tranquil quietness of my boyhood days, I cried inwardly, “Lord, look at all these people!” My Heavenly Father quickly responded, “No, you are the one that needs to look. I see them.” With the aid of divine illumination, I suddenly began to see more clearly. I saw the multiplied thousands of people in the inner-city with no one to care for their spiritual needs. Here are people of every race and class, scurrying about like sheep with no shepherd—abandoned, it seemed, by those who could offer hope and help.
Mission strategists tell us that the inner cities of America have now become one of the largest mission fields of the world. Yet strangely, the Church—and particularly those within the holiness tradition—has largely abandoned the inner-city. It has surrendered the high ground of spiritual warfare to poverty, drugs, prostitution and vice of all sorts. Even the horn and cymbals of the Salvationist street preacher have been traded for a soup ladle and a used clothing store. Oh, the large mainline churches still stand tall and proud on prominent downtown streets; but they have no ministry to the hopeless or message of holiness for desperate sinners.
The Wesleyan message of saving grace and heart purity saved England in her darkest hour from revolution and turned around one of society’s and civilization’s most festering sores. Yet the holiness church here in America has not chosen this road of revival and reform for the inner-city, but it has chosen rather to flee the cities and entrench itself in comfortable suburbia. It now lines the outer beltways of our major metropolises and enjoys a selective evangelism that is more palatable and profitable. This ecclesiastical escapism has helped to breed the user-friendly church, with plenty of self-help classes but very little agony and anxiety for the lost.
Jesus, however, authenticated his ministry and membership by preaching the gospel to the poor. He rebuked the righteous by reminding them that he did not come to call them to repentance, but the sinner. He articulated his mission statement well when he said, “I have come to seek and to save that which is lost.” This Bible contains over four hundred passages relating to the poor, sixty-four of which command us as believers to help the vulnerable. Yet holiness people rationalize their own inactivity with a “pessimistic theology” that believes we can’t fix society’s ills.
I’m well aware that the words I write will stir up strong feelings and immediate debate. The first rebuttal will be that “white flight” and population shifts have forced the church to relocate in the proximity of those who want to identify with the church ministry emphasis. Another argument is that because of socio-economic reasons, as well as other cultural factors, the blending of the two groups of people is just not possible or even practical.
I fully grasp the significance of each argument and will not take the time in this article to rebut them. However, what frustrates me is that these groups will parade missionaries from every land and isle to their churches, hear their presentations, cry over the distant lost, and empty their pockets to make sure that sinners ten thousand miles away get the gospel message. Yet they have no burden and make no plans and feel no responsibility to send a missionary or establish a ministry to and for the most desperately lost people in the world—the people in the inner-city.
This duplicity has even gripped until the Bible college movement until they, too, boast of rural campuses in comfortable suburbia, with plenty of hiking trails, swimming pools, and white-water rafting. All, of course, within a considerable distance of any poor miserable sinner! No wonder many graduates ask the potential church congregation about parsonage amenities, salary packages and retirement programs before they ever explore the possibility of reaching the lost.
Did I say that all have abandoned the inner-city? The Catholics and the cults are still there. There are also many little store-front ministries, mostly sponsored by the Pentecostals or the Calvinists. These little hole-in-the-wall churches offer hope and light to those lost in darkness, and to some extent hold back the powers of evil in the inner-city. Several of those missions here in Cincinnati have been fully operated and staffed by GBS students. It was my own years spent working in an inner-city mission that created a passion and a drive for evangelizing the lost that has marked my ministry for the last twenty years.
One such mission stands at the north end of Main Street, in a section called “Over the Rhine.” GBS Alumni will know it as “Main Street Mission.” Our students have preached from its pulpit, held Good News Clubs for the neighborhood children, preached on its street corners, and passed out gospel tracts all the way down the southern end of Main Street, where it deadends into the riverfront.
Our present pastor, Tom McKnight, works so faithfully with his people for the conversion of souls in his inner-city parish. Tom is often heard from the pulpit saying, as he challenges his people, “we must reach them from the river to the Rhine.” Of course, Tom is referring to the southern end of Main Street on the riverfront to the northern end of Main Street in the area of Over the Rhine. The words and burden of this man have challenged my heart again and again. Tom is right. We must reach them. We must take our cities back for the glory of God and the good of our civilization.
In the first part of this century when the Bible college movement, God called out the Cowmans and sent them to the Orient. He called out the Smelzenbachs and sent them to Africa, as well as various others around the globe. But these two couples from the holiness movement made an impact on the world that will never be forgotten. I’m praying that in the closing part of this century God will once again find a couple like the Cowmans and call them—call them to the inner cities of our own country! I want God’s Bible School and College to be on the front line, leading the way and giving the support that is necessary to see our inner cities reached. Tom is right. From the river to the Rhine, we must reach them!