In our last article, What Should Be Our Response to the Hand Out (Literally) on the Street, we talked about an individual Christian response to the poor we meet face to face. In that article our conclusion was first and foremost to respond in prayer. Second, we should be prepared to offer a meal instead of money, and third we pray and see if we need to do more. That is a suggestion for the individual Christian response and generally speaking, a response to urgent need.
But what should be the church’s response? And by the church, I mean more than a systemic Christian organization-I mean the local church where you and I go each Sunday. Our obligation to the poor is clear: Jesus mandated that Christians and by implication, the church, is to feed the poor and clothe the naked. Feeding the poor is the same as feeding Jesus and ignoring the poor is to ignore him. Matthew 25:31-46. As the community center for the believer, the church must take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger and those who are oppressed. From its very inception the Gentile church was taught this. Gal 2:10 But how should we go about responding to the poor?
How should the Church serve the poor?
The question of how to help the poor is much more complicated than it first appears. First, and critically important is to define poverty.
Poverty is more than material lack. I cannot emphasize this statement enough. In his book, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, Bryant Myers defines poverty as having four basic spheres, the poverty of stewardship which includes materialism, the poverty of community, the poverty of spiritual intimacy, and the poverty of being, which addresses low self-esteem . This is important to understand because it is possible to “help” individuals materially by giving them food, for example, but this could damage self-esteem which may cause a person to feel further rejected by community and ultimately, rejected by God.
For example: In one community, a well meaning church decided to help people they saw as materially poor by bringing Christmas presents to a housing project. This went on for a number of years and often, when the church came to the door, the father of the house did not appear and some escaped out the back door because the church unknowingly increased a sense of shame at the house. Did the home need the Christmas presents? Maybe, but maybe not. Delivering the presents may have hurt more than help and even kept the family away from the church due to the shame they felt. Or what if a father had worked hard to provide a Christmas present that wasn’t quite as nice as the one you just delivered. How would that father feel?
I am not saying that we should not help but I am saying that we may need to revisit how we are helping.
Let’s look at one final illustration of hurting the poor. Many Christians often complain about the government helping the poor because they don’t see lives being transformed and because many times, the material help that is provided only sustains a lifestyle of addiction, dependence, or discouragement that is spiritually destructive. Isn’t it possible for the church to do the same?
So what do we do?
Every church must be involved in alleviating the suffering of poverty, keeping in mind that poverty is not only material. I am not talking about the person “bleeding at the door.” By that I mean that when a person is in immediate need, sometimes the only thing we can do is immediately respond. That is often the problem of the person we meet in the parking lot in need of a dollar for gas to get home or the stranded woman on the side of the road with her child. These are crisis situations. But let’s be careful to define what is and what isn’t a crisis.
In their book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert defined a crisis situation that needs immediate attention as a situation that will have immediate serious results—i.e. a baby goes hungry, the electric is shut off, etc. . Relief is that urgent and temporary provision that “stops the bleeding.” They write that the bandaging of the helpless man in the parable of The Good Samaritan is an excellent example .
Rehab is the next step that takes place as soon as that bleeding stops. It seeks to restore that person to a positive position in their community and families, taking care to have the individuals participate in that restoration . You may immediately notice that this may take some time and some relationship building.
The next step is Development, moving the individual to right relationship with God, self and others .
But can you do it? This is certainly more than Sunday morning service, isn’t it? Remember, this is not the job of the pastor only. This is the pastor using his church, allowing the church to act as the body by contributing their talents as well. This is church as it is supposed to be-every person having a purpose.
Steps to Take
I am going to make this real practical with numbered steps.
- When was the last time you heard a sermon about helping the poor, or the widow, or about any kind of social justice? I can tell you that I haven’t heard any in the last two years and I haven’t seen them on television either. So, if you are a pastor, preach the sheep and the goats or anything about the words of Jesus that says we are to minister to the poor. Preach Luke 4:18, 19 about the anointing of Jesus to preach the good news to the poor and set the captives free, and how that same anointing is empowering you, the believer. And believe me, poverty takes captives and enslaves them. If you are not a pastor, ask your pastor to preach on this topic and enlist the congregation to fulfill the words of Jesus.
- Churches cannot passively leave our obligation to the poor to a para church ministry or to some other church down the street. But it is an excellent idea for churches to join together to attack poverty corporately or to actively support a para church. And by that I mean get your church involved. Volunteer at a para church organization and/or send money. Remember Pastors this little axiom, So goes the pastor…so goes the church. Your people need to see YOU volunteering.
- Almost any church can begin donating time and or canned goods. But keep in mind, that simply donating to a good organization is not alleviating spiritual poverty. It is important to make sure the word of God goes with the donations AND if you are targeting an area of material poverty, make sure invitations are extended to come to the church or perhaps, bring the church to the area. Give more than materially, give in a relational manner. This will take time.
- Work toward building a system that moves people to being reconciled with and glorifying God by living in right relationship with others, themselves, and God.
The Church is the body of Christ, charged with being ambassadors of Christ reconciling the world to him 2 Cor. 5:19. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked opens the door to bring Christ’s wholeness to those in need. With the anointing of God let us preach the good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, set at liberty those who are oppressed, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18, 19.
The next article asks the question: Do I help the immigrant?
This article on the poor is simply a starting point. Let me refer you to some resources:
Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, Bryant Myers Maryknoll, N.Y. Orbis Books (2011).
When Helping the Poor Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, Moody Publishers, New Edition (2014).
Love, Inc (in the name of Christ) website. They are a para church ministry that unites churches to feed the hungry and clothe the naked with them being careful to keep in mind helping without hurting. http://www.loveinc.org/
 at page 27. Maryknoll, N.Y. Orbis Books, 1999.
 at page 99, Moody Publishers.
 Id. At 100.