A Call to Benevolence: Helping Your Church Love Your Neighbors in Material Poverty
The Ministry of Jesus has always been word and deed. Wherever Jesus went, he preached the Kingdom of God. As he went, he healed people who were sick and hurting and in trouble as a sign that His message was true and the kingdom was at hand.
When the church experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts, the very first response of God’s people was to bring money from the sale of their property and lay it at the feet of the Apostles. Their faith was manifested in action. What did the Apostles do with all of this money? They started feeding widows—the new spiritual reality of the people showed up in care for the physical needs of the body of Christ.
Love of neighbor that cares for the needs of the vulnerable has always been part of God’s design for His people (see Lev. 19, Lev. 25, Deut. 14, etc.), and it has been the reputation of the Church of Jesus Christ throughout history when we obey God’s commands. Our faith is not simply a matter of intellectual understanding or emotional connection to Jesus. Following Christ changes us completely—we receive the mercy of God to become His people, and God calls His people to be practitioners of mercy.
Challenges to Showing Mercy
One of the biggest problems in America today is that there is limited relationship between Christians from different socioeconomic backgrounds. People with relative wealth and stability in their lives seldom live in real relationship with people in material poverty. Members of churches in middle- or upper-class communities, whether they intend to or not, tend to live in such a way that they do not have to deal with the challenges and discomfort of engaging with fellow Christians struggling to make ends meet.
Often those with financial needs in our cities and towns turn to a local church hoping for help. They knock on the door or find the phone number and ask for help. Too often, the church says, “We don’t do that. If you need help, you should go down to the Salvation Army,” or recommend some other nonprofit or social services agency. Or the church provides money to pay bills or gives out food and clothing, but doesn’t engage in real connection with those they are trying to help, treating them as clients of a service they provide.
Either of these responses represent a truncated view of the church’s calling. As those who have been transformed by fellowship with God through Christ, we should know that all of us experience change through relationship. This is what people in material poverty need, and the church is intended by God to be the primary place these transformative relationships flourish.
Living Out Our Theology
Most churches understand this theology of mercy ministry we’ve just outlined, and they believe somebody ought to be putting it into practice. But to actually do mercy ministry is hard work, requiring lots of patience and many well-trained leaders and volunteers. What often ends up happening as a result of this disconnect within middle-class churches is a kind of “mercy tourism” or one-off ministry efforts. Church members will hand out things to those in need or go on a mission trip and come back and talk about it. But if you look around in the congregation, you won’t find many people wrestling with material poverty. Even if there are some families who are struggling, it seems like the whole church is paralyzed, trying to figure out how to help them without ostracizing them.
For a church to effectively be involved in the lives of those struggling to meet their material needs, a few key components need to be in place. First, this requires intentional vision from the church leadership that is effectively communicated to the congregation. Second, church members need to be equipped to treat everyone with dignity—they need training to ensure that those they are trying to serve don’t get treated as if they’re a problem, a hindrance, or an interruption. Third, leaders and volunteers need a good plan that equips them for sustainable ministry amid the complexities of material poverty that actually ministers to people’s deepest needs.
It’s easy for materially comfortable people to judge people who are struggling. Why don’t they think about tomorrow? Why don’t they save up? What often gets missed without the context of real relationship is understanding how people in poverty often feel like their whole life has been going from one emergency to another. It takes time, and connection, and secure relationships with God and others to overcome these pressures and begin to adopt new values and habits.
When the church of Jesus Christ follows His lead and reaches out to people who are materially poor, and welcomes those He places in our path into His family, we need to be ready to build relationships and walk together over the long haul.
Practical Next Steps
One way to get practical about walking alongside those with financial needs is getting trained in biblical principles and practices of benevolence ministry. The Chalmers Center’s Helping without Hurting in Benevolence Ministry training will equip you to:
- Apply principles from When Helping Hurts to your benevolence or mercy ministry programs.
- Learn tools to respond effectively to needs presented to your church or organization
- Develop a plan and process for handling requests for assistance
- Equip leaders to respond to needs in your community
- Learn what works to help people move from crisis to long-term change
- Know how to address the root causes of poverty and not just the symptoms