A Framework for Effective Benevolence

Adapted from Helping Without Hurting in Benevolence Ministry.

Picture this scene, which probably plays out in some way in one or more churches in every city and town (in the U.S. at least) almost every day: 

A man walks into your community nonprofit organization and says, “Hey, my name is Ted and I haven’t eaten in the past several days. Could you spare me some change?” Or Amy, a longstanding member of your congregation, approaches the senior pastor after the morning worship service and says, “Pastor, it happened again. Could you help me pay my electric bill one more time?” 

These moments provide Christians the opportunity to act like what they are—the embodiment of Jesus Christ, whose ministry was characterized by holistic concern for the materially poor. And such opportunities provide a doorway for us to walk into a whole new world of ministry possibilities. 

Organizations typically refer to this kind of poverty alleviation work by different names. Some call it mercy ministry, some call it diaconal work, some call it compassion ministry. We use the broad term of “benevolence” to encompass all of these terms for ministering to individuals and families who are seeking material assistance.

Asking Better Questions

Benevolence is not a way to keep your nonprofit from getting involved in these messy situations, and it’s not a way to keep your congregation from engaging in the more difficult and systemic issues of chronic poverty and brokenness in your larger community. But it is a way to take some initial steps into those more complex issues and situations with real love that can lead to real transformation.

One of the most important questions that we should ask as we engage in any kind of poverty alleviation work is “What is poverty?” Because the way that we diagnose the problem determines the solutions that we used to alleviate the problem. If we misdiagnose the causes of poverty, or if we treat symptoms rather than underlying causes, we can do real harm to the very people we’re trying to help.

If we define poverty primarily as a lack of material things, we’ll tend towards providing material resources for people, and there’s absolutely a time and place for that. But in most cases, the material struggles that people are facing are rooted in something far deeper. 

Human beings were created to enjoy flourishing relationships with God, with ourselves, with others, and with the rest of creation. Those relationships were damaged in the Fall, and the effects tend to bubble up in various ways, including material poverty. When we begin to recognize that poverty is rooted in broken relationships, we start to realize that we’re all broken. None of us are experiencing these relationships in the way that God designed them to work.

This realization can lead to liberation for all of us in this scenario. It allows you to walk alongside Amy and Ted and say, “You know what? You’re broken and you’re struggling, and I’m broken, and I’m struggling. But Jesus is the bread of life. Let’s feed on him together!”

Starting on the Right Foot

One of the most important things to do when Ted or Amy come asking for help is to distinguish between relief, rehabilitation, and development. These are different ways of approaching poverty alleviation. 

Relief is a handout. It’s the appropriate thing to do when the person is incapable of contributing to their own improvement because of a crisis situation. Once the crisis has passed, though, it’s important to move out of relief and into rehabilitation and development—to move away from doing things for people, and start to do things with people. 

This matters, because the goal of poverty alleviation, including benevolence ministry, is to restore people as image bearers, as people who can steward their own gifts and their own resources well as part of a community. 

Often churches and ministries make the mistake of providing relief to people who really need development. We want to rush in to make the situation better. But most people are not completely helpless or in a crisis but are in a chronic state of material poverty. 

It’s important to ask people to contribute something toward their own development, because the goal is restoration not merely temporary relief. So you might provide material resources, but try to do it in a way that complements a person’s use of their own gifts and their own resources.

Praying for Wisdom

It takes wisdom to know how best to walk with people you meet. They don’t come with a sign on them that says they need relief, rehabilitation, or development. So we’ve got to pray. We’ve got to ask for wisdom. In many situations, we’re just not going to be sure. Do I write the check or not? 

Whatever we decide, we should err on the side of generosity, providing material assistance in the context of loving and empowering relationships. In this long and sometimes uncertain process, it’s important to keep the end goal in mind—to participate in the stream of what God is doing, to participate in what Christ is doing in the world in and through us and those we serve.

Obviously this is going to take a lot more than writing a check. It’s going to take a lot of time, relationships, and effort as we walk with people in a transformative process. If you’re trying to figure out how to create a program to help people like Ted and Amy, we’d like to invite you to start this process by joining our upcoming training, Helping Without Hurting in Benevolence Ministry.

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center

We equip local churches to address the broken relationships at the root of poverty, living out Jesus’ Kingdom today.

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