Your Church is a Family
NOTE: Given the difficult realities that COVID-19 has brought to local church ministry, please watch this short video from Brian Fikkert introducing our online learning tools during this season: “Err on the Side of Grace: Doing Developmental Work in a Crisis.”
“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4).
“Hi. I live around just around the corner from here, and I’m having a really hard time right now. If I can’t pay my rent by tomorrow, my landlord is going to kick me out. Somebody told me your church would help me out. Anything you can give me would help.”
Most of us who’ve been around local church ministry for any length of time have had a version of this conversation with someone, maybe dozens or even hundreds of times. Our natural response is to help out—we are a church after all—but other thoughts naturally crowd in:
- What if this guy is lying to us? Has he already asked others for help?
- What’s the real story behind his need right now? Are we just enabling him?
- Does he have other, underlying problems that we’re not equipped to address?
Duty and Love
These are real and important concerns and a healthy church benevolence or community outreach ministry will address them through a thorough intake process, good record keeping, healthy boundaries, and referrals to other organizations or social services agencies.
But is that all there is to it? Once we’ve set our policies and procedures up to avoid hurting the people who ask our church for financial assistance, is that the end of our obligation to them?
Honesty has to govern our process, but so does the gospel message—praise God that Jesus even loves liars and frauds! Healthy boundaries aren’t necessarily the end of relationship, but rails for it to run on for the long haul. What if, instead of seeing people as projects (with a “right” and “wrong” way to accomplish), we saw them as image-bearers of our God? What if we saw them as brothers or sisters and potential members of our church? What if that initial awkward encounter could become part of a long story of relationship, the front door through which someone enters your family?
Finding Your Role
Your local church can do something in community with the materially poor that no one else is going to do.
Government agencies can do a decent job of providing food aid and other forms of material assistance. Nonprofits and parachurch ministries are often excellent providers of housing, medical care, mental health care, educational needs, etc.
Sometimes a church can step in and fill these sorts of care gaps in a community, especially if no existing ministries are effectively addressing all five causes of poverty. But nearly every local church is better equipped to be a family to someone experiencing material poverty than any other agency or organization.
Life in the Family
Thinking of your church as a loving family puts a different frame on your ministry alongside the materially poor. A loving family:
- Takes you to the doctor and prays in the waiting room, it doesn’t perform surgery.
- Might help you find stability in your finances, but won’t pay all your bills.
- Might help you get a job or start a business, it doesn’t do the work for you.
- Is ready to step in with meals, childcare, fellowship, and prayer during a crisis.
- Is on speed dial when you need to talk.
- Repents and forgives.
- Is forever.
The list could go on. We are able to become this kind of family because we are together sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ, who, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). In Jesus’ family, the flourishing of the poor isn’t an afterthought, but a central feature because we are all poor—in a fallen world we all fail to experience the fullness of our created design for our relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.
So how can we know we’re shifting from seeing people as projects to seeing them as potential members of our family?
- What would your church do if someone who asked you for money actually started showing up on Sunday morning and wanted to join the church?
- What aspects of our church culture might be unwelcoming to a materially poor individual or family? Are you unwittingly violating the commands in James 2?
- Are we willing to give generously of our time, our social capital, and our energy—not just our money?
- Are we open to learning from Christian brothers and sisters who are living in poverty?
- Are we involved enough in someone’s life to find out their gifts, talents, and skills, and not just their needs?
- Are we making it possible for people experiencing material poverty to live among us and be part of community—to “continue to live among” us (Lev. 25:35)?
- Are we working to include people in ministry, empowering them for the work of restoration in our community?
Of course, in all this, the goal is mutual transformation. We are all being changed by the work of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ family, we are learning to suffer together, pray together, listen together to God’s heart for the poor, and to be humble about our sin and who we are failing to honor. Our triune God brings us together and calls us to faithful relationship, and the outcomes are all up to Him.