“Resolution One: I will live for God. Resolution Two: If no one else does, I still will.” - Jonathan Edwards -

Monday, February 19, 2007

Programs or People?

At one point in time in this country, the church was the dispenser of compassion amongst the poor. Church doors used to be installed without locks, and the poor were welcome.

That seemed to change once the US experienced some economic and political power in the mid to late 20th century. The church went through a similar path of success -- yes, church attendance may have gone down by the late 50's, early 60's, however, before that most people went to church, and the church prospered along with the country. It was at this point in time that churches seemed to have dropped the ball, and became more consumed with their internal concerns and less with the concerns of the world around them. Churches began to grow larger and more stultified in their outreach to the dispossessed. Churches were now locked, and community focus narrowed.

As time went on, and mainstream denominations began to fall on hard times, they become more and more insular in their perspective, eventually many abandoned the orthodox faith in order to attract more attendees, and the church became a battleground for political ideals, while social concerns were distanced more and more from the parishoner and given over to 'professional' para-church organizations to handle, as care for the poor became politicized and no longer the realm of the 'common man'.

Now, I am not trying to whitewash some of the issues that the church struggled with -- racism and other concerns definitely affected the way the church handled working with the poor, but by and large, churches were the place where a poor person could find help. (Maybe one day we could cover some of this in another series)

As the church stepped back from their role in society, the government picked up the slack. The problem is that the government is notoriously bad at handling these types of issues; in working with the poor, and the dispossessed, there are many nuances and subtleties, and the government is not structured to handle that -- they are a broad-brush solutions group.

When the church allowed the government to do this, I believe that many felt relieved not to be responsible for their brothers any longer (all the while griping about their tax dollars supporting those they considered 'lazy'), and some of these self-same folks became vocal activist against the 'welfare state', all the while offering no biblically-based solution. And then, once we had a generation of church-attenders who grew up with the idea of the government running a 'safety net' for the poor, there was no longer a compulsion to actually get involved with the poor.

We now find ourselves in an environment where the church, by and large, has very little interaction with the poor -- we have given that responsibility over to the 'urban' or 'street' ministries, or the 'professionals' within the government.

While that may sound great, the truth is that the poor and the needy require more than a hot meal and a place to sleep (but not less). I have found that many 'street' ministries are run by people who do a lot of physical feeding of the hungry, but very little spiritual feeding. Most times they are run by well-meaning and compassionate but understaffed and underqualified people. So, what could we do to alleviate that? First, churches could partner with these street ministries, providing theological training and financial assistance to the staff. Second, encourage our people to get out and work with the needy, getting to know them, and not simply throwing their money at the problem. Oftentimes many of these folks need a friend, or a wise counselor, not simply a new pair of shoes.

We have adopted a few folks into our church, and it has been amazing to see the results. Not only do the former homeless folks benefit from our assistance, but we begin to see more clearly the Scriptures such as James 1:27 -- Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.; or Matthew 25:34-40 -- Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.' We have been changed in our interaction with these folks as much as they have. Putting a face to the descriptor 'homeless' changes one's perspective.

What the church needs to do is reach out to those in their local community, providing spiritual and physical sustenance, partnering with other existing ministries, and, if necessary, providing them with training. The congregations need to be heavily encouraged by their pastors to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty in the glorious work of proclaiming the gospel to the poor, and coming alongside them to lift them up.

As a final note -- I find that the larger the church, the less involvement they want to have -- that is not an absolute truth, but an observation. They may provide funds, but to get them to bring in some folks and 'adopt' them is difficult. Many in these churches are clean, affluent, and comfortable, and the sight of poor in their midst is upsetting. Also, the pastor needs to set the tone, and if he is too busy, or worse, too important, then the people take their lead from him.

I know that I have not covered this completely, and there will be more posts, but these are the initial observations that I wanted to post.


Dave said...

Here's a thought. Let churches develope street ministry and run the "para-church" ministries out of business. Just kidding. But think about it. Its like hockey. You don't take big, strong athletes and teach them to ice skate. You take ice skaters and teach them to play hockey. In other words, take those who are skilled at evangelism and teach them how to hand out sandwiches and coffee.

But you hit the nail on the head about the church failing its responsibility to a point that the government has to step in. If churches did what Christ called us to, governments would need less money to operate and I would have more discretionary income on my paycheck, which would let ME choose where my benevolent giving goes.

Ray said...

Yes, there are a lot more parts to this than I could post in a single entry -- but I think what I really find disconcerting is that so few churches actually have their people engaged in meaningful work amongst the poor; whilst they may have a program for this, all too rarely are there actualy folks from the church involved at any level.

Now, with that being said, I know there are many worthwhile ministries in this area, and I hope to highlight a few during this series.

I know where your heart is, as you are one of the folks that lead our outreach into our community, and believe me, I truly appreciate it!