No one earns salvation. Jesus offers an unmerited gift, not an obligatory wage. However, even a careful reading of His parables about the sheep and goats and the rich man and poor beggar can leave the impression that our eternal fate hinges on whether we ignore the poor. The Greatest of All goes so far as to identify Himself with the “least of these”, implying we walk away from eternal fellowship with Him when we callously pass by the destitute.
For nearly 2,000 years, churches took those warnings seriously. The Church was the food bank and homeless shelter – founded our hospitals and schools. Yet today in America, government and ministries occupy the front lines of compassion. We debate which political party is more concerned about the poor because the Church abdicated its central role in poverty alleviation, giving government the opportunity to usurp that mantle. In other words, the question is not whether liberals or conservatives care more about those less fortunate – the question is whether the private sector (e.g. churches and ministries) or government should bear primary responsibility. That philosophical difference lies largely in whether we can rely on the voluntarily benevolence of those most able to donate to help the poor or whether taxes must be imposed to compel “generosity” to fund state-sponsored anti-poverty programs.
It’s worth considering whether our nation would need a safety net if Christians in America understood the importance Jesus placed on aiding those who are suffering. The federal government can provide help but not hope. The Church was entrusted by God with the keys to the Kingdom, the only enduring solution to material and spiritual poverty.
What part has not following Jesus’ example of leading with compassion played in the Church’s well-documented decline in growth, influence and public perception? If Christ, and not Christians, were truly in charge then churches would realize that sermons without service are essentially attempts to “outpreach” Jesus. He had the perfect words yet opened ears by first demonstrating His love – feeding and healing before telling people who He is. If we saw church as 24×7 and not an event, then the work churches do for families in need wouldn’t be seasonal and transactional, but year-round and dignified.
How Jesus Feels About the Poor
Jesus said we’ll always have the poor with us and cautioned His disciples to focus on the Bridegroom while He was still among them. Christ left His bride, the Church, to carry on His mission “to proclaim good news to the poor”. Those were His first public words, the declaration of His purpose – the reason He came. Likewise, the opening salvo of His Beatitudes was “Blessed are you who are poor”, unveiling the irony of God’s economy where (spiritual and material) poverty can bring (eternal) riches, and vice versa. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He identified with the poor, urged His followers to care for them and flipped the script on the wealthy, stressing that the poor were more likely to be…
- Humble – Struggles and pain in this life make the poor more receptive to the message that they are sinners in need of a Savior (Matthew 5:3)
- Saved – Redeemed thinking sees oneself as unworthy and incapable, thoughts not typically associated with the wealthy (Matthew 19:23)
- Attentive – Acquiring and maintaining assets increases busyness and self-sufficiency (Luke 14:13, 21)
- Kingdom-minded – Those without treasures on earth are more likely to focus on storing them up in heaven, where “many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30)
- Christ-like – Jesus self-selected poverty, rejecting money and power (2 Corinthians 8:9)
- Persecuted – Christians in many nations today are suffering because they were the first to lose their jobs and the last to receive support during the pandemic (Matthew 5:12)
- Prisoners – The rich who reject Jesus are less likely to be imprisoned because they don’t experience hunger, inadequate legal representation or persecution (Matthew 25:43)
The affection and affiliation Jesus felt with the poor explains why He often implied that generosity toward them is the key to being “cleansed”.
What Churches are Doing About the Poor
Most churches rely on seasonal outreach events as their primary delivery vehicle for compassion. Yet, without relational follow-up that engages families in plotting a course to a better future, those events actually do more harm than good…
- enabling members to “check the box”, not transforming the congregation or community
- perpetuating poverty by increasing dependence without providing tools for the under-resourced to escape their plight
- failing to recognize the value and respect the dignity of the economically poor
- increasing cynicism because churches retreat into their “4 walls” when the holidays are over while the poor are still hungry and hurting in January and February
America’s church growth models cater to consumers rather than challenging disciples to adopt Jesus’ mandate to serve the poor. As a result, very few congregations are moving the needle on poverty in their communities. The vast majority of churches…
- Underemphasize its Importance – Most pastors gloss over the parables and sidestep the verses referenced above that on the surface appear to link salvation to being and/or serving the poor
- Position Care-Share as Either-Or – Some church leaders expect a free pass by delineating between “social” and “gospel”, claiming they’re focused on the latter – but then do neither
- Celebrate their Kindness – Despite doing little to address poverty, and in some cases doing more harm than good, churches pat themselves on the back for their holiday outreach events
- Don’t Model Generosity – Leaders ask members to tithe but reinvest less than 1% in serving the poor, doing so in “convenient” ways like backpack drives, meal packing events or service days
- Underutilize their Resources – Facilities sitting idle for most of the week could be used to deliver career counseling, financial management classes or other services for struggling families
- Live in the World’s Economy – Teaching Kingdom economics, that poor is good and rich is (usually) bad, stays true to Jesus’ countercultural message but is a risky proposition for a church
- Lack Discipleship Depth – Fully grasping what is not intuitive and practicing what seems impractical requires a deep understanding of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit’s power
Meet The Need’s mission is to “mobilize and equip the Church to lead millions more to Christ by meeting those in need exactly where they are”. We’ve been providing software and services to churches and ministries for nearly 20 years to enable them to bring more help and hope to the poor. Long ago, we realized the truth of the adage “sell people what they want, but give them what they need.” Churches weren’t looking for innovation to better serve the poor, but we built those systems anyway, became a non-profit and give our platforms away at no charge.
How Churches Could Drastically Reduce Poverty
COVID-19 is increasing the number of Americans who live below the poverty line. Our churches have a tremendous opportunity right now to reverse the decline in impact, attendance and perception that preceded the pandemic. The worst decision in the history of the Church in America was to separate compassion from evangelism. Now is the time to return to following Jesus’ model and mantra that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for Him.
- Identify with Jesus and the Poor – As a body, humbly aspire to be “poor in Spirit”, seeing all of mankind as eternal souls made in God’s image and anyone’s misfortune as an opportunity to “proclaim good news to the poor”
- Help in Ways that Help – Increase dignity, not the shame inherent in conveying that the rich are coming to rescue the poor. For example, Meet The Need is rolling out an Artificial Intelligence platform churches can use to empower families to build their own lasting circles of support.
- Equip Members for Ministry – Gen Z cares about the poor and justice, but churches can’t reach them without innovating online because that’s where they live. New prayer, care and share solutions extend the reach and impact of churches well beyond brick-and-mortar and Sundays.
- Set Scriptural Goals – Track ambitious, Kingdom-advancing metrics like “reducing material and spiritual poverty rates by X% in our community by 2025”
- Link Compassion and Discipleship – Like the exemplary church, The Salvation Army, establish terms of service so limited resources are invested wisely in those looking for more than handouts
- Don’t Get Lured into Politics – Follow Jesus in “giving back to Caesar what is Ceasar’s” and reclaim what churches rightfully own, the lead role in (material and spiritual) poverty alleviation
- Remember the Forgotten Poor – Keep in mind that most verses in the New Testament about collections were for giving to persecuted Christians who faced abject poverty and prison
America’s pews and online worship services are filled with enough untapped resources to eradicate poverty in America. Government should fill the gaps, but that gap is growing because Christians only donate 2.5% of their income and 37% of evangelicals don’t give to church at all. When churches in turn give away less than 1% of that, it is clear churchgoers and leaders don’t grasp the gravity of Jesus’ dire warnings to help the poor.
It’s Your Turn…
Are you and your church alleviating, perpetuating or ignoring poverty?
Good Grief, Jim: I am running out of adjectives for you. ON TARGET. RIGHT! AMEN and AMEN. THE TRUTH!
“Are you and your church alleviating, perpetuating or ignoring poverty?” Great Question!
“The Church abdicated its central role” and, you say the central role is poverty. I say it is the GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST, which includes assisting the poor. But, Jesus is clear, “the poor will always be with us”. It is personally embracing the Gospel which will lift many out of poverty and add to the numbers of those who can help.
Secondly, Jesus spoke to His Household: Matthew 13 – Jesus began to speak of the Kingdom in parables. His disciples wondered why he was doing this, instead of just speaking plainly. His answer, in Matthew 13, is quite clear,
“He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand” (Matthew 13:11-13).
It is on US, HIS HOUSEHOLD to take up this gauntlet and obey His Commands.
No kidding, Jim. We can be Church, together!
All glory to God, brother! Appreciate your partnership in Church reform at this critical time.
PS: Matthew 25:41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44“Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ 45“Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46“These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
There’s some truth in most of what you’ve said here. But there’s also some error, and, in general, it seems like you’re being too critical of how churches feel called to give. In my witness, some churches do neglect some of their own needs in order to send supplies and even missionaries to other parts of the world. Others, who you feel are only at church for a day or two during the week, are actually doing more through jobs in social services, medicine, and other areas than many of our non-profit organizations can shake a stick at. Remember, the word implies that no one should finger wag without true cause. And our cause, in Jesus, has never been to make our church homes anything other than home: places of peace for rich and poor alike, not like bustling train stations, but like heavenly resting places where we’re able to entertain angels, God’s messengers, and also bring the poor in spirit (spiritually) into the fold. Church work is quiet work, not something a lot of people boast about. But are there are some deadbeat and even reprobate folds? Yes, there are. Yet, if it’s your calling to reach those churches, you have to do so in spirit and in truth and shouldn’t lean to your own understanding. For example, you say, “He … opened ears by first demonstrating His love – feeding and healing before telling people who He is.” But that’s not the truth. Even today, Jesus, in the present tense, ministers more than “perfect” words. He is the word of Heaven, and He speaks into our lives through what is written, and through what is heard or felt of the Holy Spirit. And, same as during His walk in earth, He identifies Himself right away. Even demons, during His physical walk in earth, heard of Him. (“Jesus I know,” one declared, and “What will you do to us, Jesus, son of God?” declared another.) They heard of Him, because, during years of active ministry, He always has said who He is. Remember how, at the temple in Nazareth, He began ministering by reading from Isaiah and telling the congregation that He was there to fulfil Isaiah’s prophesy. That was shocking, at that time. Our Savior even quizzed His own close friends, the disciples, often asking questions like, “Who do you say I am?” knowing they would one day scatter in fear and doubt. So, likewise, He identified Himself to those who had eagerly and patiently followed Him to a mountainside one day. He had tried to part from the crowd, but they followed Him a long distance, just to hear what He would say to them. And, in speaking the word, the word BEING Him, the word being of the Holy Spirit, He identified Himself right away. Afterward–after that sermon–He had pity on the multitude, so He ASKED for bread to feed those whose spiritual hunger had already had been filled through listening to His word. And maybe that’s why, even today, some churches have fellowship meals after first giving a sermon. Some churches also share meals EVERY week at mid-week services. And some others, particularly the Salvation Army and satellite non-profits of the Catholic church, continue to answer a unique calling to feed the physically poor daily. But not everyone in the body of Christ is the hand. And not everyone in the body is the foot that has traditionally walked door to door. We each have our own role or calling. And some uplift the poor in ways we will not see or hear about on this side of life.
Thanks for your comments, Kimberly. I do agree with you and did not intend in the article to downplay the importance of sharing the Gospel. If you’ve tracked my blog (now in its sixth year), then you know we believe God calls His Church (which is you and me, not just an institution) to Prayer, Care AND Share. Too many Christians abdicate or ignore one or two of those, saying it’s not their “gifting”. Yes, we are not all a “hand” or a “foot” in the body of Christ, but we are each called to be the “hands and feet” of Christ. Jesus’ parables about the poor are warnings and the Great Commission a command not just for some churches and some Christians, but for every one of us.
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