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The Lure of Transactional Compassion

The Lure of Transactional Compassion

By viewing churchgoers as “customers” and “church” as a place, the Church Growth movement changed the rules for church engagement in compassion.  The latitude no longer exists to train and deploy those intended to be Kingdom “employees” to pursue the biblical “customer” (those in material and spiritual poverty).  Expectations have flipped such that pastors and staff, not members, are held to a performance standard.  That shift in the balance of power makes it virtually impossible for churches to conduct compassion initiatives such that they alleviate, rather than perpetuate, poverty.

What is Transactional Compassion?

An entitlement mentality on the part of churchgoers breeds an entitlement mentality in individuals they serve.  In other words, when Christians see compassion as a favor (not a mandate) and church as an event (not as themselves), they’ll only be willing to devote a little (if any) time, energy, and money to helping the poor.  So churches arrange occasional “outreach” events to placate and accommodate members.  Yet infrequent, arms-length “handouts” create dependence and shame.  Only an ongoing, relational “hand up” can foster freedom and dignity.

Transactional compassion doesn’t help people get out of poverty and likely wasn’t done for that reason.  Yet churches celebrate their seasonal acts of “kindness” after the holidays, a fact not lost on those who received turkeys or toys, knowing the church will retrench back into its “4 walls” until the next “outreach”, such as…

  1. Drop Offs at the Church Campus – Collecting shoe boxes or packing meals to be shipped to people they’ll never meet in possibly unknown, distant destinations
  2. Projects Across Town – Venturing far away to avoid cultural upheaval from an influx of those being served, when nearly every community has struggling families
  3. Through Local Ministries – Serving at a reputable ministry that manages volunteers well seems innocuous but not if the church is more concerned with the experience than the impact, or if the ministry’s goal is to convert them into donors
  4. Servant Evangelism – Distributing water bottles with church logos while wearing church t-shirts reflects a shift in the definition of “outreach” to mean advertising
  5. Social Gospel – Letting our “good works” speak for themselves to avoid the discomfort often associated with sharing and answering questions about Jesus
  6. Donating Money – Enabling a “check-the-box” mentality by taking up collections and mailing checks in lieu of ongoing, face-to-face engagement
  7. Regular Service Days – Recurring “Second Saturdays” sound relational but not if only a small percentage participate or if even fewer interact with families in need
  8. Short Term Missions – Sending without equipping, evangelizing, and training locals means the impact will likely not endure for long after the team returns home
  9. Prayer Only – Offering prayer as a substitute for meeting felt needs neglects the latter two components of Jesus’ model for compassion (Prayer-Care-Share)
  10. Virtue Signaling – Pretending to be concerned about justice via social media without engaging in the issues personally indicates a veiled self-righteousness

None of those curtail poverty, but most contribute to it by not dealing with the whole person or the root causes of poverty.  What spurs and sustains poverty are broken relationships – with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.  Transactional compassion doesn’t build any of those relationships.  Nor does it address the individual’s entirety as mind, body, and spirit.  Nor does it humbly dignify others by recognizing we are all in some form of poverty – whether material, spiritual, relational, or emotional.  Only churches are uniquely positioned to attend to the whole person (mind, body, spirit) and all four key relationships on a long-term basis by welcoming them into a church family.

Why is Transactional Compassion Tempting?

With the caveat that many may not be aware of the damage done by arms-length “outreach” events, churchgoers and leaders all certainly recognize the benefits accruing to churches and Christians of lowering the bar on requirements for member engagement in poverty alleviation.  Placing higher demands on “consumers” risks losing them to a church down the road who will make them feel good about having done anything to help those less fortunate.

Until churches see those who don’t know Jesus as the real “customer” and their members as Kingdom “employees” who should be trained (through discipleship) to pursue those “customers”, an entitlement mentality will prevail in how churches conduct compassion (which engenders an entitlement mentality in those they serve).  Yet transactional initiatives remain alluring to churches and Christians today because they’re…

  1. Sanitary – Avoiding direct contact with the materially poor so members don’t feel uncomfortable, not only with the living conditions but not knowing what to say
  2. Safe – Keeping a “safe” distance to maintain the security of members and the existing culture of the church
  3. Appeasing – Recognizing most Christians know the Bible says we must serve the poor, many churches scramble to do something annually to fulfill that obligation
  4. Marketing – Determining intentions behind a church’s “compassion” efforts by evaluating its expenditures, engagement, endurance, and attention drawn to itself
  5. Convenient – Accommodating busy schedules and the reduction in time devoted to church activities, which favors closer and quicker “compassion”
  6. Simple – Being in the trenches with those going through a temporary or perpetual crisis is complicated and gets hands dirty in issues that extend beyond the material
  7. Impersonal – Writing checks and taking up offerings don’t require leaving comfort zones by stepping out in faith personally to walk alongside those living in poverty
  8. Outsourcing – Entrusting our responsibilities to serve the poor, share the Gospel, and make disciples to “professionals” sounds reasonable, but is not at all biblical
  9. Easy – Giving money or volunteering at an “outreach” event requires no preparation or front-end investment in discipleship or evangelism training because there’s typically no personal interaction with those being served
  10. Self-Justifying – Expressing opinions on social issues makes us feel and look good; imagine how much the Pharisees would have enjoyed social media!

Dabbling in compassion in those ways can be justified as churchgoer retention to have a chance to eventually lead them toward greater depth or as modeling to give children a taste of what kindness is like.  However, catering to the wrong “customer” and harming the biblical, intended “customer” is still spiritual malpractice.

What Did Jesus and the Early Church Model?

Jesus and the early church understood the four key relationships, the underlying causes of poverty, the depravity of all mankind, and the need to engage the whole person.  Those principles guided their practices and served as a model that the body of Christ followed (for roughly 1900 years), faithfully obeying Jesus’ commands to care for the poor…

  1. Collaboratively – Not outsourcing, but forming teams within the church to handle all the tasks required to serve the poor on a daily and weekly basis, recognizing the tremendous manpower needed to tackle the work involved in relational, recurring initiatives, the only kind of compassion that actually moves the needle on poverty
  2. Internally – Caring for those inside the church first, ensuring no brother or sister in Christ is left destitute or alone, with love for one another serving as a far more powerful attractional strategy than a charismatic pastor or state-of-the-art facility
  3. Externally – Assuming a first-responder role on the front lines of poverty alleviation to demonstrate God’s love to those in need of help and hope, a role churches have since abdicated to government, parachurch ministries, and secular charities
  4. Remotely – Going out of their way to reach the lost, but close enough for those they served to join the congregation; or investing enough time with new believers to form their own church, which then ministers to the poor in that community
  5. Personally Engaging in the lives of struggling families, staying in touch with them, not organizing events to give handouts and never see those people again
  6. ProximallyMaking contact with those who appear “unclean”, feeding and healing because physical and mental health is of primary importance to most people, and treating them with dignity by being in close proximity
  7. Urgently – By sharing parables of the Good SamaritanSheep and Goats,  and Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus emphasized the extreme importance of caring for the materially poor, yet few churches and Christian make it a commensurate priority
  8. Passionately – Understanding the overriding Issue wasn’t a lack of funds, but the spiritual poverty of an existence without hope, Jesus and the early church always revealed His identity as the Savior, crediting His love with fueling their compassion
  9. Lovingly – Reserving a special place in their hearts for brothers and sisters in Christ suffering for their faith, the beneficiaries of nearly all collections taken up by the early Church, whereas support for the persecuted by churches today is negligible
  10. In Unity – Working alongside other believers even if they don’t see eye to eye, not only because they share a common mission but because they know scale is required to make a measurable dent in material and spiritual poverty in a city

Few churches today follow all (or most) of those principles and practices.  Implementing them is impracticable in American culture where the customer, not our Father, is king.  Once the Church Growth movement redefined Kingdom “employees” as “customers” (to attract church hoppers and shoppers), attempts to reinstitute standards or accountability around GC3 (Great CommandmentGreat Commission, Great Calling) became a congregational coup de grace.

It’s Your Turn…

What would the poverty rate be in our nation if churches in America hadn’t diverted from the biblical standard for how we should demonstrate God’s love to a watching world?  What would the current state of the Church in America be in terms of growth, impact, influence, and public perception if we hadn’t deserted the front lines of compassion?


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