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Part 1 in a series on Caring for the Poor

I’ve heard a thought-provoking phrase repeated this year in some Christian circles:

Caring for the poor is too big for the Church.

Is this true? How are Christians to think through this question from a sound Biblical and economic perspective? We know the Bible teaches we are to care for the poor, but how can we do that most effectively?

Those questions, in turn, only seem to produce more questions. How do you define the poor? Are you talking about the Church “gathered” (churches) or the Church “scattered” (the Body of Christ)?

There is much to examine here. I’m excited to share that IFWE will be exploring the topic of caring for the poor, and the plan is to publish our research in book form next year. For now, let’s look closer at who is wrestling with this question today and what they’re saying.

I heard this phrase from two different groups. One was a focus group that IFWE conducted among Christian college students spending a semester in Washington, D.C. We asked, “Who is best suited to care for the needs of the poor – the government, church, para-church organizations, private charities, etc.?” Many responded:

Church is supposed to but we’ve abdicated the responsibility. We’re in a tough spot. Government has taken that role. Now Christians are upset about the government infringing on our rights. It’s our fault.

They viewed government as the only entity large enough to tackle the problem of helping the poor, even if it is the Church’s responsibility. Government social welfare programs were often considered an effective means of helping the poor because of the size of government’s resources.

Even though the job of caring for the poor seemed too big for the Church, these students recognized that churches and individuals were better equipped to provide for the poor on a smaller scale. In fact, they believed that private charity was more effective because it was relational as opposed to the impersonal nature of “big government.”

Another place I heard this phrase was at the annual “Q” conference, an event attracting 700 Christian thought leaders interested in “advancing the common good in a pluralistic society.”

One of the speakers was Dr. Joel C. Hunter, pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Florida, and member of the first Obama administration Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. During his address, Hunter encouraged the ministry and church leaders to face the facts about the capacity of churches to care for the poor:

Look at the math…the average church in America would literally have to double its budget and just take that extra budget and give to hungry people. And that is just one government program. So let’s not fool ourselves….Government can’t change lives, but they have resources we don’t have. We can change lives with those resources…The point is government isn’t the enemy, and government isn’t the answer. But government is the potential partner that we look for, that we might need.

The question of whether caring for the poor is too big for the church and requires government involvement poses a false choice. And those considering this choice sound stuck. I want to examine those choices and suggest that not all the choices are on the table.

I also want to try to add more depth and definition to the discussion. Are we talking about the poor in the U.S. or overseas or both? And, are we honestly looking at both the failures and possibilities of our choices?

Bottom line is that there’s not a simple answer to the question. One could answer both “yes” and “no.” But it’s exciting to me that there is more we can learn from Scripture and from economics about the potential each one of us has to make a difference on this topic in and through our vocation – a potential many of us never realized.

What are your thoughts? Do you identify with any of the sentiments above? Leave your comments here

This post is part of a series on Caring for the Poor
Kristin Brown

About Kristin Brown

Kristin Brown is Vice President of Communications at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics where she develops and implements the strategy to connect Christians with the Institute’s transformational message on faith, work, and economics. Kristin received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Princeton University. Read More...

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  • Lynn

    Glad you are taking this topic on. I have had the privilege of attending churches whose budgets year-to-year are always in the black – this, I realize, is not common. That said, I know from informal conversations with various individuals in these churches, that even though the churches are able to cover their budgets, and help church members during economic crises, and give a healthy sum to foreign missions and support – that still only a small percentage of the overall membership gives an actual tithe to the church.

    I do believe that the Church is capable of taking on the mission of feeding the poor. However, it would require individual churches and individual church members to make thoughtful decisions about how they live their lives, limit their lifestyles, and learn to give sacrificially – no small task. If just half of Christians tithed, I think we’d easily be able to double our churches budgets (depending on whose statistics you believe).
    And, just a comment on Dr. Hunter’s remarks, saying the “government has the resources we don’t have” overlooks the point that all the government has comes from we the people – including those of us in the church.

    • Becky

      I agree that the money comes from the people. So it seems to be more a matter of who should or who is best suited to distribute it. Prior to the government providing these services, they were provided by the political parties: one of the methods they used to ensure voter loyalty (History of Tammany Hall), but also provided by the church, and, don’t forget, families.

  • Gdrake

    One has to look at the bible and their description of the poor people who are not physically able to care for themselves. The lame,deaf, mentally ill, blind lepers widowed
    Elderly wives and orphans. People who foolishly lose their land or resources sold themselves into servitude till debts were paid off.
    The so called poor today are comprised of many healthy people who like free stuff and have no intentions of working. Separating them out from people who physically cannot work is a huge difference in the numbers and community groups church’s could possibly manage to care for them . But I guess it is something we will never know

  • smogdew

    Jesus said, “the poor will always be with us”. There are so many people in dire straits through no fault of their own, and they desperately need us.
    Able bodied men and women who play ‘pseudo-poor’ are multiplying daily – and will do little or nothing to help themselves – there is no incentive, for me, to aid and abet them.

    • Jim Price

      Having been on the front lines of helping the poor, through the church, gov. agencies and helping family members, I now feel worn out. All of these approaches have been and are inadequate. One reason is that the poor are so hard to help; I have been through the experience many times, of helping a family get on it’s feet, only to watch them fall through the cracks again and again. There are times, when I think that, there just isn’t a permanent solution. Yet we have to keep searching for an answer.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.sizemore2 Bill Sizemore

    Government bureaucracies are incapable of distributing to the needy based on the specific circumstances of the person or family in need. Bureaucracies utilize formulas and a potential recipient either fits within the parameters or doesn’t. They may be truly needy and not qualify for help or a parasite who qualifies. It is impossible to create bureaucratic formulas that can replace the judgment and discernment of a person or group that takes their fiduciary responsibility as a steward seriously and treats the organization’s money as if it were their own.
    Food and money must be distributed to the poor by people who are anxious to help the fatherless and widows in their affliction and willing to say to another, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”
    Government didn’t take over this responsibility because the church was negligent. Government took it over because it is the nature of governments to grow and liberties and individual responsiblity to decrease. As Charles Murray proves so well in “Losing Ground,” the poor were served better when people looked to families, friends, neighbors, and churches for help when they needed it, than they are now under huge bureaucracies. When government seeks to solve social problems, it invariably exacerbates them. There are probably countless examples of that, a few of which come to mind instantly.
    Churches are a better solution than government, but make no mistakes about it, the first line of defense for thousands of years was relatives, friends, and neighbors. Government usurpation of their roles has all but killed what was always a natural instinct and now we reflexively expect government to buy a tank of oil for the little old lady across the street when the winter is deadly cold. We were better as a community and better people when we looked at each other for help when needed.
    The church should be there to fill in when natural comminities fail or do not exist. Government on the other hand should not be involved in social spending at all. Davy Crockett’s speech to that effect on the floor of the House in the early 1800′s explains why that is true as eloquently as anything said since.

  • Jed

    Timely topic — just a few thoughts on long term poverty situatios. The local church is by far best suited to provide aid in their communities. The aid is donated and delivered by believers motivated out of care and concern for those in need. Alternatively, government based solutions are the least effective. Why do I say this? Government extracts funds by threat of force to deliver “aid” to favored groups as a mechanism to buy votes and/or control others.

  • http://www.tifwe.org/ Kristin Hansen

    Thanks for everyone’s comments. I encourage you to read the next post in the series on the role of the market in a flourishing society.

    Also, I wanted to let you know that IFWE will be doing further research into the role and size of government, which will help illuminate this discussion.

    Wherever you fall in this debate, it’s important to understand how the market works in bringing about the flourishing of society. By working hard and creatively in your own job, you can serve others in ways you may never have realized!

  • Patrick Donohue

    In Luke, Christ says, “Give all that you have to the poor and come follow Me”. He does not say, “Give a little bit to the church and let them take care of it.” He wants us to do it, eye to eye and one to one. On the face of it, it sounds like a hard thing to do, crazy, almost impossible, unless one truly has faith that the Lord will provide. It is a real test of faith.

    Furthermore, the “poor” do not live in the USA. People here have no idea what the word really means, not a clue. So, before you go to Paris or Maui or whatever, take a trip to the slums of Mumbai, Kinshasa, Republic of Congo or Zwedru, Liberia. Those are places that define poverty. The poor there, make the poor here look wealthy.

    Now that we have defined poor, let us define rich. As in, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than it is a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”, as in you and me. Let’s face it, if you are reading this, you are “the rich man”. Here is another very good test, how over weight are you. If you have a little bit of fat on you, then you are rich. Think about it.

    This is the deal, give it all away and follow Christ, go to heaven. Keep it and go to Hell. Don’t argue with me, argue with Him on Judgement Day.

    But hold on a moment, and think about this. What if everyone in the world did this?
    What would it look like then? There would be no rich or poor, there would just be us, together, following Christ in full faith that God will provide.

    Also, consider this, “Love your enemy.” Now, what would the world be like if we all did that? There would be no war, no military and no police. It is one of the most original ideas that has not been tried. It is just too bad that we do not have enough faith in Christ to even give it a whirl.

    So, do you really accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Or are those just empty, fashionable words you say to join the local club that some call a church? If it doesn’t feel like a leap of faith, if it isn’t scary or even a bit challenging then you need to look closer at the situation.

    May God have mercy on us.

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