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On a warm Sunday morning earlier this month, I was walking to church with two of my daughters. As we crossed the main road near our neighborhood and headed up the side street toward our church building, I saw an elderly man walking briskly toward us, tangled beard and threadbare flannel shirt wobbling in time with his steps. “Can you help out a veteran today?” he called out.

I’d like to tell you a story of dramatic transformation, one in which I waved the gentleman over and invited him to join us for worship. And how I then took him to meet our deacons after the service to ensure his immediate needs were met. A story of how he got connected with local agencies to provide housing and addiction counseling, while continuing to attend our church because of the loving welcome he received on that first visit.

Instead, I’ll tell you the truth. The moment I heard the man’s call, I made furtive eye contact with the pavement, and hastened my steps up the hill to church. I had a running dialogue with myself about why this was the right choice. I’m in no position to offer the right kind of help, given the complexity of homelessness and mental-health issues for military veterans; I have my daughters’ safety to think of; we’re standing on the corner of a busy street with no sidewalks; in the midst of a global pandemic, we really shouldn’t get too close to strangers.

My list of excuses would fill a scroll. Sitting in the back pew at our little neighborhood church, though, all I could think was that I was the Levite in Jesus’s Good Samaritan parable who, “when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:32). I witnessed an opportunity to love my neighbor but hastened on to religious duties instead.

Church Full of Levites?

I suspect this story resonates with many American Christians. When confronted with the vast inequalities of poverty (which has many intertwined causes), we struggle to know what to do. So we look the other way and get on with our lives.

If you are seeing almost no unemployment or financial need in your church, while 10 percent to 15 percent of people in your community are out of a job, why is that?

I’ve seen some of the fruit of that tendency lately. In a year that, for a time, witnessed the highest U.S. unemployment levels since the Great Depression, I’ve written about the urgent need for churches to spend themselves on behalf of the poor (Isa. 58:10). In my work with the Chalmers Center, I often interact with pastors and church leaders looking for ways to help without hurting as they seek to care for those living in material poverty. This year, I’ve had numerous conversations that go something like this: “We received so many donations to our benevolence fund after the economy crashed, but no one in our church has requested any help. What should we do with the money?”

My response, in the context of a longer conversation about ministry strategies, is to ask: “If you are seeing almost no unemployment or financial need in your church, while 10 percent to 15 percent of people in your community are out of a job, why is that?”

If we were more enmeshed with the daily realities of material poverty, we would be much more prepared to provide mercy and long-term relational approaches to economic development.

Have evangelical churches in the West become congregations of Levites, where we’ve all stepped to the other side of the street, virtually isolating ourselves from the struggles of the poor and working class? If we were more enmeshed with the daily realities of material poverty, we would be much more prepared to provide mercy and long-term relational approaches to economic development. Instead we respond with confusion and fear, spinning our wheels in the face of clear biblical imperatives to love the poor.

Chalmers Center founder and president Brian Fikkert (coauthor of When Helping Hurts) often quips that in the same time that Chalmers has helped some of the world’s poorest churches in West Africa assist more than 100,000 people through church-centered savings and microfinance, we’ve only helped a relative handful of people in our home city of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“The difference,” Fikkert explains, “is that in Chattanooga, churches of mostly middle– and upper–class members want to help the materially poor in their communities. In West Africa the church members themselves are poor. They already have the relationships that set them up for ministry.”

Recapturing Love

So what are we to do? Here are a few modest suggestions.

  • Mine the Scriptures for a bigger vision of how your church can engage your broader community. Make an effort to read ethical commands to Christians about loving the poor in their full context and look for ways to apply them—“associate with people of low position” (Rom. 12:16), “but if you show favoritism, you sin” (James 2:9), “let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18), and more. Explore how the ethical commands in the Mosaic law take special concern that the poor “can continue to live among you” (Lev. 25:35), and consider how they apply today.

If you want your church to more effectively serve your community, you need to get out in the community on an ongoing basis. Take your time. Move slowly. Build trust.

  • Consider how to humbly, and intentionally, cross socioeconomic lines. The social stratification we experience in a fallen world is a big hurdle to cross—especially when we let value judgments creep in to our observations, assigning superior morality to those with more wealth and education. If you want your church to more effectively serve your community, though, you need to get out in the community on an ongoing basis. Take your time. Move slowly. Build trust. Remember that relationship itself—not charitable activities to post pictures of on your church website— is the goal. In this realm, majority-white congregations can learn a lot from our sisters and brothers in the black church and (as Fikkert said above) the global church, who’ve rarely experienced the luxury of wealth and social mobility that separates so many from the lived realities of poverty.
  • Seek out resources to help shift your thinking about poverty and community. Equipping local churches to address the broken relationships at the root of material poverty is the core of what we do at the Chalmers Center—from short articles to online courses to small-group studies to curriculums that dive deep into relational-development ministry. And Chalmers is not alone in this work. Organizations like the Lupton Center and the Christian Community Development Organization offer resources and training for long-term, transformational neighborhood healing, and our partners at Love In the Name of Christ (LoveINC) bring churches and community organizations together for lasting change.

Final Word: Repentance

While I certainly hope most churches aren’t actively rebelling against God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves, too many reflect years of intentional and unintentional separation from those neighbors we’ve deemed as threats to our comfort and safety, detriments to our family programming, or objects of pity and scorn rather than image-bearers of the triune God. It’s a thousand tiny choices—like the one I made to turn away from that man on the street—over generations that lead to churches nearly completely separated from common human suffering.

It’s a thousand tiny choices—like the one I made to turn away from that man on the street—over generations that lead to churches nearly completely separated from common human suffering.

Our ministry model is not one of suburban upward mobility, but divine downward mobility, following the example of Jesus Christ, who emptied himself to enter into the pain of this world, dwell among us, and bear the weight of sin (Isa. 53; Phil. 2; 2 Cor. 8). We must all consider whether we’re willing to be sucked into the pain, danger, and discomfort of others lives for the sake of love and obedience to our King.

But to the extent that we’ve made choices to look the other way, to prioritize our own schedules and comforts, and to offer mercy only to those whose culture, class, politics, or theology we deem “deserving,” might I suggest that we begin with repentance, and then bear fruit by walking in a new direction (Luke 3:8)?

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