Is Your Church Really Helping the Poor?
By Chris Mitchell
August 13, 2009
There are more resources and energy being given at this moment in history to fight diseases, oppression and poverty than at any other moment humans have lived on the Earth. The heart of humanity seems to be growing in its generosity toward others at an exponential rate. Where previously we responded slowly to needs that we heard about around the world, now we seem to be barreling down the road of social justice at 100 mph and feeling proud at the rate at which we’re now traveling.
Unfortunately though, there are only a few voices within the local church that are starting to sit up and ask if we’re actually going in the right direction. This is the problem with traveling fast. The rate at which you travel can sometimes become the reason for why you’re traveling at all. The rush and the thrill of being a part of a collective movement that has momentum is intoxicating and can often times make your destination inconsequential. We must ask ourselves if we are measuring the fruit of our endeavors based on the activity of church people or the change that is happening in villages and neighborhoods. Sometimes our churches look like a group of 18-year-olds out for a joy ride, on an open highway, at 2 o’clock in the morning, with no care about where we end up.
The truth is that we have famously collected enormous amounts of money to do things like dig wells and send missionaries without fully understanding what it takes to bring about structural change. We know a lot about the fact that we’re supposed to challenge others to do something, but we know very little about the best way to do it. You can be a follower of Jesus and have a Ph.D. in compassion and still have a first-grader's understanding of socio-economic issues that are rooted in generational crisis. When it comes to the cycles of poverty and injustice we’ve been exposed to, our emotional response has rarely been an educated response. Our responsibility then is to see that our heart and our head move at the same pace and in the same direction.
In Luke 10, Jesus tells the story that is now famously known as the story of the good Samaritan. It’s the story where a Samaritan man notices another man who has been beaten up and robbed on the side of the road. He then steps in and helps see to it that this man is taken care of physically and financially. Many of us are familiar with how this narrative has been used to motivate Christians toward acts of compassion. This Scripture has been used to tell people to “go out there and serve anyone you see in need.” It’s been used to motivate church people to rise up and “just do something” to help. But what is rarely talked about is how this is an example of helping someone in a moment of situational crisis. The man who was found beaten up could’ve been a wealthy man for all we know. If you actually read the story, though, you realize it doesn’t answer the questions about the kind of serving most people actually do, which is, how do we serve those who are in a cycle of systemic crisis?
"We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside ... but one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that a system that produces beggars needs to be repaved. We are called to be the Good Samaritan, but after you lift so many people out of the ditch you start to ask, maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be repaved." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In Robert Lupton’s book Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life, he describes the solution to the broken way that we’ve tried to help people as development. He refers to the way most churches approach service to the poor as betterment. Betterment improves an existing condition. It buys shoes for the shoeless. It digs wells for the waterless. It pays for food for the hungry. It purchases mosquito nets for a village who is dying out due to preventable malaria. Betterment feels amazing to the giver! It gives us an immediate glimpse of a bad situation turned good. None of us like to look into the face of someone suffering. It makes us feel bad and helpless. But if we better the immediate cause of distress, then we feel better. We sleep better at night knowing we did something about the dire situation. Development, on the other hand, enables others to do for themselves. It strengthens capacity by developing the person rather than addressing the existing condition. Development asks painstaking questions that force us to dig deep until we find the root of the problem. Development cares not only about finding solutions that work, but also cares deeply about the inherent dignity of the one being served. Development compels us to uncover our own heart motivations for serving those in need.
Wherever you and your church are when it comes to serving those in need, choose to educate yourselves about the root causes of poverty. Don’t allow the trendiness and current social justice trends to sweep you into another church campaign that offers an emotional response without a solid intelligent understanding.