A single mom with two young children walked into a 200 member church looking for help. Her lights are going to be turned off next week if she doesn’t come up with enough cash to pay her power bill. She also needs clothes for the older of the two and a better stroller than one she has with the bent wheel. From the way she’s looking down when making the request, the staff member picked up a sense of shame and an expectation of rejection. It seemed likely she’d been to few other churches in the neighborhood and received a polite explanation from each as to why they weren’t in a position to help.
How would most churches respond?
“We don’t have enough in our budget. Sorry, it’s been a tough year.”
“There’s a charity down the road that can help you with that. Have you checked with them?”
“If you start coming to our church, I’m sure we can find a way to do something.”
What’s really going on is the church…
…didn’t make any room in its budget for benevolence for local families
…is not willing to share needs of non-member individuals and families with the congregation, even though some of them could likely help
…has no way to easily communicate needs to members even if it were willing to do so
…isn’t sure who those walk-ins are and is worried about being taken advantage of
Today, the vast majority of families approaching churches for help are quickly, yet courteously, turned away. Churches miss those opportunities because they don’t see them as just that – opportunities. They’ve redefined the “customer”. Attention, funding, facilities, and programs have been redirected to attracting and retaining – building an organization. Struggling individuals and families in the community are no longer recognized as valued “customers”. Few churches still follow Jesus’ model of leading with service and compassion, then telling them who He is. Consequently, the role of church in society has changed – with the pastor’s blessing.
What would your church do if this young mother walked in the front door?
Should your church do something?
- Biblically – Jesus healed and fed those who weren’t his followers – at least not yet. Once they experienced His love and power, most became followers. Jesus also sent the disciples out not unarmed but fully supplied with the artillery necessary to open ears and eyes to the gospel – the ability to heal. Numerous times Jesus, Paul and Peter spoke of the importance of helping the poor, linking it inextricably to the sharing of the good news of hope found in Christ alone.
- Historically – Since America’s founding, churches have been the “center of town” – the cultural, charitable, academic, and spiritual hub in cities across the country. Government and secular charities weren’t the “go to” sources of assistance when times got tough. Families could walk into a church and leadership and/or members would do what they could. As the local food bank and homeless shelter, a significant portion of the church’s income went toward supporting the “least of these” – and not just those attending on Sunday. Rather than offering “hand outs”, churches formed relationships with those hurting and helpless, working with them to extend a “hand up”.
Whether a church will do something depends on its:
- Definition of the “Customer” – If leadership and members see the lost in the community as their “customers”, clearly they will sense an obligation to serve those who don’t know the gospel – many of whom would never step foot into a church building. Yet church leaders are unlikely to be as conscious of their responsibilities outside the “4 walls” if they’re busy placating members and attenders who are conditioned to evaluate how well the pastor is preaching, how the music sounds, how the political landscape of the church has shifted, and why leadership doesn’t recognize all they’ve done for the church. Bible verses that begin with “I desire compassion…” and “Pure religion…” won’t be ringing in their ears if criticisms are on the tips of their tongues.
- Definition of the “Church” – If leaders and members truly see those in the pews as the embodiment of “church” – a decentralized army rather than a centralized institution – then suddenly the burden to help local families is dispersed among the many versus the few. Even if a church has budget for benevolence and is willing to bless a non-member, maybe the impact would be far greater if members assisted families in need directly. Pastors and staff don’t have capacity to build long term relationships with many local families – but that kind of leverage does reside there in the sanctuary. In this scenario, the task of leadership is only to communicate needs and prepare members to BE the church at every opportunity. That responsibility should also carry over throughout the week, where each congregant acts as the church personified – caring and sharing with neighbors, friends and coworkers in need of help and hope.
What if churches don’t do anything?
Fewer people in need approach churches for help today because they don’t think churches are willing to help. However, studies show that people generally believe churches should be among the first to help. That dichotomy creates the prevailing poor perception of churches and Christians by society. Every family in need that churches turn away at the door drives home the idea that they’re more about judgment than compassion – deeper and deeper into the American psyche. Every time a pastor speaks out on cultural, social, or moral issue when that church hasn’t demonstrated a commensurate degree of mercy to the needy – the ditch widens. To the unchurched, Christians haven’t earned the right to be heard. Jesus realized people “don’t care what you know until they know you care” – they traveled miles on foot to hear what Jesus had to say because He proved He cared each and every day. The gradual detachment of caring from sharing – abdicating that role to others – is possibly the most damaging trend in the history of the church in America.
What exactly should your church do?
Because of that growing perception, churches simply can’t keep turning people away. Instead churches should:
- Assist families even if they don’t go to that church – Imitating the first church at Antioch and being wary of abuses are valid reasons to focus more assistance on congregants. However, as we’ve discussed the church is clearly called to serve the poor regardless of their religious or church affiliation. As we’ve contended throughout this blog series, churches today invest disproportionately in catering and caring for members versus challenging and mobilizing them to bless others. [Note: Remember the “Alternative View” we mentioned a few weeks ago which holds that corporate worship is only for those whose names are registered in heaven (Hebrews 12:23). Under that interpretation, all churches that won’t help families who aren’t part of that church, assuming that the church is only supposed to be made up of believers, are logically precluding doing anything to help non-believers. In this case, the only way churches can follow Jesus’ model of caring then sharing is if members individually act AS the church and choose to help those who aren’t Christians.]
- Don’t be so quick to refer them to an agency or charity – Follow this sequence to show your true “customers” that your church and the Lord cares for them when they ask you for help:
- Step 1 – Show Respect: Take the time to get to know them. Listen to their story, ask questions, learn their name, and pray with them.
- Step 2 – Show Compassion: James 2:15-16 warns that simply saying “Go in peace” or “Be warm, be fed” isn’t enough. Make some effort to help, like sharing their need with members via Meet The Need, which manages all communication logistics.
- Step 3 – Make Assistance Relational: Don’t do a “transaction” and send them on their way (outputs). Ensure a member gets to know each individual/family personally (outcomes).
- Step 4 – If You Refer, Follow up: If your church/members can’t provide all they need, refer them to a local agency, but contact the agency yourself about the family. Ask for an update on what the agency was able to do for them.
- Step 5 – Stay Connected: Church should be the place the family lands when they get back on their feet. An agency or charity can’t put them in relationship with believers and lead them closer to Christ over time.
- Carve out more for benevolence – The modern day model for running a church that attracts and engages “consumers” leaves little over for assisting members in need, much less those outside the church. Remember, the lost in the community, not members, are your “customer”. Cut operational costs that are not playing a direct role in equipping and challenging members and regular attenders to BE the church to those around them (see blog post on Generosity).
It’s your turn
What would happen to the perception of churches, Christians and the Lord if all churches in America followed the 5 step process above? Do you know of a church that has implemented that process, or something similar?