No one earns salvation. Jesus offers an unmerited gift, not an obligatory wage. However, even a careful reading of His parables about the sheep and goats and the rich man and poor beggar can leave the impression that our eternal fate hinges on whether we ignore the poor. The Greatest of All goes so far as to identify Himself with the “least of these”, implying we walk away from eternal fellowship with Him when we callously pass by the destitute.
For nearly 2,000 years, churches took those warnings seriously. The Church was the food bank and homeless shelter – founded our hospitals and schools. Yet today in America, government and ministries occupy the front lines of compassion. We debate which political party is more concerned about the poor because the Church abdicated its central role in poverty alleviation, giving government the opportunity to usurp that mantle. In other words, the question is not whether liberals or conservatives care more about those less fortunate – the question is whether the private sector (e.g. churches and ministries) or government should bear primary responsibility. That philosophical difference lies largely in whether we can rely on the voluntarily benevolence of those most able to donate to help the poor or whether taxes must be imposed to compel “generosity” to fund state-sponsored anti-poverty programs.
It’s worth considering whether our nation would need a safety net if Christians in America understood the importance Jesus placed on aiding those who are suffering. The federal government can provide help but not hope. The Church was entrusted by God with the keys to the Kingdom, the only enduring solution to material and spiritual poverty.
What part has not following Jesus’ example of leading with compassion played in the Church’s well-documented decline in growth, influence and public perception? If Christ, and not Christians, were truly in charge then churches would realize that sermons without service are essentially attempts to “outpreach” Jesus. He had the perfect words yet opened ears by first demonstrating His love – feeding and healing before telling people who He is. If we saw church as 24×7 and not an event, then the work churches do for families in need wouldn’t be seasonal and transactional, but year-round and dignified.
How Jesus Feels About the Poor
Jesus said we’ll always have the poor with us and cautioned His disciples to focus on the Bridegroom while He was still among them. Christ left His bride, the Church, to carry on His mission “to proclaim good news to the poor”. Those were His first public words, the declaration of His purpose – the reason He came. Likewise, the opening salvo of His Beatitudes was “Blessed are you who are poor”, unveiling the irony of God’s economy where (spiritual and material) poverty can bring (eternal) riches, and vice versa. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He identified with the poor, urged His followers to care for them and flipped the script on the wealthy, stressing that the poor were more likely to be…
- Humble – Struggles and pain in this life make the poor more receptive to the message that they are sinners in need of a Savior (Matthew 5:3)
- Saved – Redeemed thinking sees oneself as unworthy and incapable, thoughts not typically associated with the wealthy (Matthew 19:23)
- Attentive – Acquiring and maintaining assets increases busyness and self-sufficiency (Luke 14:13, 21)
- Kingdom-minded – Those without treasures on earth are more likely to focus on storing them up in heaven, where “many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30)
- Christ-like – Jesus self-selected poverty, rejecting money and power (2 Corinthians 8:9)
- Persecuted – Christians in many nations today are suffering because they were the first to lose their jobs and the last to receive support during the pandemic (Matthew 5:12)
- Prisoners – The rich who reject Jesus are less likely to be imprisoned because they don’t experience hunger, inadequate legal representation or persecution (Matthew 25:43)
The affection and affiliation Jesus felt with the poor explains why He often implied that generosity toward them is the key to being “cleansed”.
What Churches are Doing About the Poor
Most churches rely on seasonal outreach events as their primary delivery vehicle for compassion. Yet, without relational follow-up that engages families in plotting a course to a better future, those events actually do more harm than good…
- enabling members to “check the box”, not transforming the congregation or community
- perpetuating poverty by increasing dependence without providing tools for the under-resourced to escape their plight
- failing to recognize the value and respect the dignity of the economically poor
- increasing cynicism because churches retreat into their “4 walls” when the holidays are over while the poor are still hungry and hurting in January and February
America’s church growth models cater to consumers rather than challenging disciples to adopt Jesus’ mandate to serve the poor. As a result, very few congregations are moving the needle on poverty in their communities. The vast majority of churches…
- Underemphasize its Importance – Most pastors gloss over the parables and sidestep the verses referenced above that on the surface appear to link salvation to being and/or serving the poor
- Position Care-Share as Either-Or – Some church leaders expect a free pass by delineating between “social” and “gospel”, claiming they’re focused on the latter – but then do neither
- Celebrate their Kindness – Despite doing little to address poverty, and in some cases doing more harm than good, churches pat themselves on the back for their holiday outreach events
- Don’t Model Generosity – Leaders ask members to tithe but reinvest less than 1% in serving the poor, doing so in “convenient” ways like backpack drives, meal packing events or service days
- Underutilize their Resources – Facilities sitting idle for most of the week could be used to deliver career counseling, financial management classes or other services for struggling families
- Live in the World’s Economy – Teaching Kingdom economics, that poor is good and rich is (usually) bad, stays true to Jesus’ countercultural message but is a risky proposition for a church
- Lack Discipleship Depth – Fully grasping what is not intuitive and practicing what seems impractical requires a deep understanding of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit’s power
Meet The Need’s mission is to “mobilize and equip the Church to lead millions more to Christ by meeting those in need exactly where they are”. We’ve been providing software and services to churches and ministries for nearly 20 years to enable them to bring more help and hope to the poor. Long ago, we realized the truth of the adage “sell people what they want, but give them what they need.” Churches weren’t looking for innovation to better serve the poor, but we built those systems anyway, became a non-profit and give our platforms away at no charge.
How Churches Could Drastically Reduce Poverty
COVID-19 is increasing the number of Americans who live below the poverty line. Our churches have a tremendous opportunity right now to reverse the decline in impact, attendance and perception that preceded the pandemic. The worst decision in the history of the Church in America was to separate compassion from evangelism. Now is the time to return to following Jesus’ model and mantra that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for Him.
- Identify with Jesus and the Poor – As a body, humbly aspire to be “poor in Spirit”, seeing all of mankind as eternal souls made in God’s image and anyone’s misfortune as an opportunity to “proclaim good news to the poor”
- Help in Ways that Help – Increase dignity, not the shame inherent in conveying that the rich are coming to rescue the poor. For example, Meet The Need is rolling out an Artificial Intelligence platform churches can use to empower families to build their own lasting circles of support.
- Equip Members for Ministry – Gen Z cares about the poor and justice, but churches can’t reach them without innovating online because that’s where they live. New prayer, care and share solutions extend the reach and impact of churches well beyond brick-and-mortar and Sundays.
- Set Scriptural Goals – Track ambitious, Kingdom-advancing metrics like “reducing material and spiritual poverty rates by X% in our community by 2025”
- Link Compassion and Discipleship – Like the exemplary church, The Salvation Army, establish terms of service so limited resources are invested wisely in those looking for more than handouts
- Don’t Get Lured into Politics – Follow Jesus in “giving back to Caesar what is Ceasar’s” and reclaim what churches rightfully own, the lead role in (material and spiritual) poverty alleviation
- Remember the Forgotten Poor – Keep in mind that most verses in the New Testament about collections were for giving to persecuted Christians who faced abject poverty and prison
America’s pews and online worship services are filled with enough untapped resources to eradicate poverty in America. Government should fill the gaps, but that gap is growing because Christians only donate 2.5% of their income and 37% of evangelicals don’t give to church at all. When churches in turn give away less than 1% of that, it is clear churchgoers and leaders don’t grasp the gravity of Jesus’ dire warnings to help the poor.
It’s Your Turn…
Are you and your church alleviating, perpetuating or ignoring poverty?