Public Square

Is Caring for the Poor Too Big for the Church?

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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

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