I started a discussion yesterday about a phrase I’ve heard frequently this year in some Christian circles:
Caring for the poor is too big for the church.
Those wrestling with how to best address poverty alleviation seem stuck between two choices:
Choice A: The Bible calls the Church to care for the poor, and not to abdicate this responsibility to the government. Government social welfare programs should be opposed on ideological grounds even though some people may slip through the cracks.
Choice B: The Bible calls Christians to care for the poor. Because the job is so big, the Church should partner with the government to get it done. Even though this means less effective programs and some wasteful spending (which is hard in a time of debt), at least more people will receive help.
These are tough choices. We are fallen and live in a fallen world, and neither choice will be perfect. But not all the choices are on the table.
What’s missing is Choice C: The Bible calls Christians to care for the poor, and we must unleash our gifts in the marketplace by serving others through our work.
In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus calls us to invest and grow what’s been entrusted to us and live out “whole-life stewardship.” We are to seek the flourishing of others not only through our volunteer ministries and church work, but through our very own 9-5 vocations.
That said, the Bible doesn’t explicitly prohibit a government “safety net” for the poor. But as Glenn Sunshine says in his series on Poverty and the Church, it should be a last resort and continually scrutinized for effectiveness.
So why isn’t Choice C on the table? Brian Brenberg, an economics and business professor at The King’s College, New York City, explains in his WORLD magazine article, “Serving Like Stephen: Most Christians Don’t Understand the Significance of their 9-5 Jobs:”
Most of us in the pews don’t understand the significance of our work because most of us in the pulpit don’t know how to explain what it means to serve tables in a modern economic context. The Bible says feed the hungry. The pastor says volunteer at a food pantry. The small business owner goes on believing that Monday through Friday has nothing to do with Sunday.
How does Choice C actually work? Brenberg gives tangible examples of how various jobs, such as bankers, tractor manufacturers, mechanics, accountants, and others all contribute to a flourishing society:
Food pantries are important, but they’re not the reason far fewer of us go hungry today than ever before. Most of us have jobs in which we never hand food to anyone. And, strange as it may sound, that’s exactly why so many more people have plenty to eat. Fewer go hungry today because some of us lend money to farmers so they can buy new tractors. Fewer go hungry today because some of us design even better tractors, or tinker in workshops to keep the old ones running. Fewer go hungry today because some of us look at spreadsheets to figure out how companies could spend less money on tractors and produce even more food.
Few of us realize or will ever fully know how doing our jobs well contributes to the flourishing of society. Working at your vocation and leveraging your gifts with all your heart as for the Lord creates value. That value, when leveraged in a competitive market, not only generates income, it also improves the products and services that are offered and lowers prices for everyone.
My colleagues Anne Bradley and Art Carden (in his featured video on trade) further describe this concept here. The flourishing that can come through a market economy is certainly an example of God’s common grace.
Caring for the poor IS a really big task, but an understanding of Biblical stewardship and basic economics enlarges our view on how to tackle this problem.
We are still called, both as individuals and as church communities, to give of our time, money and talents outside of our 9-5 jobs. But we have an incredible opportunity through our jobs to serve others and contribute to the common good — an opportunity few of us ever realize.
This truth is exciting and motivating. Most of us spend the majority of our week at our jobs. Doing our job well not only glorifies God, it benefits others in tangible ways. We must ask God to help us discover our gifts and be situated in a job that can maximize that potential.
What do you think? Have you ever thought about how pursuing your vocation helps alleviate poverty? Leave your comments here.