net-fishing-1Paula Harrington recently posted an article called Dropping Our Nets suggesting that, if the Holy Spirit had his way with the Churches of Christ, our attitude toward the poor would be transformed–

Where are the churches of Christ headed? I hope it is to the place where the hungry aren’t judged but are fed. I hope that we learn and accept the fact that the government system we criticize for helping the poor would not even exist had we cared for our neighbors the way we should. I hope we open our buildings to those in need of shelter and serve our communities. I pray that we will spend our lives washing the feet of those who live around us so that no one is in need. I want us to be Jesus to those living in the darkness; to stop our busyness long enough to listen to the broken stories and build relationships. Money lasts for a moment. Relationships can carry people throughout eternity.

Amen.

Ever since we re-booted Wineskins nearly a year ago, Matt, Brad, and I have been discussing encouraging dialogue among the authors. And Paula’s thoughtful post is a good place to start.

I am entirely onboard with her post. I want to expand on it just a bit. In reading it, two concerns came to mind.

First, how do we care for the poor effectively as a Kingdom work? I’ve seen countless church-founded ministries to the poor get so caught up in helping the poor financially that they forgot about helping them spiritually. And spiritual poverty is a far worse condition than financial poverty.

But that isn’t to say that we should pick one and not the other! No, the idea is that we must do both — and always do both. That is, if we raise millions and feed millions and yet these millions never learn about Jesus, never learn about the Sermon on the Mount, never meet a real Christian, well, we’ve not really done that much good — not in Kingdom terms.

On the other hand, if we pass out tracts and preach Jesus to the poor and offer no physical help, it sure won’t seem like we truly love them — not that love is best measured by handouts, but that love is not limited to the spiritual realm. If I care about someone, I care about all his needs.

In short, I have no interest in merely assuaging my middle class guilt by offering handouts. I want to actually make a difference. And I can offer two examples of how some other people I know are doing this.

B.A.G.S. (Big A Good Samaritan) is a ministry founded by a member of my home congregation. For less than $5, a church member can buy bag of toiletries and some basic food and drink assembled to meet the actual needs of the homeless. Included is simple statement about the love of Jesus and an invitation to visit our church. And members carry these bags in their cars until they encounter a homeless person in need.

The beauty of the idea is that the bags provide what is typically actually needed — not just food and drink — based on conversations with social workers involved in caring for the homeless. Any recipient of a bag will immediately recognize that someone cared enough to ask.

And it’s a great conversation starter. I’ve heard stories of church members who not only passed out a bag, but found themselves speaking with the homeless man or woman about their own stories — often leading to a great opportunity to share Jesus.

Another ministry founded by someone else at my home church is called the Brown House — named after the home of a couple who moved next door to several low-income housing projects in order to serve that community. The idea is to share in their world and lives, to love them as they are, and to become so invested in that community that they can be salt and light.

The presence of that one house and family has lead hundreds of others to volunteer for tutoring, to teach vacation Bible school, to help put a community garden in place — even to move in next door.

In both cases, the founders of the effort saw the importance of serving the poor as a Kingdom effort — tied not only to Christians, but to the church. It’s not so much that members might invite someone to church — they often do — but that the ministry is done in community as an outpouring of a congregation’s commitment to follow Jesus. That is, the ministry is part of the church because the church is committed to following Jesus.

Too often, for the sake of efficiency, we pull such ministries out of their congregational roots and replant them as parachurch organizations. Over time, they become good works but drop any effort at evangelism. They choose to focus on what they’re best at: feeding the poor, teaching literacy, or whatever. And by disconnecting the love from the church, genuine good is done but the gospel is not furthered.

Indeed, very often, the gospel is entirely surrendered to qualify the ministry to receive government funds. To borrow from Paula’s article,

I hope that we learn and accept the fact that the government system we criticize for helping the poor would not even exist had we cared for our neighbors the way we should.

We are unhappy with the results of government programs because they do not deal with the root of the problem. We have deep, multi-generational pockets of poverty because the church failed to be the church — and so the government stepped in, and yet the government cannot be Jesus to those in need. The government cannot solve spiritual poverty. The government cannot change hearts. Only the Spirit can do these things.

There are doubtlessly thousands of ways to serve the poor consistent with Kingdom principles. But there are even more wrong ways to do it. Somehow, we need to discipline ourselves to focus on efforts that are both relational and spiritual, that connect with a congregation of believers, and that deal with those in need both as people and as souls.