The learning curve in ministry is very steep. I have not yet been a pastor for three years, and everyday I am learning something new about the ministry and something new about people. When I became a pastor I knew that one of the areas of ministry I would certainly encounter was that of helping the needy. And what I have discovered will probably come across as a shock: the local church’s general approach to helping needy and homeless people has only exasperated their misery and complicated their recovery.
I know that there are many great ministries doing a very good job in this critical area of spiritual service, but from my limited perspective, most of the local churches are making a terrible hash of it. Though their motives are undoubtedly genuine, they are enabling and prolonging the very lifestyle that keeps the needy and homeless in bondage to their debilitating sin.
Our church is located on the west side of Turlock, and we tend to have a much greater concentration of needy and homeless people than one might see for instance, near the University. And since our church is situated right in the middle of a neighborhood, we tend to get frequent visits from indigents, especially on Sunday mornings.
And what is striking to me is the number of needy and homeless people that emphatically demand our assistance. A man approached one of our elders after service and said that he needed money for his kids. He didn’t want to come to church, he didn’t want to come into our fellowship hall, he didn’t want food that we made available to him. He wanted the cash without any encumbrance.
When our elder rightfully explained that we don’t just hand out money, especially to people who have never attended our church or sown sacrificially into this ministry, he became irate and started cursing God, the church, and the elder. He wanted the money and he wanted it now. If this had been one isolated incident we might chalk it up to a singular exception. But sadly, this incident has repeated itself numerous times with only slight variation. One woman came in and boldly declared her need for $20 so that she might see a dentist (that wouldn’t cover her time in the waiting room). Another man wreaking of alcohol came in one Sunday and wanted to speak to the pastor. I gladly took him aside to hear his concern, and he too wanted $20 for gas money to take his son to the doctor. When I gently explained to him that we don’t hand out cash but did offer him some food, he became visibly irritated, as though I had just broken some sort of established contract.
And of course we have received countless requests and calls for help with mortgages, rent, clothing, food, and travel expenses from total strangers. Now some may say “You can’t blame them for trying. Who isn’t looking for a little help?” And some may even say “As a church you should help them, and then use it as an opportunity to share the gospel.” But what we are witnessing is an increasing population of needy and homeless people who want nothing to do with the gospel and yet have no qualms about demanding money from the church. They not only want financial help; they insist upon it, as though it is their right and our responsibility.
It got me thinking. How did we go from a culture that respected and rewarded hard work to one that so shamelessly demands a handout? Certainly the government with its entitlement-driven programs takes its place among the usual suspects, but surprisingly the line-up also includes an unusual suspect, the church itself.
Too many ministries are trafficking in mere temporary consolation, handing out food and clothing and even money to the needy and homeless, without tying it to eternal substance and lasting hope. Where is the gospel? Where is the accountability? Where is both the message and the means for changing a person’s life? If we continue to simply give physical sustenance to people on the streets without effecting an alteration of heart and habit we are simply perpetuating the problem.
Churches must stop handing out charity without reasonable demands of accountability. We are inevitably teaching people that the Body of Christ is one more category of the welfare state. It is not. Let us give people the necessities for physical life while we teach them the hope of everlasting life. If the needy person rejects those conditions, then let their stomach be a powerful motivator to return and hear the gospel in all of its glory. We will feed your belly, as long as you’ll let us feed your soul as well. That’s all we ask.