Archive for ‘Poverty’

01/11/2017

Helping Without Hurting

 

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert with Katie Casselberry, Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015), 154 pages.

 

Whether your ministry setting is urban, suburban, or rural, you’ll inevitably encounter people stuck in poverty. How does your church lovingly engage with those who, for a variety of reasons, have little to no income and approach the church for help? Ignoring the issue and being an insulated middle-class clique is easy, but it’s not an option for those who profess to believe in the gospel of grace. At the same time, throwing money at people is really a way to keep them at a distance and therefore to only love ourselves.

 

A NEW BOOK

 

Several years ago, I read what’s since become a modern classic on poverty intervention: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Afterward, I thought, “I wish our church could do more to truly help those in financial need among us.” I also realized, however, that this was not my primary calling as a pastor (cf. Acts 6:1–7). I simply started praying that God might raise up the right people in our body who could take some of the ideas found in When Helping Hurts and run with them.

 

Recently, God has answered those prayers. We now have a small team of church members working through how we can genuinely love our brothers, sisters, and neighbors who find themselves in poverty. And thankfully, Corbett and Fikkert have written a short follow-up book that functions as the perfect guide for any church seeking to implement a wise approach to what has been called benevolence, diaconal work, mercy ministry, or compassion ministry. The book is titled Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People.

 

WHAT IS POVERTY?

 

The authors begin with a theological definition of poverty that includes more than just material need. We’re all poor in the sense that we have experienced brokenness in our relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. The ultimate hope of salvation is only found in the reconciling work of Christ. Sanctification is a messy, life-long process for all believers as we are restored to God’s design for us as image-bearers. Framing the issue this way prevents poverty alleviation from becoming a prideful attempt at “playing god.” The materially poor and the materially non-poor are both broken and need each other.

 

When poverty is defined exclusively as a lack of money, then we try to fix it with handouts, which ends up doing spiritual damage to everyone involved. Think of churches that give away hundreds of backpacks to impoverished school kids while taking pictures for their newsletter. This is not helping anyone in the long-term. We need to move away from paternalistic practices that promote dependency and demean objects of “charity” and instead encourage empowering relationships that aim for long-term, positive change.

 

Therefore, it is important to distinguish relief from rehabilitation and development. Relief is “stopping the bleeding.” There are times when people need immediate material assistance in the face of a crisis. However, Corbett and Fikkert demonstrate that “one of the most common and detrimental mistakes that North American churches make in their benevolence work is using a relief approach when the situation calls for development.” Development means doing things with others, not to them or for them—and it fits very nicely with discipleship.  Any serious engagement with those in poverty will require entering into relationships that address the root causes and not just the symptoms.

 

SUMMARY

 

There are many avenues and arenas for engaging the issue of poverty, and certainly not every local church is required or recommended to have a formal, structured benevolence program.  But for those who decide to go this route, this book will walk you through all the steps to get started.

 

First, the book will help you create a Benevolence Philosophy and Policies document that your church can unify around. Corbett and Fikkert provide a list of 19 questions that need to be answered in such a document and they comment on each one.

 

Then they offer detailed guidance on how to create an Intake Form. The authors suggest most people approaching the church for financial assistance should work through this form with a member of the benevolence team.

 

Next, the book explains the essential elements of an Action Plan. Here the key is making sure the person in poverty is put in the driver’s seat and those from the benevolence team are seen as allies or champions in an asset-based, participatory process.

 

The book also provides creative ideas and links to online tools. There are helpful suggestions for recruiting and training volunteers for a benevolence ministry, creating a Community Resource Directory so you know what social services are already available around you, and coordinating this ministry with other aspects of the church.

 

A great strength of the book is that it assumes a healthy ecclesiology. The “ordinary ministry” of the church—preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, accountability, discipline, prayer—is not undermined but explicitly encouraged and honored throughout. The gospel is clearly defined and the need for it to be verbalized in benevolence work is underscored. Sin and the need for personal responsibility never gets minimized, yet there is helpful awareness-raising information on contributing external factors like trauma and institutional racism. Poverty is complex and thus requires addressing individual behaviors, abusive or exploitive people, oppressive systems, and demonic forces.

 

The last chapter offers test cases to help the reader see what this approach would look like in different scenarios when people approach the church for money. Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but biblical wisdom and dependence on the Holy Spirit’s guidance is required. Corbett and Fikkert want us to be informed but not paralyzed. They give great advice: start small, start fast, and succeed!

 

CONCLUSION

 

Our church is located in a gentrifying center-city neighborhood that is anchored by a university and has an abundance of expensive lofts, condos, and townhomes populated by professionals. And yet, immediately surrounding our building there are government subsidized housing projects that are not going anywhere. We want to be a church for everyone here—a compelling community that primarily has Christ in common, not socio-economic class. For this to happen, we felt we needed a benevolence ministry that is biblical and informed by best practices. This little book will be an indispensable resource for us and I am sure many other churches.

 

https://9marks.org/review/book-review-helping-without-hurting-in-church-benevolence-by-steve-corbett-and-brian-fikkert/

07/10/2016

What I Said Before the Prayer Time During our Service Today

My family and I were gone all this last week on vacation, trying to be cut off from the world, but it was impossible not to hear about the latest flare up of the disease of racial injustice that plagues our society.  It was a uniquely eventful week.  And so I wanted to take some time to briefly address this and give some guidance on how we should respond.

What can we do?  Facebook posts can only do so much.  We must do more.  But we can’t change Dallas or Baton Rouge or Falcon Heights or our whole nation.  So what can we do?

We can pray.  And that is what we are about to do together in just a moment.  We can go to the only One who can ultimately help.  And he hears us.

In our prayers we can lament, grieve to God, pour out our sadness, mourn.  Beg him to move.

And in our prayers we can repent.  If we have hatred and unrighteous anger, we can confess that.  If we don’t care, we can confess our apathy, confess our lack of love for the Other and ask God to change us.  We can ask for forgiveness for ways that we have been complicit in the problem through sins of commission and/or omission, and ask God to give us the right heart.

And then in addition to praying, we can think biblically about these matters.  We must work hard to get the right biblical categories in our minds for how to approach matters of race and institutional sin.  We can’t let the world define our terms and shape our hearts and set our agendas, but the Word.

The Bible tells us that we all have different callings in the world.

Some of you may be called to contribute to the righting of wrongs through political or legal action – organizing, policy making, lobbying…

Some of you may be called to law enforcement in some way.  We’ve had a member of our church become a cop and we need more good cops who truly serve and protect.

Some of you may be called to educational reform.  We’ve had members working in CPS, which is a less than cushy school district, in order to seek the welfare of a city ravaged by racial inequalities.

Some of you may be called to economic investment.  We need more real jobs in neighborhoods that are racially segregated.  We need more felon-friendly jobs, so people have a way out.  This requires entrepreneurial risk and creative thinking from those who have capital.

There are tons of different ways to address the systemic and complicated issues that we’ve been reminded of again this week.  Some of you are called to do something about the problem in some of these ways.

But let me remind you what all of us are without a doubt called to do.  Every Christian is called to give him or herself to the local church.  That is the most important thing we can do in response to these events.  Government is not where our hope finally lies.  Education, the economy… God can work through those institutions in a general way, but the clearest location of God’s special, redeeming work in the world is the church.  Here is where God is reconciling people to himself and to each other for ever.  The church is a foretaste and preview of the coming New Creation where every tribe, language, and nation is gathered around the throne of God.

As we drove back into our neighborhood last night, after spending a week in parts of the country that are by and large oblivious to these sad realities, I was reminded of how exciting it is to be the church here in the UIC Area, with such diversity yet disparity.  What a place to do the long-term work of preaching the gospel and making disciples and living sacrificially for others.  It’s all right here within a few blocks of where we sit right now.  It’s all right here.  Let’s not miss it.

So with all the national news swirling that highlights the problems, let’s recommit ourselves to this specific church and our mission to this neighborhood.  What can we do?  Let’s be the church, be the people of God assembled under the Word of God, demonstrating to the world the supernatural power of the gospel to make enemies of God adopted sons and daughters of God and true brothers and sisters to each other through the cross.  Let’s help this body continue to reflect God’s kaleidoscopic kingdom.  Let’s dig in deeper to each other’s lives, loving one another deeply from the heart and seeking to bring our neighbors in on that.  We can, and must, all do at least this.

09/23/2014

Jonathan Edwards and Helping the Poor

In 1733, aware of growing poverty and increasing social stratification in Northampton, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon entitled, “The Duty of Charity to the Poor.” Tim Keller summarizes:

The heart of the sermon is a set of answers to a series of common objections Edwards always heard whenever he preached or spoke about the duty of sharing money and good with the poor. All of the questions sought to put limits on the Biblical injunction to love their neighbor.

One of the objections was ‘Though they be needy, yet they are not in extremity. [They are not destitute.]’ I remember one of my parishioners responding to one of my sermons in a similar manner. ‘All the poor people in my part of town have nice TV sets. They aren’t starving,’ he said. But Edwards says that this hardheartedness is not in accord with the Biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself. We don’t wait until we are in ‘extremity’ before doing something about our condition, he argued, so why should we wait until our neighbor is literally starving before we help? Edwards goes further, and asks if Christians who say this remember that we are to love others as Christ loved us. ‘The Christian spirit will make us apt to sympathize with our neighbor when we see him under any difficulty… we ought to have such a spirit of love to him that we should be afflicted with him in his affliction.’ Christ literally walked in our shoes and entered into our affliction. Those who will not help others until they are destitute reveal that Christ’s love has not yet turned them into sympathetic persons the gospel should make them.

Another objection comes from people who say they ‘have nothing to spare’ and that they barely have enough for their own needs. But one of the main lessons of the Good Samaritan parable is that real love entails risk and sacrifice. Edwards responds that when you say, ‘I can’t help anyone,’ you usually mean, ‘I can’t help anyone without burdening myself, cutting in to how I live my life.’ But, Edwards argues, that’s exactly what Biblical love requires. He writes:

We in many cases may, by the rule of the gospel, be obliged to give to others when we can’t without suffering ourselves…. If our neighbor’s difficulties and necessities are much greater than ours and we see that they are not like to be relieved, we should be willing to suffer withy them and to take part of their burden upon ourselves. Or else how is that rule fulfilled of bearing one another’s burdens? If we are never obliged to relieve others’ burdens but only when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor’s burdens, when we bear no burden at all?

Two other objections Edwards takes on are that the poor person ‘is of a very ill temper; he is of an ungrateful spirit’ and ‘he has brought himself to his [poverty] by his own fault.’ These are both abiding problems with helping the poor…. We all want to help kind-hearted, upright people, whose poverty came upon them through no foolishness or contribution of their own, and who will respond to our aid with gratitude and joy. However, almost no one like that exists… The causes of poverty are complex and intertwined. And while it is important that our aid to the poor really helps them and doesn’t create dependency, Edwards makes short work of these objections by, again, appealing to the gospel itself.

In dealing with the objection that many of the poor do not have upright, moral characters, he counters that we did not either, and yet Christ put himself out for us:

Christ loved us, and was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very hateful persons, of an evil disposition, not deserving of any good… so we should be willing to be kind to those who are… very undeserving.

When answering the objection that the poor have often contributed to their condition, Edwards is remarkably balanced yet insistently generous. He points out that it is possible some people simply do not have ‘a natural faculty to manage affairs to advantage.’ In other words, some people persistently make sincere but very bad decisions about money and possessions. Edwards says we should consider the lack of this faculty to be almost like being born with impaired eyesight:

Such a faculty is a gift that God bestows on some, and not on others. And it is not owing to themselves…. This is as reasonable as that he to whom Providence has imparted sight should be willing to help him to whom sight is denied, and that he should have the benefit of the sight of others, who has none of his own….

But what if their economic plight is more directly the result of selfish, indolent, or violent behavior? As Edwards puts it in the language of his time, what if ‘they are come to want by a vicious idleness and prodigality’? He counters that ‘we are not thereby excused from all obligation to relieve them, unless they continue in those vices.’ Then he explains why. Christ found us in the same condition. Our spiritual bankruptcy was due to our own sin, yet he came and gave us what we needed.

The rules of the gospel direct us to forgive them… [for] Christ hath loved us, pitied us, and greatly laid out himself to relieve us from that want and misery which we brought on ourselves by our own folly and wickedness. We foolishly and perversely threw away those riches with which we were provided, upon which we might have lived and been happy to all eternity.

Tim Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010), 69-73.