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/

01/05/2017

Compensatory Godliness

I feel like a very mediocre preacher, counselor, and leader.  I pray that I will grow more and more in godliness that can make up for it as Tim Keller describes here:

There are three basic roles or functions that a Christian minister has: preaching, pastoring/counseling and leading.  No one is gifted or equally gifted in all three areas and yet we must do them all.  The greatest factor in the long-term effectiveness of a Christian minister is how (or whether) he covers his necessarily gift-deficient areas with his character.  Most of the leadership literature does tell us to know our deficits, our gift-deficient areas.  But it usually tells us to surround ourselves with a team of people with complimentary gifts.  That is helpful, if you can pull it off.  But even if you can, that is not sufficient, for your gift-deficient areas will undermine you unless there is compensatory godliness.  What do I mean?

a) You may not have strong public speaking gifts; but if you are very godly, your wisdom, love and courage will mean that you will be interesting.  b) You may not have strong pastoral or counseling gifts (e.g. you may be very shy or introverted, etc.); but if you are very godly, your wisdom, love and courage will mean that you will comfort and guide people.  c) You may not have very strong leadership gifts (e.g. you may be disorganized or very cautious by nature); but if you are very godly, your wisdom, love and courage will mean that people will respect and follow you.

Timothy J. Keller and J. Allen Thompson, Church Planter Manual (New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2002), 63.

12/15/2016

Is Church Membership Necessary?

My good friends Q and Sergei have started a podcast that is usually worth your time.  In this episode they invited me on to join their discussion of church membership.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/q7t2q-646bc2-pb?vjs=1&auto=0&from=share

https://thezeppelinlounge.podbean.com/e/make-the-church-great-again-1478737496/?token=2c2890a0e7a0dc1d208fb09bc73f3b02

11/28/2016

The Institutional Church and Politics

There’s a lack of clear thinking among Christians and even pastors about the church’s role, especially as it relates to social issues.

In a very helpful chapter in Christless Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008) Michael Horton walks through recent examples of liberal and conservative church bodies weighing in on specifics of public policy – “everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to farm policy;” immigration, NAFTA, economic issues, global warming, etc…  Then he writes:

Since any number of secular NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) currently exist to lobby for precisely the same policies, why do churches believe it is within their area of expertise, much less their official mandate, to offer pronouncements in God’s name on these issues?  Why not allow their members to pursue the general human calling to public justice through these common grace institutions alongside non-Christians?  Why must denominations commit their entire membership to very specific policies while often leaving matters of doctrine and worship more ambiguous and open-ended?

Surely the abolition of the slave trade was a noble work, yet it is interesting that in Britain it was not the church as an institution that abolished it but Christians who had been shaped by the church’s ministry and held public office in the state….

I often wonder how American history might have turned out differently if the churches in the South had disciplined members who held slaves.  In other words, if the churches had simply followed their own mandate of preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and exercising discipline and care for the well-being of their flock.  Would not the institution have lost its moral credibility even outside of the church?  Both Northern and Southern churches had reduced slavery merely to a political issue when they should have done what only churches can do: proclaim God’s judgment upon the kidnapping and forced labor of fellow human beings and excommunicate members who refused to repent of the practice.  At the same time, church members could have exercised their moral conscience in deciding for themselves how best to abolish the institution in courts and legislatures.

….

The church as an institution appointed by Christ has a narrow mandate with global significance.  Individual Christians, however, have as many mandates as they do callings: as parents, children, extended relatives, neighbors, coworkers, and so on.  In addition to loving and serving each other in the fellowship of saints, believers are enjoined ‘to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one’ (1 Thess. 4:11-12).  It may not sound as grand as creating a global trading policy or ushering in the kingdom by driving out the ‘Romans’ (whether Democrats or Republicans) in the next election, but it is the proper kind of discipleship for this phase of Christ’s rule: the kingdom of grace, which only at Christ’s return will be a kingdom of glory.

So getting the church to mind its own business and get its own house in order is not a call to passivity in the face of injustice, unrighteousness, and oppression.  Especially when dominant churches have succumbed to civil religion, their repentance has enormous significance in the wider society.  Even where it does not have that kind of effect, however, the church’s repentance is always God’s call.  Christians can always have a broader impact in their callings than the church as an institution with its restricted mandate.  Even so, a church that fully exercises its commission is a potent source of genuine transformation, forming a new society within the secular city that is nevertheless completely distinct from it (214-16).

11/08/2016

White Christianity-ism

In Free At Last?: The Gospel in the African-American Experience (Downers Grove: IVP, 1983/96) Carl Ellis makes a helpful distinction between Christianity and an imposter religion that tries to go by the same name in this country.

Christianity The gospel* applied in a cultural context, involving both its expression and the response of its adherents.  These cultural manifestations do not contradict or undercut the gospel itself.  On the contrary, a properly functioning cultural Christianity can bring out insights on the gospel not seen in other cultural contexts.

Christianity-ism; “Christianity”  This ugly term is most fitting, because of its ugliness, to refer to negative or unchristian religious practices expressed in the language of Christianity.*  Christianity-ism consists of making Christianity itself the object of faith* rather than an expression of faith in God’s solution to the problem of human unrighteousness and God’s revealed wrath on humankind.  In essence Christianity-ism is a subtle form of idol worship – the idol being institutional Christianity, and the form often being associated with racism.

This election cycle has shown that we have a lot of work to do in order to make clear the difference between authentic Christianity and White Christianity-ism.

10/31/2016

NPR on the Protestant Reformation

Today marks the 499th anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg, sparking what is known now as the Protestant Reformation.  Recently, I listened to a piece on NPR trying to explain the Reformation and reporting on recent ecumenical efforts to see Protestants and Catholics come back together.

Pope Francis now praises Martin Luther as an “intelligent man” who rightly protested many abuses at the time.  He maintains that we have much in common and should work together on social issues like caring for the poor, immigration, and persecution of Christians.

However, NPR reported, there are three remaining areas of doctrinal division:

(1) The question of the universal church and papal primacy

(2) The priesthood, which includes women in the Lutheran Church

(3) The nature of the Eucharist or Holy Communion

Why do we continue to miss the point?  Is it simply ignorance?  Or is there a willful denial?  Until people recognize that the main issue in Luther’s theology… in fact the biggest question in all of life is – How can I be right before a holy God? – then they cannot understand the Reformation and there cannot be unity between true Protestants and Catholics.

10/14/2016

Does Inspiration Still Happen?

From the Introduction to George Barna’s book The Power of Vision: Discover and Apply God’s Plan for Your Life and Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009 [1992]) –

Writing this book was such a different and memorable experience for me because never before – or since – have I had a book that seemed to be written through me rather than by me.  During that week of writing, it often seemed as if I were having something akin to an out-of-body experience, watching my fingers type in word after word and reading the text with admiration.  Without wanting to overstate the case, let me simply say that this book is one of my proudest offerings to the Lord – largely because I know how deeply integrated He was in the writing process.  When people give me compliments for the book, it is simply confirmation that the Lord wanted to get these thoughts into the minds and hearts of some of His people, and I was the available scribe of the moment.  What a privilege that was and continues to be.

That quote may reveal more about our culture’s view of Scripture than any of Barna’s polls.

10/07/2016

The Inspiration of the Bible

Around the turn of the twentieth-century a parasitic religion called Liberal Christianity was spreading.  Liberals (or Modernists) wanted to retain some traditional Christian language, but re-define the terms in keeping with their primary allegiance to Enlightenment Rationality instead of Divine Revelation.

One such term was the “inspiration” of Scripture.  There were several different definitions of inspiration being put forward.  But B.B. Warfield of Princeton pointed out:

Over against the numberless discordant theories of inspiration which vex our time, there stands a well-defined church-doctrine of inspiration.  This church-doctrine of inspiration differs from the theories that would fain supplant it, in that it is not the invention nor the property of an individual, but the settled faith of the universal church of God; in that it is not the growth of yesterday, but the assured persuasion of the people of God from the first planting of the church until to-day; in that it is not a protean shape, varying its affirmations to fit every new change in the ever-shifting thought of men, but from the beginning has been the church’s constant and abiding conviction as to the divinity of the Scriptures committed to her keeping….

What this church-doctrine is, it is scarcely necessary minutely to describe.  It will suffice to remind ourselves that it looks upon the Bible as an oracular book, – as the Word of God in such a sense that whatever it says God says, – not a book, then, in which one may, by searching, find some word of God, but a book which may be frankly appealed to at any point with the assurance that whatever it may be found to say, that is the Word of God….  We know how, as Christian men, we approach this Holy Book, – how unquestioningly we receive its statements of fact, bow before its enunciations of duty, tremble before its threatenings, and rest upon its promises….

Nor do we need to do more than remind ourselves that this attitude of entire trust in every word of the Scriptures has been characteristic of the people of God from the very foundation of the church.  Christendom has always reposed upon the belief that the utterances of this book are properly oracles of God.  The whole body of Christian literature bears witness to this fact.

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Inspiration of the Bible,” in Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 51 (1854).  Found in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (Baker, 2003 [1932]), 1:52-53.

 

09/28/2016

Fresh Dose of David Wells

I first read David Well’s No Place for Truth back in the late 90s.  I praise God for leading me to good books in my formative years!  Every few years I need to get a fresh dose of David Wells and thankfully every few years he publishes a new book in this same vein.  Right now I’m reading the latest – God in the Whirlwind (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014).

There are, in fact, gut-wrenching changes taking place in our Western societies.  Our world is being shaken to its very foundations.  Instead of offering great thoughts about God, the meaning of reality, and the gospel, there are evangelical churches that are offering only little therapeutic nostrums that are sweet but mostly worthless.  One even wonders whether some current churchgoers might even be resistant were they to encounter a Christianity that is deep, costly, and demanding.

That is why we must come back to our first principles.  And the most basic of these is the fact that God is there and that he is objective to us.  He is not there to conform to us; we must conform to him.  He summons us from outside of ourselves to know him.  We do not go inside of ourselves to find him.  We are summoned to know him only on his terms.  He is not known on our terms.  This summons is heard in and through his Word.  It is not heard through our intuitions.

These are our most basic principles because they deal with our most basic issues and our most basic calling.  That calling is to know God as he has made himself known and in the ways that he has prescribed.  We are to hear this call within the framework he has established.  He is not there at our convenience, or simply for our healing, or simply as the Divine Teller handing out stuff from his big bank.  No, we are here for his service.  We are here to know him as he is and not as we want him to be.  The local church is the place where we should be learning about this, and God’s Word is the means by which we can do so.

09/21/2016

Words at a Grave

Rosemary Ellen Carter

Graveside Committal Service

New London Friends Cemetery

9/20/16

 grandma-carter

We come now to this place where so many of our ancestors have been laid to rest in order to commend the soul of our sister, sister-in-law, mom, mother-in-law, grandma, great-grandma, and friend to Almighty God as we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

 

The reason why we have profound sadness in our hearts right now is because we know it wasn’t meant to be this way.  Tragically, sin entered our world, and death through sin (Rom. 5:12).

 

But the great reality that gives hope is that God has entered this world, in the person of Jesus Christ.  He took on our flesh; and then took on the sin of all those who are united to him by faith and graciously paid the penalty for that sin in his death on the cross.  He was buried.  And then three days later his body came back to life never to die again.  He ascended into heaven and has promised to come again one day to finally put everything right.

 

Grandma repented of her sin and put her trust in Christ as her Savior, therefore we can have assurance that though her soul is absent from her body, it is present with the Lord at this moment (2Cor. 5:8).  And one day at Christ’s return her soul will be reunited to this body and she will rise to live forever in a new creation with God where he shall wipe away all tears and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things will have passed away (Rev. 21:4).  Therefore, we do not have to sorrow as others who have no hope (1Thess. 4:13).

 

Grandma wanted Jesus’ words from John 14 to be read on this occasion.  It was a favorite passage of hers that perfectly puts this scenario into perspective for all of us.  Jesus said to his disciples:

 

Let not your hearts be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there you may be also.  And where I go you know, and the way you know.  Thomas said unto him, Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?  Jesus said unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no one comes unto the Father, but by me.

 

God has told us very clearly the way to be with him forever.  Praise God for this!

 

Let us pray:

 

Into thy hands, O merciful Savior, we commend thy servant Rosemary Ellen Carter.  Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming.  Receive her into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.  Amen.