Help for Help Wanted

Many of you have read blogs and articles about the decline of Christian influence in the last election. This was just the latest confirmation that the church isn't as "salty" in our culture as it once was. With each passing day, we are being shoved farther to the margins of society. Many consider us to be increasingly irrelevant. For the past four years, our nation has been suffering economically. Those who thought they faced a comfortable retirement were forced to return to work. College students who had committed themselves to academic success at prestigious universities, now cannot find jobs as they graduate. Churches have felt the recession in terms of shrinking contributions and, by extension, budgets.

Call me crazy, but I think the Lord may be giving us a terrific opportunity with the circumstances I have just mapped out.

I recently began a new work in a small town in Texas. We have several precious souls stop in at the office each week and ask if we might be able to help them financially, often utility bills. Sometimes we can help, and sometimes we can't. But I have made it a personal mission to sit and talk with each person who comes in. Not about their financial pinch; I want to know about their relationship with God. I explain to them that whether we are able to help with the current crisis, there is most certainly another crisis looming in their future. As I explained to one young lady, if she were to suddenly win $100 million and all her financial issues were solved, she would still deal with crisis in her life on a recurring basis.

I explained to her, just as I do to everyone who comes in, that the church is God's gift to us. Only in a church can we find loving individuals who are willing to help support us during our darkest hour. Only as part of a church family, a community of faith, can we truly discover God's will for our lives. And when the next crisis hits, we may or may not be ready for it, but our church family will rally around us with the love of Christ.

This post is for all Christians, but I especially want to speak to you who are preachers, elders, deacons, or someone else who is involved in benevolence work. Though money is tight and the budget is shrinking, please do not neglect your benevolence ministry. There is more to benevolence than dollars and cents. Through the benevolence program, we fulfill Jesus' command to love and do good to the "least of these." But we also do something else.

As the church in America is increasingly losing its influence, God gives us benevolence work to do so that we might regain that influence. The media loves to slam churches and Christians, but one thing they love is to see our generosity to those in need. And mark my words: The world is watching.

I honestly feel like, in many of our churches, we have created so much red tape that it is impossible for anyone to get help, even those who truly need it. There are undoubtedly scam artists out there. I've dealt with them, and if you are a minister or benevolence deacon, you've dealt with them also. But everyone who comes into our offices is a person made in the image of Christ. Even the scam artist. And God has commissioned us to show them his love.

Some thoughts:

  • If you don't have one already, come up with a simple process whereby people can apply for benevolence assistance. Make sure the process is fair but easy. Getting help from your congregation shouldn’t be more difficult than applying for an international visa.
  • If you already have a benevolence process in place, revisit and streamline it.
  • Be honest about what help you can and cannot give. I am certainly not advocating that the church become the community's piggy bank. But also don’t be afraid to make it a budget priority. Repaving the parking lot or redoing the fellowship hall kitchen can wait.
  • Revisit any benevolence process that does not address the person's spiritual condition. I have sent too many people out the door, with and without help, having made no mention to them that I cared about their relationship with God. I'm ashamed of that, and I now not only pray with folks, but I make it a point to check up on them later.
  • If you currently require folks to attend one of your services in order to receive help, I pray that you might reconsider that condition. You and I may think that such is a simple request to make, but we're not them. As I have thought about it, a worship service may be the single most intimidating event a person could attend, especially when they THINK that they will be judged severely as the walk in the door. Instead, seek alternatives that increase the likelihood of someone being receptive to the gospel.

I want to help people. I want to help people know the Lord as their Savior before he becomes their Judge. But I also want to see the church's influence in our culture reverse its current decline. In that spirit, I encourage you to ask out loud: "What could my church do differently to better meet people's physical, material needs in our community?" Jesus would put it like this: "Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matt 5:16).

Father, help us to see everyone who asks us for benevolence help as precious souls made in your image. Help us to take seriously your call to love and help "the least of these." May we always make choices motivated by faith in your provision rather than fear of a bad decision. Make us more concerned with being lights in the darkness than good stewards of your finances, for all the world's gold is but pavement in your holy city. Transform our hearts so that we can transform our communities with your gospel. In Jesus' name.

UPDATE: What success has your congregation had in its benevolence ministry? Share your stories and advice in the comments section below.