MINISTERING TO THE POOR
I have been involved in ministering to the poor and to impoverished communities for most of my life. Having learned many lessons along the way, I want to share them with you.
There are many Bible passages that tell believers to minister to the needs of the poor:
- Proverbs 19:17 tells us to be kind to the poor.
- Proverbs 28:27 says that we should give to the poor.
- Also in Luke 12: 33-34 Jesus commanded his followers to give to the poor.
- Proverbs 31:9 tells us to defend the rights of the poor.
- In 1 Timothy 6:18 Paul teaches the rich to be generous to the poor.
Unjustly gaining wealth at the expense of the poor is a grave sin. There are greedy people who take advantage of those in need by charging excessive interest or preying on unwitting or helpless people. God especially takes revenge on those who oppress the poor.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. (Psalm 146:7-9)
Many causes of poverty
Christ commands us to have compassion on the needy. But how should Christians minister to the poor? Before we answer that question, it is essential that we understand the cause or causes of the poverty of the people we are dealing with. Before attempting to minister to people, we need to understand their situation.
In the article The Many Causes of Poverty I discuss most of the main causes of poverty or inability to prosper. They range from injustice and societal causes to misfortune and natural disasters, to a lack of wisdom and character, to intentional sin. Many people are poor through absolutely no fault of their own, while others share a large degree of responsibility for their condition. Poverty is usually multifaceted, with many contributing factors. With many it involves a mixture of reasons.
Because of this, we need discernment and God’s wisdom in ministering to the poor. Christians many times use faulty methods for interpreting the Bible and focus only on one or two passages from the New Testament to guide them in this area. There are many other passages in the book of Proverbs that relate to poverty that we should look at also. Some well-intentioned people have done more harm than good because of a lack of discernment and experience.
Indiscriminate giving is careless giving with no prayer, discernment, or plan behind it. This type of giver responds immediately to anyone’s request, but can unknowingly participate in other’s sins and contribute to their downfall.
But some will object: What about Jesus’ command in Luke 6:30, “Give to anyone who asks you…”?
The context of this passage is love for our enemies; it is not a formula for ministering to the poor. If taken literally, then we are all obligated by Christ to give anything anyone asks from us without limits. So if someone asks us for $100 so they can buy alcohol, then we must give it to them.
Simply giving to the poor without discerning the reasons for the poverty is foolish. Assuming that their only problem is lack of resources is not wise. The cause of poverty is usually much more than a lack of food, money, or housing. The real problem may be substance abuse, a mental problem, or even a lack of personal character. A high percentage of the homeless have a substance abuse problem. If we give them money, we could be contributing to their addiction and helping them ruin their own lives.
Who are the poor, and where do they live?
Remember this: the overwhelming majority of poor people that really need help are not on the street corner asking for money. If you really want to serve God by ministering to the poor, try to find out who these people are and where they live. They may be the elderly without support from family members. They may be someone who lost their job and can’t find work. Or they may be someone who is sick with overwhelming medical bills. They may live in a depressed area of town, but could even live close to you.
If people are poor because of their own fault, does that mean that we should not have compassion on them? No. People that have committed sins and made mistakes in life need help and God’s grace. And we are the hands and feet of Christ who can show them that love. But we need to know how to help them.
General principals for giving
First, remember that we are serving God, not just people. We are using God’s resources, so we are not to be careless about investing money for God’s kingdom. Pray about your giving, and work out a plan that is based on your income and your commitment to God’s work. In making these decisions, use wisdom from God’s Word and godly advice from others.
Remember: giving is investing. Try to ensure that what you give is achieving the intended purpose! If you have no idea what the result will be, then you are probably making a poor investment for God. Never allow anyone to pressure you to give money or to purchase anything. Decisions made under pressure are frequently bad decisions. If you don’t feel right about giving, say no!
Second, giving cash directly to a needy person that you don’t know is a big gamble. If you do, there is a large chance that you will be wasting God’s money. A person meeting a stranger soliciting money on the street is at a great disadvantage in determining the validity of their request. Many of these people are known for exaggerating their situation or concocting stories. Giving to Christian organizations that minister to the poor is much safer. You will get a much larger return on your investment in God’s kingdom.
Third, before responding to a poor person’s request, we should always try to determine what their true needs are. Find the underlying cause of their situation. This takes much more time and commitment than just giving money out our pocket. Most likely, their true needs go much deeper than money or food. Practice tough love!
Giving of time to the needy
So how do we discern true need? By spending time. It’s not possible for someone with limited time and information to understand the full picture of another person’s situation. We usually can’t determine a person’s true need unless we have spent time with the person.
Giving time is more costly but more effective than giving money. It’s very easy to give cash or write a check, but the spiritual return on this may be very low. However, giving personal time to a needy person can be very demanding and emotionally draining. The most ideal is to get involved in an established ministry that has experience with the culture and needs of a particular group of people. And if you personally don’t have the time to invest in ministering to the poor, then give to an established Christian ministry that does have the time.
Established ministries for the homeless or substance abusers have the advantage of longer-term contact with these people. They have gained a true knowledge of their situation and condition. They also provide a level of protection for their workers from people who may have the potential to harm. It’s necessary to have the protection, wisdom, and support of an established ministry when ministering to especially needy people. This type of ministry can be highly stressful.
Anyone who has worked in relief efforts or ministering to the poor knows about burnout. Burnout occurs mostly from working under stress for long time periods. But it also happens because humans by nature are selfish and can be very difficult to deal with. It doesn’t take long for our idealistic notions to fall away. After time, the Christian worker will need to jettison their idealism and operate on God’s love, especially for people who are difficult to love. People who are not grounded in their faith will experience burnout more quickly and may end up quitting in disillusionment.
Ministry opportunities to the poor
Volunteering is a good outlet for those with the gifts of mercy or service. If you have these gifts, consider getting involved in a Christian ministry. There are a variety of ministries: to the poor, homeless, victims of disaster relief, substance abusers, the trafficked, the elderly, or to the financially disadvantaged.
Spend some time researching organizations to find those that best fit your ministry goals and beliefs. Then contact them to see if you might be a good fit for them. There are too many good Christian organizations to list here, but most are always looking for dedicated workers. The level of involvement offered in most organizations can vary from occasional volunteer to full time staff, and everything in between. So, you can start with a small commitment and progress as you feel more confident and comfortable.
Those who want to research deeper into ways for ministering to the poor should consider the following books:
Created to Flourish, Greer and Smith, Hope International; Examines the pitfalls of traditional approaches of poverty alleviation and proposes breaking the cycle of dependency through small business ventures.
When Helping Hurts, Corbett and Fikkert, Chalmers Center (with affiliated resources, videos, and study guides); Shows how some poverty alleviation efforts have done more harm than good, and provides proven strategies for effective ministry to the poor.
Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky; Discusses the history of changing views on poverty in the U.S. and the resulting unhealthy dependency on the government and increase in poverty rates.
When Charity Destroys Dignity, Glenn Schwartz; Discusses how to avoid or overcome unhealthy dependency in Christian ministry.
The Locust Effect, Gary Haugen, International Justice Mission; Addresses structural and cultural (law and justice) issues that keep people in poverty.
Uncle Sam’s Plantation, Star Parker; How government can manipulate, control, and devastate the lives of the poor, and how to fight against it.
Dances With Dependency, Calvin Helin; Offers effective strategies to eliminate welfare dependency and eradicate poverty among indigenous populations.
A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Ruby Payne; Outlines main factors that contribute to personal poverty. An effective tool for educators teaching children from impoverished homes.
Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road, Timothy Keller; A comprehensive look at the Christian’s role in responding to need, and how ministries of mercy complement evangelism and discipleship.
I hope that this was helpful.
For Christ and his Kingdom,