Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Do we close our eyes to the poor?

In recent years at Nags Head Church we’ve made intentional efforts to reach out to the poor and needy in our community. Some of the organized efforts have been:

* giving school supplies away through Operation BackPack;
* giving away winter coats
* Donating to Interfaith Community Outreach, which acts as a clearinghouse for dispensing funds to people with needs in Dare Co.;
* Participating in Ruthie’s Kitchen, which provides a weekly meal in the winter months to the hungry;
* Hosting the homeless for a week at a time through A Room at the Inn;
* Encouraging the church to participate in the Advent Conspiracy.
* Cleaned out the homes and yards of flood victims.
* Food pantry

Maybe you’ve wondered why we do such things. Isn’t our primary task to evangelize the world? Someone asked me this question recently and said that American churches shouldn’t be doing “social” ministries. It was also suggested that our church is in danger of gravitating away from the Gospel to a “social gospel” by these outreaches.

The term “social gospel” was something applied to liberal, mainstream churches in the mid 20th century who reached out to the poor, especially in 3rd world countries with social projects – building hospitals, providing food and clean water – those kinds of things, and saw those kinds of good deeds as sharing the gospel. The criticism of them was that they were not leading men and women to Christ. They were taking care of physical needs, not spiritual needs.

The reaction of the evangelical and fundamentalist churches in America was to go the other direction. Rather than meet physical needs of food, clothing, shelter and medical needs, churches only preached to the poor. So what you had were two extremes. One giving the necessities of life without giving the Gospel; the other ignoring the hunger and poverty but telling them Jesus loves them. My guess is that both had right motives. But that the right thing to do is to bring them together.

As always, let's get direction from the Scriptures.

God required His people Israel to give to the poor. When they harvested their crops they were to leave the corners of their fields unharvested and allow the poor to come and freely glean from their fields. (Lev. 23:22)

They weren’t to withhold giving to the poor when they had resources to give. Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do. 11There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. (Deut. 15:10-11)

Job’s testimony was that he "rescued the poor man who cried out for help, and the fatherless child who had no one to support him" (29:12) and "I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame." (29:15-16a) It seems Job was saying, “All this is good and what God expects of me, a rich man”. He knew that the very character of God is to care for the poor and the hungry. (Job 31:16-23)

Some might argue, “But that was Old Testament Law and applied to Israel, not us”. OK. My first response might be, “So has that heart of God toward the poor changed? And if so, how do you know that?” My second response would be, “OK. So what then about Jesus’ teaching? Isn’t that for us?” So, what did Jesus say?

When you give a lunch or a dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers, your relatives, or your rich neighbors, because they might invite you back, and you would be repaid.

On the contrary, when you host a banquet, invite those who are poor, maimed, lame, or blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." - Lk. 14:12-14.

If you want to be perfect…go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me. - Mt. 19:21

It seems extremely clear (to anyone looking with spiritual eyes) that Jesus was telling us to give to the poor. How can that be hard to see?

With our economy so crippled, the question shouldn't be "Why do we give to the poor", but "How can we not address the needs of the poor?". At NHC we have never preached a “social gospel”. The only Gospel we preach is Christ crucified, buried and risen. But as we give to the poor we do so “in Jesus’ name”, saying to those who receive, “Here’s a church that cares about you.” We give out gospel literature; we invite them to come and see what we believe; we pray with them and offer them hope.

Frankly, I’m hoping we do even more giving and at the same time be even more intentional with evangelizing at the same time. But to close our eyes to the needy and to not see the opportunities to share the gospel and the opportunities that giving opens, or to say it’s not something we should be doing as an American church is missing the heart of Christ. Someone said, “I won’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.”

So, we’ll continue to find ways to show Christ to the poor in our community. And when they wonder why we give things away, the answer is simple: because it’s what Jesus wants us to do. We don’t apologize at all for caring for the poor. It seems that when we do care we are closely following His footsteps.

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