Practicing benevolence toward those outside the church is always difficult. Many churches are in suburban areas where needs exist, but few people approach local churches for material assistance. When they do, diaconal workers often find themselves outside of their familiar comfort zone. It is always interesting to serve here, sometimes challenging, and often a little unsettling.
Downtown churches are often surrounded by those who have material needs. Streetlight Christian Church is such a church. Responding to these needs is difficult. It is easiest to simply give help to whoever asks. After all, Moses says, “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward the poor.” (Deut. 15:7)
It is a privilege to serve our neighbourhood. It is an honour to give in the name of Jesus Christ to any who asks. If we give the precious gospel to any who ask, then should we not give what is less precious (e.g. material assistance) with similar abandon?
But things were getting out of hand for us. We budget $100 for food and $25 for bus fare each week. Usually we had spent our budget by Tuesday. I suppose that if we budgeted $100 per day, we would spend all our budget by 9:00 a.m. every day. The poor you will always have with you, Jesus said. No amount of money can solve it.
We needed to change the way we practiced benevolence. We were turning many people away empty-handed. Few found that they could count on us. And what is worse, members of our church could not receive help because our budget was spent before they could ask. We were accomplishing the opposite of what we desired in this respect.
So, this past September, we began to tell people that our benevolence practices must serve to build community. We urged people to get connected to a church so that they might be taken care of in that community. We would give assistance to anybody once, but afterward they would have to talk to the pastor so that he could urge them to become part of the loving community of the church.
We experienced two blessings from this policy.
- When people learned that assistance was tied to community, many stopped coming. They were not interested in being part of the Christian community. You might call that narrowing the field of ministry.
- Relationships began growing. People are eager to talk about community. Everybody wants to be part of one. Nearly everyone who received material help under this policy promised to come to church, or to Bible study, or some other event. Though the rate of those who followed through was very low, those who did, were generally open to the gospel.
Our benevolence policy is not perfect. Many in our community are asking in crisis. We cannot help them all. Sometimes we wonder how much we are actually helping people. But we are opening the door to more meaningful benevolence practices that serve the advancing of the gospel.
By Pastor Paul Aasman