Churches are an important resource in caring for America’s poor, but the job is too big for churches alone. With all the talk about healthcare and the nation’s deficit, I’ve seen more than one blog suggest that churches take over the responsibility for caring for the nation’s poor. While that is a noble goal, moving all government “safety net” programs to churches is a numerical impossibility. Let’s just take one example — the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The Cato Institute, a conservative think-tank, puts the food stamp program budget at about $75-billion dollars. But, let’s use a more conservative estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They estimate that 36-million Americans (1-in-8) receive what most of us call food stamps, or nutrition assistance. On average, each participant receives $133 per month, or about $1,596 per year. Okay, let’s do the math on those numbers: $1,596 x 36,000,000 = $57,426,000,000 or about $57.5 billion per year. That’s less than Cato estimates, but will serve our purposes just fine. The total number of congregations in America is generally estimated between 350,00 to 400,000. Let’s use the higher guesstimate of 400,000 churches of all denominations in the United States. The median size of these congregations is 90 in attendance each Sunday. Here’s where the numbers tell the story: For churches to take over the feeding of America’s poor, each church in America would have to feed 90 people each. That means that the average church would take on as many poor people as it currently has in attendance! But, even more difficult is the financial picture. If each church allocated $133 per month to feed each of the 90 people, the total yearly cost would be $143,640 per church per year. Most churches with 90 in attendance don’t have a total budget of $150K per year, much less a benevolence budget of that amount. Of course, this is only one program. The SNAP program is run through the US Department of Agriculture, but other programs Continue reading “Think Churches Can Feed America’s Poor?”
Churches can care for their communities by providing resources to encourage and strengthen marriage.
The Brookings Institute’s Ron Haskins writes — “Higher marriage rates among the poor would benefit poor adults themselves, their children, and the nation.” Haskins believes that churches and other non-profits should encourage marriage by offering courses on marriage, parenting, money management, anger management, and other family-related issues.
Out-of-wedlock births continue to increase in this country, as marriage rates continue the decline begun in 1972. Haskins contends that —
“According to the U.S. Census Bureau, children living in single-parent families are about five times as likely to live in poverty. There’s also a high probability they’ll drop out of school, get arrested, be involved in teen pregnancy themselves, have more mental health problems, and be less likely to be employed or in school as young adults. Indeed, parents themselves are physically and psychologically better off when married than single.”
But churches will also have to address the reasons that some choose not to marry. According to Amanda Drew’s article, Declining Marriage Rates, young adults are choosing not to marry for a variety of reasons:
- Couples choose to live together before marrying;
- College graduates are taking a year off after graduation to travel before settling down;
- The expense of a full-blown wedding is not appealing to some;
- The decline in church attendance and the moral values that come from practicing one’s faith;
- Fear of divorce.
I am convinced that the task of the church for the decade of the 2010’s is going to be a reimagined “care of souls.” Churches can have a positive impact on their own communities by providing nurture and care for marriage and its attendant benefits. Because the poor have a disproportionately lower rate of marriage, churches could find themselves caring for the “least of these” within their own communities in this vital area. What is your church doing to encourage marriage and the advantages marriage brings in your community?
Materialism: Why Do We Have So Much Stuff?
18A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
19“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'”
21“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
23When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. 24Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
26Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”
27Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
28Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
29“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”
Has Jesus Lost His Mind?
Okay, imagine you live in the first century and you pastor a new church in Jerusalem. So far the only members you have attracted to your congregation are 12 guys who, to say the least, are not the cream of the crop. Several of them are fishermen, which is a smelly, messy business. One is a tax collector, or rather former tax collector, because he left a fine source of income to follow you. One is a domestic terrorist, Simon the Zealot, and he’s on the “no fly” list at the Judean Department of Homeland Security. One of them, Judas, is a self-taught accountant — at least that’s the story he told every one. Actually, all of these men, all 12 of them, are technically unemployed. They all left their jobs — fishing nets, tax collection booth, accounting, what have you — to follow you. Which is great, except the offerings have been down for some time now.
So, one day a really nice looking, extremely well-dressed young man comes up to you. He addresses you in polite and polished Aramaic, not the slanguage of the fishing village that most of your guys speak. And, he graciously calls you “good master.”
But, it’s his sincerity in asking his question that really gets to you. “What must I do to obtain eternal life?” So, this is a serious young man, too.
Here is a prime candidate for discipleship. He’s rich, young, and he’s a leader. Luke calls him a “certain ruler,” which probably meant he led a synagogue or was a leading member of a religious party with authority over others. In any event, he’s the best looking, wealthiest, and most articulate person who has questioned you.
That’s the situation that Jesus found himself in. Mark’s Gospel says everything that Luke’s does, plus it adds that this man “ran up to Jesus and fell on his knees before him.” So, the young man was not only rich, and powerful, but urgently seeking some answers to his spiritual questions.
Jesus replies by saying, “You know the commandments,” and Jesus begins to recite them:
- Do not commit adultery,
- do not murder,
- do not steal,
- do not give false testimony,
- honor your father and mother.
Now, what do you notice about this list of commandments that Jesus quotes? Well, first, these aren’t all the commandments. Jesus only quotes 5 here. There are 5 more, which is why the original list is called the Ten Commandments. But, why these five?
You might remember the Ten Commandments, but if not, let me give you a quick run-down from Exodus 20. Here they all are:
1. You shall have no other gods before me.
2. You shall not make for yourself an idol…
3. You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God..
4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
5. Honor your father and your mother…
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet…
The first 4 commandments have to do with our relationship with God, and the next 6 have to do with how we treat others. Jesus totally skips over the first 4, and goes right to numbers 5-9, not in the exact order, but he gets them all in there.
Isn’t that interesting? Wouldn’t you, if someone asked you how to obtain eternal life, wouldn’t you start with stuff about God, especially the first 4 commandments — no other Gods, no idols, no taking God’s name in vain, and keep God’s day holy. I would, but Jesus doesn’t.
Jesus, instead, focuses the young man’s attention on 5 of the 6 commandments that are pretty straight-forward, and that deal with how you relate to other people.
The young ruler’s answer is — I’ve done all that since I was a kid. He had honored his father and mother, hadn’t killed anybody, hadn’t committed adultery (obviously he was not the governor of South Carolina), hadn’t stolen anything (after all he was rich), and hadn’t lied in court.
Now, Jesus probably knew that he was a good guy, and that this was going to be his answer.
Because then Jesus says, “But you’re missing one thing.”
At this point, all eyes and ears are on Jesus. The rich young ruler especially is completely captivated. And I am sure the look on his face is a mixture of both relief and expectancy.
He’s probably thinking at this point — “Okay, only one thing, that’s good. Just one more thing, and I’ve got this in the bag.”
Then, Jesus says, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Silence. Dead still. Nobody moves. They’re all in shock, not the least of which is the rich young ruler.
The Bible says “When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.”
The young man turns his back on Jesus and walks away. End of story. But not quite.
Because the disciples are stunned. “If this guy can’t make it, who can?” they ask Jesus? Why did they ask that? Because first, he was a righteous man. He took the law seriously and thought he kept it. Jews in the first century did not have our false humility about “nobody can live up to God’s law.” They fully expected to keep the law, and to do so developed thousands of rules to explain exactly what the law meant, and how far you could go and still be “keeping the law.”
Of course, Jesus blew all that nonsense away in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said over and over, “You have heard it has been said…but I say unto you.” And he reimagined what it meant to keep and break the law of God. But, that’s a sermon for another day.
But, even more than the young man’s righteousness, was his wealth. If a person was wealthy, others assumed God’s favor on him. God blessed him with wealth, therefore God smiled on him. He was one of God’s favorites, and his wealth was the sign of God’s blessing.
Now we know that wealth is not necessarily a sign of God’s favor, but there are still thousands of folks who today think so. The so-called “Prosperity Gospel” movement is built on the idea that God will bless you materially, if you do certain things. Most of those things involve sending money to your local television evangelist, who promises you that your “seed faith” sown in trust will reap you a great material harvest. So, the idea that lots of money is a sign of God’s blessing is still with us.
The disciples are stunned. How can anybody be saved if those whom God has blessed can’t be? Jesus reply, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
Then, Peter sees an opportunity to score some points, and he blurts out, “We have left everything to follow you!” In other words, “Hey, Jesus, look at us — we’ve left everything just like you told the rich guy to do. Pretty good, huh?” Jesus is not impressed, and doesn’t commend Peter, but he does say that “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.” So, you are going to be rewarded in this life and in the life to come no matter what you give up.
But, back to our story.
If We Were Jesus
If we were Jesus, here’s how this conversation would have gone:
Rich young ruler: What must I do to obtain eternal life?
Us: Keep the commandments.
RYR: I’ve done that since I was a kid.
Us: Great! Sounds like you’re our kind of people. By the way, that’s a stunning tie you have on? Did you get that at Brooks Brothers?
RYR: Why yes I did. If you like it, I could get you one. They’re only a $100 each, so not really expensive. As a matter of fact, take this one, and I’ll get another one later.
Us: Well, thanks. Say, let me tell you about our plans to build the largest synagogue in the world. God has given me a great vision for reaching people, and you can play a big part in that. Here’s a donor card. Could I put you down for a lifetime membership for only $10,000. Of course, for just $5,000 more you could be in the Pastor’s Circle, a very special group of those who support the ministry.
RYR: And that will get me eternal life?
Us: Actually, no, but we can talk about that later. Of course, God will be very pleased with you if you’re a good steward of the things he’s blessed you with. Could I put you down for a gift today? Our books close on June 30, so you’ve only got a couple of days left. Oh, of course, it’s all tax-deductible.
RYR: Well, I was really looking for eternal life today, but sure, why not. Maybe this is a first step in the right direction.
Us: I’m sure it is.
Okay, you get the point. If we were Jesus, we would not have told this guy to sell all he had. Or if we had, we certainly would not have told him to give it to the poor.
Have you ever thought about how he would give it to the poor? Would he had out 100-drachma coins on the street? Would he build a new homeless shelter in downtown Jerusalem? Would he have people sign up, and make sure they qualified by filling out a lot of paperwork? How would he actually give this money away to the poor?
And if he gave all his money away, he would still be young, but would he be a ruler? Probably not. Why, because money is power. Always has been, always will be. The rich young ruler knows that money is power, and asks “how can I obtain (get, purchase, acquire) eternal life.” He’s been able to parlay his wealth into position and prestige, now perhaps it will help him get a guaranteed ticket on the Heaven Express.
The Way We Handle Money Matters
I’ve heard preachers say, “Did Jesus really mean for him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor? Absolutely not, Jesus already knew he wouldn’t and so this was the young man’s ultimate test.”
And here’s where I’m going to disagree with those preachers. Jesus usually meant what he said. I think he meant for the rich young ruler to sell everything he had to follow Jesus. After all, why would he need it.
- Jesus had already told his disciples that the birds have nests and the foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.
- He had taught the disciples to pray “Give us this day our daily bread” reminding them of God’s feeding the nation of Israel with manna while they were on their 40-year journey to the Promised Land.
- Jesus had shown them the power of God to provide by feeding 5,000 people with a boy’s lunch.
- Jesus had sent them out 2-by-2 and commanded them to take nothing with them, and the disciples returned amazed at how God had provided.
- Jesus had already told them to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
- Jesus had healed people for free, fed people for free, cast out demons for free, and preached to the crowd for free. In God’s economy, God is the source of all supply whatever the need.
Suppose Jesus were to ask us, “Sell this church and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Our insurance company tells us the buildings and furnishings are worth about $3-million. Not a small sum, even in today’s economy. We could do that.
I read recently of a church in California that abandoned plans to build a multi-million dollar building and instead began to meet in homes. All the money they were going to spend on building and maintenance they decided to give to feed people, clothe people, and help people.
The decisions we make about money cannot be hidden under the “we’re doing this for God” excuse. God doesn’t need our money or our buildings or our wealth to accomplish his purposes. God needs our obedience.
The Current State of Our Economy
According to the American Almanac, even though the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we consume 26% of the world’s energy. Well, of course, we do. We have to in order to run our air conditioners, our washers and dryers, our TVs, our DVD players, our computers, our hot water heaters, our microwaves, our refrigerators and freezers, our electric lights, our stereos, our cell phone chargers, our answering machines, our electric razors, hairdryers, curling irons, treadmills, and soon our electric cars.
So, our economic status separates us from the rest of the world. Because we use 26% of the world’s energy, we are leaving only 74% of the world’s energy to the remaining 95% of the world’s population.
And, do you know what the developing world tells us when we say to them, “Wow, we’ve made a mess of this planet, let’s all cut back and conserve energy.”
They say to us, “We want the same thing you have. No fair cutting off the power before we get to have our own cars, microwaves, TVs, computers and so on.” In other words, they want to be just like us.
I was in Shanghai, China very close to Christmas one year, and I was amazed. The Chinese malls and shopping districts were decorated for Xmas. Santa Claus was pictured, presents were wrapped, Christmas songs like “Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer” played over the PA systems. It was just like being in the US during the Christmas shopping spree. Of course, no Jesus, but hey, they had everything else!
The United Nations last week announced that now over 1-billion people are officially listed as being hungry, not having enough to eat. 1-billion, while we battle obesity here in the United States. Forgive another China story, but Americans eat such large servings, Dan Ryan’s restaurant in Hong Kong has a disclaimer that says, “We serve American portions.” Translation: you’re going to get a lot of food!
The Church World is No Different
But, you might say, those are all stories and statistics of the non-Christian world. Unfortunately, the church world is no different. Michael Spencer quotes the Charlotte World as saying,
As they say in the ginsu knife commercial, “But, wait, there’s more!” Beliefnet, which claims to be the world’s largest spirituality site, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. Zondervan, one of the oldest and largest evangelical publishers, is owned by Harper/Collins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. Beginning to see a pattern here? Obviously, Rupert Murdoch, an Australian billionaire and media mogul, believes there is big money to be made from the Christian market.
But suppose we quit buying “Jesus Junk” as Michael Spencer calls it. That would free up $4.5-billion annually for hunger relief, education, medical missions, and anything else you could think of.
Suppose our call to “sell all you have” just means quit buying useless stuff, even if it’s Christian useless stuff?
Economics divides the world into haves and have-nots, and the have-nots are usually not courted by our churches because they can’t contribute financially to the church budget. Years ago, I heard Rick Warren talk about the type of church member that Saddleback Church went after. Warren called him, “Saddleback Sam” and his complete demographic included the following profile:
I am happy to tell you that since Rick Warren’s runaway bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life, Warren has turned his attention to the world’s poor, particularly those with HIV/Aids. But “Saddleback Sam” is the kind of person almost every church wants — young, rich, professional. A modern day rich young ruler.
But are we telling these rich young rulers that Jesus says to sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow him? Nope, we’re asking them to give to our budgets, our mission programs, and to buy our Christian products. In short, we who follow Jesus have forgotten that God’s economy is not the world’s, and that Jesus came to make all things new, including how we handle possessions and money.
We who follow Jesus must model a different economic reality for the world to see. An economy that is based on trust in God, care for God’s children and creation, and a new sense of what is enough in light of the need of the world. An economy where there is an abundance of resources, and those resources are shared with others so that no one is lacking.
Our new economy must reach out to those who struggle and bring them along with us. Our new economy must build lives, not monuments to our own pride. Our new model must put possessions in proper perspective, and we must see the “stuff of our lives” not as material to be hoarded, but as a blessing to be shared.
Our new model must reflect our belief that whoever gives up “home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will not fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”
Photo courtesy New York Times
This is not a photo of a third world country. This is the new America for some in California. Tent cities are springing up from coast to coast as the unemployed lose their homes and apartments.
I have visited countries in Asia where whole families live in barns, or chicken coops, or cardboard boxes. I have traveled in Mexico, and visited border towns, and tourist havens. I rode through Mexico City where 26-million people eke out a living amid both splendor and poverty. We expect to see grinding poverty, hunger, and homelessness in the two-thirds world. But, in America? In the most properous country in the world? This is the new America for some.
Last month while at Fuller Seminary I walked the two blocks to class each day, passing two dumpsters positioned on a side street in Pasadena. Every morning a man or woman was going through the contents of the dumpsters. I encountered an old woman pushing two shopping carts on Colorado Boulevard, an affluent area of Pasadena filled with shops and restaurants.
At night I walked down Colorado in Pasadena for dinner. On the way back to my room I passed several homeless people bedded down for the night in doorways of businesses fronting the street. This is America.
Until a few days ago, my brother, beset by his own demons, was homeless in Atlanta. I talked with him by cell phone made available to him by a program for the homeless. I urged him to get off the street, to get help from somebody, anybody. He said he would. Apparently he did, and I’m waiting to hear from him when he’s out of the hospital, or rehab, or wherever he has landed.
This is the sin of a society where executives of a failed global enterprise take home millions in “bonus” earnings, passing the victims of corporate greed and criminality in their BMWs and Mercedes-Benzs. This is America. This cannot, must not, should not continue to be the only America.
We who still have jobs, homes, cars, checking accounts, cell phones, computers, warm meals, a bathtub, dry socks, a toothbrush, a clean toilet, and who sleep peacefully at night, unafraid of being robbed, beaten, or killed — we must not let this continue. We must act, give, pray, cry, organize, open our churches, do whatever it takes to care for those kicked down by a system not of their making.
Our shame should stalk us like death until we repent, reach out, and restore those who have been displaced. This is America. We are God’s people. This must not stand.
She called today. Soft-spoken, courteous, hesitant. “My husband just got laid-off,” she said. “He’s applied for unemployment, but that won’t start until next week. They’re going to turn our lights off if we don’t pay the $150 we owe. I was wondering if your church could help us?” The four churches in our small town contribute to a “ministers’ fund” which coordinates emergency help for local residents.
“Where do you live?” I asked. She was honest, “We live in Danville.” Danville is twenty miles away, not in our community, and our guidelines limit our help to the Chatham area. “I’m sorry, we have limited funds and we can only help folks in our community,” I explained. A long pause. “Well, thank you,” she said. I could hear the resignation in her voice. “God bless you,” I said. “Thank you.” She hung up. Immediately James 2:16 pushed its way into my consciousness:
“If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?”
“We have our rules. We have limited funds. We can’t help everybody,” I argued to myself. But, I could have helped her. I could have broken the rules, made an exception, listened with my heart instead of my head. Ironically, I offer the invocation tomorrow night at the Community Action Annual Dinner where our community will celebrate another year of helping the poor. Today I missed an opportunity. Maybe I can find this soft-spoken, shy woman tomorrow. Maybe we can help after all. I’ll let you know.
UPDATE: I called Social Services today and described the lady who called me. The case worker I spoke with said, “We have so many people in that same situation, I have no idea who it might be.” No luck. Maybe some other church somewhere was able to help. I hope so.