Our church staff meeting today featured an hour or more discussion on the issue of benevolence and helping people in need… and beyond that, what role to play with various agencies in town. There is not a clear answer, and I have struggled with this over my 30 years as a pastor.
The difficulty involves knowing when someone has a true and genuine need, and if by helping with the immediate need, are you facilitating a destructive pattern of life and continuing a culture of dependency?
A most difficult call is when someone connects with the church (either by a phone call or drop in visit) seeking financial assistance for what is often a convoluted story. There is no doubt that many of these situations involve people working over a list of churches with the same story – going even from town to town doing such as a way of life.
When I first came to Hagerstown, I was hit by a guy who some months before hit me with the same wild story at my previous church in New Jersey! When I confronted him on this, I got quite a vile change of tone and response. One of the other staff guys today talked about being at a McDonald’s this summer and hearing the guy in the next both calling one church after another with a story about needing a place to stay. When he got a “winner” he put them on hold (with the pretext of going to the bathroom) in order to call the hotel they were willing to put him it – to see if there was wireless internet for his computer!
Our general policy, with only occasional exception, is that we will only help people who either attend TSF or are connected to people in TSF. It is difficult to evaluate situations, but we REALLY do wish to help people who have a genuine need – and we are able to do so in many situations with people we know.
Another category of this discussion involves partnership with various agencies in the community that work to assist the poor and needy. Most of these do not have a spiritual component – which is not necessarily a disqualifying factor for us. We gladly work with Holly Place – for example. Evangelical churches in recent decades have not tended to put significant resources toward such endeavors – believing them to be outside the spiritual mission of the church. Additionally, for many, knowledge remains that in previous generations, social work activity ended poorly for many denominations with the Gospel being redefined as that social work, rather than the cross work of redemption for sin.
We have much room to grow missionally (the word we use to describe involvement outside the walls of the church and the church family). We want to do more and intend to lead in such directions. Yet we want to do this in a way that is helpful – to the agencies, to those receiving the aid, and to those serving in such endeavors.
I welcome any discussion on this – and definitive answers also!