No one in need. What a remarkable statement! But that was true of the early church in Jerusalem, and it was not because they were all rich. On the contrary, many of the people of Palestine under the iron-fisted rule of Rome lived day to day. Yet Acts 4:34 declares there were no needy among them.
This is just a brief glimpse of God's design, but really it reveals a hallmark of love among God's people. The dictionary defines a hallmark as "any conspicuous indication of the character or quality of something; any mark indicating quality or excellence."
God introduced that incredible idea to the children of Israel after rescuing them from Egypt. He declared there should be no needy among them (see Deut. 15:4). This was His promise if they would live by the principles He established.
Just how does that look today? How might that look for the body of Christ in a city or nation? The needs are immense. But God's wisdom, promises and provision are much greater.
Giving produces joy. We've just come through several seasons of extraordinary generosity. In the fall, hundreds of millions of dollars poured in to provide for those affected by the terrorist attacks of September 11. Youth groups raised money through car washes and bake sales. Churches took special offerings and mobilized intense prayer. Relief agencies as well as local pastors and believers were on the scene within hours to respond with whatever was needed.
Then all across the nation, hearts and hands went out to help people struggling to make it through the holiday season. Angel Tree gifts were delivered to thankful families. Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets fed hungry shut-ins. Food pantries, clothing closets and church widow funds were depleted, helping struggling members and neighbors. Volunteers at urban rescue missions and homeless shelters cooked and served holiday meals.
Most of the volunteers who took part in these outreaches felt like this was the best part of the year. They heard of a need, and they helped meet it. They saw grateful smiles, maybe prayed with someone for salvation. The results couldn't have been better. Or could they?
Before we answer too quickly, let's examine it a little closer. If we really ponder what God says about caring for the needy in Scripture, it is clear that while all that has been done is a wonderful start, it is not quite complete.
BASIS OF BENEVOLENCE
First and foremost, we must have a revelation of the basis for our benevolence. Caring for the needy is usually taught as a Christian duty. In reality, it is a passion of the Lover of our souls.
The humble cries of the poor and oppressed, the fatherless and widow, touch His heart like nothing else. So much so that He declares Himself to be the Defender of the poor, even against His chosen people (see Ex. 22:22-27). When He introduced Himself to the children of Israel at Mount Sinai, the first thing He said after establishing Himself as Lord was that He is compassionate (see Ex. 34:6-7). Matthew 25 tells us how much joy He finds in those who care for the needy; He is preparing to spend an eternity with them.
Understanding how much pleasure God takes in simple acts of compassion gives a much fuller meaning to charity--it makes it exciting. Bringing real help and freedom to the distressed in His name isn't just a duty to prove our faith. Instead, it becomes a way for all believers to creatively express our passionate love for God.
God responds in passionate love with His power, presence and blessing. In Isaiah 58 He promises His power will bring healing quickly; that His presence, His glory, will be our rear guard; that He will intimately speak to and guide us; and that His blessing will bring refreshing and restoration, satisfying our needs.
Since a hallmark of love in the church is a lack of people in need, then a conspicuous indicator of the quality of our love for God, corporately, is the amount of unmet needs there are among and, to an extent, around us. Knowing that God responds to charity with His presence compels us, by love, to understand what that means to Him. He lays it out for His chosen people in the Pentateuch.
Biblical provisions for helping those in need were abundant in ancient Israel and included things such as gleaning rights (see Lev. 19:10; Deut. 24:19-21), responsibility for family inheritance redemption (see Lev. 25:25-26), protection for the helpless (see Deut. 24:17, 27:19; Ex. 22:22; Lev. 19:15), interest-free loans and periodic debt relief (see Deut. 15:1-2, 9), generosity to those facing hard times (see Lev. 25:35), and even the radical Year of Jubilee, where all land was to be freely returned to the original inheritors (see Lev. 25:8).
It was family-based, neighbor-helping-neighbor, community-by-community, within a nationwide system of justice and fairness to all. It was to be done wholly (heart, soul, strength) and with continuous acknowledgement of God's goodness and blessing (see Deut. 6:4-8:20).
God's people were taught, in the Old and New Testaments, that their responsibility was first to care for their own families, then to give generously to aid the poor within the community of faith, and finally, to help others in need. The blessings and miracles that God worked among them as a result of their loving obedience were to be their testimony of God's redemptive power to the unbelieving nations around them (see Ex. 34:10; Deut. 4:6-8).
Boiling the biblical provisions and instructions regarding the poor down to basic principles shows charity taking three forms, all of which combine in the development of a practical strategy to reach those in need:
1. Caring for casualties. This means meeting the needs of those who for some reason can't fully fend for themselves.
It may be as isolated and simple as fixing the car of a single mom so she can make it to work and continue providing for her children. It may be more inclusive and permanent, such as operating a food pantry to serve the unemployed and elderly. It may be as broad and complex as caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war in Afghanistan. Whatever the case, the following rules of thumb can help you effectively meet real needs.
**Preserve dignity. Let those receiving help know they have infinite worth. Make sure your system doesn't treat them as a number or part of a nameless, faceless throng.
**Understand the real need. What you see at first may not be the core issue. What is easy to give may not be what is needed. In representing Christ be creative, excellent and targeted in your response.
The Milwaukee Outreach Center (MOC) found a group of elderly Christian women who had no food in their cupboards. As they listened, they discovered the local grocery store had closed. None of these ladies could drive, and the bus system didn't run close enough to another store for their frail frames to make it.
MOC started a weekly shopping shuttle. The women get out of their apartments, fellowship along the way and pick out what they want to eat. Transportation touches these women in a much deeper way than a bag of groceries ever could.
When disaster strikes, people are motivated to give. Unfortunately, what they give is not always helpful. For example, used clothing often winds up at relief command centers in response to disasters. But with no place or personnel to store, sort or sanitize the items in the midst of meeting more pressing needs, this is not a helpful donation.
What is needed may surprise you. In Houston, after last summer's flooding, cleaning supplies, mattresses and cookware topped the list. In the case of rescue and recovery efforts at the site of the World Trade Center, energy bars, dog booties, lip balm and face masks were in high demand.
**Promote personal responsibility. Help should be offered freely, but not necessarily unreservedly. The goal is to help people through tough times, getting them to a place where they are willing and able to care for themselves. Long-term dependency strips people of self-worth and purpose.
Paul admonished the Thessalonians that those who do not work should not eat (see 2 Thess. 3:6-10). God created each of us, rich or poor, for purposeful living. Encouraging that allows Him to direct each life into meaningful service.
There are hundreds of ways to care for the casualties of poverty or disaster, including helping refugee families resettle, assisting with re-entry programs for released prisoners, or arranging for vision screening and prescription fulfillment for low-income children. If it's done properly, most people will only need this kind of help temporarily.
Occasionally, someone's situation necessitates ongoing assistance (an elderly widow, a person with severe disabilities or an orphan). But even then, some sort of kingdom responsibility should be expected (see 1 Tim. 5:9-10).
2. Purging Poverty. Poverty can be defined as the inability to provide or acquire the basic necessities of life. Purging it means getting rid of its causes and putting things in place to prevent its reoccurrence. This means addressing spiritual, economic, educational, legal, political and social issues that affect believers and unbelievers alike.
**Breaking poverty's grip spiritually. Poverty is a demonic spirit that can grip individuals, families, communities and even nations. Any successful war on poverty must have prayer at its core; the battle is in the heavenly realm (see Eph. 6:12). Without it, efforts made in the natural realm will be marginal, at best.
Just as prosperity and peace are outcomes of the blessing of God, poverty and turmoil can result from curses. This is not to say a curse necessarily indicates the sinfulness of those suffering its consequences. But poverty is clearly one type of curse (see Deut. 28:15-48). The good news is Jesus took the curse and gave us His blessing (see Gal. 3:13-14).
Poverty can also result from demonic activity. Jesus called Satan a thief (see John 10:10), so it is no surprise that he steals resources and destroys lives everywhere he is unopposed. But God has given us authority to overcome all the power of the enemy (see Luke 10:19).
**Empowering economics. It is pretty obvious that bad economics can cause poverty. Besides just plain lack of money, the causes include poor financial stewardship, no access to fair credit, inability to hold a job, inequity in the cost of living (higher prices in grocery stores, higher utility bills due to poor insulation), limited commerce to create wealth in poor communities and a number of other things.
The challenges are pervasive. But there are many creative ways they can be overcome. Church-sponsored summer work programs for at-risk youth in Milwaukee, for example, teach good work ethics and principles of good financial stewardship. People For People, Inc. in Philadelphia incorporated a separate Community Development Credit Union to make community-friendly savings and loan activities available to area residents.
Outreach Foundation in Baltimore developed a program to equip the unemployed with the attitudes and skills needed to get and keep a job, and helps them find one through its growing business network. Christian business people are helping establish sewing cooperatives through churches in South Africa, enabling members to work without compromising their faith.
**Teaching the right stuff. Not everyone needs a Ph.D. Remote agrarian- based societies value weather forecasting higher than knowing how to operate a computer. In the United States, academic success plays a big role in making it financially. But teaching personal hygiene, balanced nutrition, good character as well as relational and other life skills are also essential.
Bethel Baptist Church in Philadelphia runs a summer program for children that focuses on literacy, math and reasoning skills. It also incorporates character building and other relational skills. When school starts in the fall, those who attended have often improved a whole grade level academically. Youth Entertainment Studios in Chesapeake, Virginia, integrates truth with lessons on music production and marketing so urban youth have dreams beyond drug dealing and crime.
**Ensuring justice in all. Justice is not retribution; it is equity, fairness and honor. A people's laws, policies and budget priorities have a dramatic effect on those in need. The inability for low-income communities to get proper city services may only affect a few people. But improper drainage that frequently floods streets and homes can bring financial ruin to the families living there.
Minimum wage, fair sentencing of prisoners, economic sanctions against countries that persecute Christians or other people groups--these are all issues of justice. Believers who serve in law and politics must be above reproach. They also need prayer, support and encouragement. While most of us won't deal with justice issues every day, when it is time to be heard, our concerns must go beyond personal comfort to supporting kingdom values.
What constitutes justice is not always easy to agree on, even among Christians. But as one body, we must ask God for wisdom so His priorities become ours.
**Rebuilding community. Americans are often characterized as rugged individualists. That attitude has been the bane of many families and communities.
It is in community that identity is formed, problems are discovered and solutions worked out before they become too serious. Without healthy community, we see more families deteriorate, crime rates rise, gangs form and cases of substance abuse increase. To take back our cities, we need to learn again what community is all about.
The Adopt-A-Block model used by Rock City Church in Baltimore is a beginning. The church embraces an inner-city block, moves a family there, creates neighborhood celebrations and builds relationships. There is a commitment to area residents through thick and thin. Although it is difficult, they have seen resounding success as drug dealers are driven out and peace returns to the community.
In Houston, the Somebody Cares network of churches decided they want Houston to be known as the "city where no child is unwanted." In partnership with Social Services and a local adoption agency, they are recruiting, training and licensing Christian families to adopt all of the approximately 800 adoptable children in the foster care system. They are creating a community of believers that addresses a pressing societal problem.
Rebuilding starts in the body of Christ, caring for one another across denominations, races and cultures. Allegiance must be to other believers above any other heritage. This takes a willingness to sacrifice some personal freedom, comfort or reputation for the sake of others.
3. Passing on the passion. The only way to ensure that God's presence and blessing endures is to pass on the passionate love we have for Him to younger believers. We must demonstrate His love, tell of His wonders, show them His power and teach them His ways.
**Caring counts. The adage, "They won't care what you know till they know that you care" is true.
I was involved in an inner-city ministry for seven years. Some of the group moved into the community, others came in several times a week. It took two years before the kids and adults who were coming to the church and programs finally trusted us.
Until then, all we said, however true, was only hearsay. But after we were tested and tried, they knew we really cared. Then what we said had an impact.
**Sharing builds faith. Acknowledging God's work in everything directs the trust of those you help to God. Telling how He has guided, or better yet, is guiding you through tough situations encourages faith in younger believers.
Otherwise the "knight in shining armor" syndrome can hijack the most well-intentioned actions. You rescue someone from a despairing situation and suddenly find they depend on you to solve every problem. The first time you don't come through, all the work you've done can crash down. Consistent telling of the works of God builds faith, not fairy tales.
**Expecting the supernatural. This ignites power. God loves to show off for those He loves. Give Him the chance.
So go ahead and pray for the sick, cast out demons and expect God to provide in miraculous ways. He has already said that is what He wants to do. He wants to prove His power and love so new believers will know through experience.
Recently, I went with a medical team overseas. The simple medical care and medicines provided were truly transforming people's lives. But then a family carried in their paralyzed father.
No medicines or equipment we brought would cure his condition. So the team prayed--and the man walked out! The power of God was shown in a way no one could dispute.
**Teaching God's ways. Teaching God's ways is different from laying out a bunch of religious rules. Yes, there are some absolutes--no coveting, murder, adultery--but the rest is learning God's character and becoming like Him.
Everyone's relationship with God is a little different. Teaching what is on God's heart and how to recognize His voice is the critical part. That allows everyone the joy of giving a unique response of love to Him--in liberty not legalism.
While any one of the above principles can result in a measure of success, radical transformation will only occur when they are inextricably linked together. Then the results are amazing.
Think about the early church--there were no needy among them. Signs and wonders were common. There was meaningful fellowship and a true sense of community.
They had a holiness and presence of God that were profound. Unbelievers turned to them for help. They had great favor with everyone. People were getting saved daily (see Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-5:16).
When we pray for revival, isn't that what we envision? When each person in the body of Christ does what he or she was created for, remarkable things happen.
PLAN OF ACTION
God has been preparing us for this exact moment in history. He has been training and refining the teachers, pastors, evangelists, prophets and apostles for kingdom building--preparing each to better serve and equip His army of believers for ministry (see Luke 4:18-19).
He has been reshaping the way ministry is done. Business leaders are re-engaging in compassion outreach. The government once again recognizes the importance of faith-based social programs. Churches have renewed interest in reaching their cities.
Racial reconciliation has opened doors for cooperation and unity. Spiritual mapping, prayer walking and other forms of spiritual warfare have brought better understanding of our cities so the problems can be addressed strategically.
God has also caused a resurgence of ministries that meet basic human needs as well as work to prevent poverty. Local feeding programs, food pantries, shelters, vocational training and rehabilitation programs have sprung up nationwide. At the same time, God has equipped national compassion ministries to gather funding that helps local church-outreach programs.
The body of Christ is connecting in cities all across the nation, often through outreach events such as Jesus Day, massive food distribution and ministry fairs such as Operation Blessing's Supper Bowl, King of the Beach community work projects or citywide prayer rallies such as Houston's 40 Days at Prayer Mountain. These relationships are crucial for the church to have an influential role in responding to disasters such as the flooding in Houston or the attacks on New York's Twin Towers.
Many great things are happening, and a lot of needs are being met, though in a disjointed sort of way. But true unity--creating a continuum of care and discipleship--is still needed for the full blessing of God to be poured out on His church.
Real unity doesn't mean uniformity. Each church and person has a unique redemptive purpose to fulfill. But caring for the poor must be part of the life of every believer and church, so much so that it affects the way they live and operate. The indicator of the obedience of and blessing on God's people is the lack of needy among them.
That takes more than joint worship services or periodic food distributions. It takes laying down separate agendas for kingdom purposes. It requires knowing what other churches are doing and working together to resolve challenges that are too big or complex for any group or segment to handle alone. It takes equipping and releasing believers into their callings, no matter where it leads them.
Believers want something more significant in their lives than the latest episode of Survivor. But many of the brightest and best are not called to teach Sunday school, be a part of the worship team or even lead a home group, as essential as those all are.
They are called to other "works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:12-13, NIV). But these works need to be unified, comprehensive, strategic and covered in prayer.
So, where do you get started?
1. Pray. Start with strategic prayer. Lay the groundwork for future activity and cover those already at work.
2. Train. Equip believers for service. Use those with the fivefold equipping gifts to prepare others for works of service.
3. Survey. Examine the needs around you, in other churches and in your city.
4. Search. Research what help is already available (food pantries, emergency and fuel-assistance funds, job-training services).
5. Connect. Join with other churches and agencies to create a network for referrals, need verification and long-term care.
6. Fill. Fill in the gaps. Don't compete with other ministries when it isn't necessary; there are plenty of needs to be met.
7. Prioritize. Give priority to meeting the needs of fellow believers.
8. Assemble. Minister together; that is where strength, joy and refreshing come from.
9. Celebrate. Celebrating successes testifies to the power of God and the truth of His promises.
10. Love. Let everything be motivated by love (see 1 Cor. 13:3).
Needs are everywhere. With recent events we can only expect them to increase. In the midst of that, God wants a kingdom where there are no needy.
We must all help meet the needs of other believers, even those in other congregations and denominations. Then God will come in with blessing so there is an overflow. He will transform the church, making it a living testimony of God's redemptive power to the lost. Through that many more will be saved.