Every Friday in Sacred Space, Brad Williams explores the place of popular culture in the local church.
I have to say that I shudder when politics and faith become so intertwined that those outside of the church can hardly tell the difference. The reason I hate it is because politics, at least in an election season, tend to try to dumb down complicated issues to simple talking points meant to sway the ignorant. By swaying the ignorant, I do not mean dumb people, I simply mean that not everyone can be an expert on everything, and so at some level, we have to place our trust in experts. Politicians often pretend to be experts on everything, but if you do a minimal amount of research, you will find that nearly all political promises are quite facile solutions that can never work in the real world, nor does the politician have any delusion that they would work anyway. They get elected on promises they cannot fulfill, and in the best case scenario, they then take office to do the best they can.
One such issue this year is “entitlement” programs; mainly, the focus has been on welfare and other government efforts to help those who are out of a job or down on their luck (also see: Are We Entitled to Our Entitlement Programs?). The conservative establishment, in my opinion, continually presents the welfare system as a broken program that feeds sloth. The liberal establishment paints it as an utter necessity that would lead to the death of everyone’s grandmother if its budget is lowered. I am practicing a bit of exaggeration here myself for the sake of humor, nevertheless I think my point is only slightly overstated.
For better and for worse, the majority of the evangelical church has hitched its wagon to the Republican party. So when conservative politicians talk about “entitlements” being broken, and that it is being abused by lazy folk, that sort of language begins to stick to the church because of its close association, or even its implicit agreement. The problem is that charity is never that easy, and anyone who has ever worked with the poor knows that a total shutdown of any kind of safety net would be a disaster, and yet they also know that there are some who abuse the system.
So how should your church respond to benevolence ministries? First, I would feel a lot better if Christians would stop talking in sound-bites like politicians, and I would also like to see less rage against the poor. Second, they ought to volunteer in a crisis pregnancy center, a thrift store, or a food shelter. They ought to get to know some poor people so they can see firsthand that they aren’t all lazy, that many are grateful, and that without some sort of help some people would perish without a hope.
Our church is still working through the issue of helping the poor. We are a small community, but I would guess that on average we have the opportunity to help a family or so a week, more around the holidays and in the winter when power bills get high. Our policy is to help the first time, no matter what. A person could come in off the street, fill out a minimal amount of paper work, confess that he blew his paycheck at the dog track, and after a lecture, we’d probably help him with $50-$75 on his power bill. The second time, however, I talk to him about what he is doing to help himself. Why hasn’t he visited the church to say thanks? Or if has he visited, what did he think of the service? Does he need a job? Why isn’t he working? I then admonish him that the apostle Paul teaches us that if a man doesn’t work, then he doesn’t eat (2 Thess. 3:10). Then we usually help him a bit and he goes on his way.
By the third visit, I usually know if this is a person who is working the church network. I confess that even after this, especially if it is a single parent with children at home, we still help. If it is a healthy man, I share the gospel with him, again, and talk sternly about his responsibility to his family. I tell him I know which churches he has hit, and that the time he is spending working churches and charities for hand-outs would be better spent in gainful employment and would bring more satisfaction. If it is a single mom, I have more mercy. Not because I am simply a chauvinist, I hope, but because she is usually the sole provider for the kids, cannot afford day care, and is usually at wits end.
That is our system. It is imperfect because scammers are good at what they do. But we have decided at the church that we would rather help nine ungrateful wretches than turn away one person in genuine need. It is a hard work, and we see little fruit. But then, Jesus healed nine lepers and only one had the sense to come back and say thanks (Luke 17:11–19).
So think about this, dear reader. If it is so hard to get this right on a local level, in a small church in a small town where people are easier to keep tabs on, how hard is it on a vast, nation-wide level to tell the difference between entitlement and enablement? I hope that the church will sound less churlish over this issue and sound a little more thoughtful.