This is often through no fault of their own. Our country is in the throes of significant economic recession, and it seems likely that far greater financial heartaches are just around the corner for our stagnating economy.
Christians are not immune from the effects of the near collapse of Western capitalism. Unemployment can suddenly strike, or be the unwanted lot of students even years after graduation. Sickness within the family can bring less opportunity to earn, coupled with greater living costs. State benefits have been squeezed and the criteria for receiving them toughened, often rather arbitrarily.
I want to bring out five key principles from the New Testament to show that local churches have a responsibility for those in financial difficulty in their midst and beyond. And then I want to show how one very ordinary local church, with fewer than 100 members, has sought to help those going through such times. My aim is to spur churches to think about their God-given duties in this area.
1. Supporting others is normal
The organised support of the poor in the fellowship is part of normal church life. This was part of the everyday life of the church in Jerusalem, seemingly from its inception (Acts 4.34-35, and 6.1ff).
Doubtless there were exceptional circumstances there, as many converted at Pentecost remained in the city to learn more of their newfound faith. Yet, surely, the principle of organised help for the needy jumps out to us from the text. Sadly, a combination of right suspicion against a ‘social gospel’ and the rampant individualism of our culture have deadened us to the need for organised care for those in dire financial straits in our midst.
2. Consequence of love
Organised care is a natural extension of individual Christian love. The joy of new life in Christ and of truly belonging to God’s people inevitably brought a spontaneous sharing and hospitality in the days after Pentecost (Acts 2.44-45). Indeed, such practical love is the natural and essential fruit of true conversion (Matthew 25.34ff). And, as time passed and the needs increased, it was very appropriate that the ministry of care was formalised, so that needs were not missed (Acts 4.32-35, compare 6.1ff).
3. The issue of need
The issue of need is the key question (Acts 2.45 and 4.34-35), not how the people got into that need. These matters must be handled with grace and understanding, though it may well also be important to seek to provide help with handling money, if the financial support is to be truly effective.
The ministry of Christians Against Poverty (CAP) can be very useful here, though that doesn’t obviate the need to preach on such issues in the church life. Some question whether there is any need for churches to support their poor, living as we do in a wonderful welfare state. Yet, often, benefits do not arrive quickly enough, nor are they generous enough to meet all needs. Others point out that some financial needs are so great — for example, wealthy believers becoming bankrupt — that few, if any, churches could help meet those needs. Yet local churches can still provide help, which can be wonderfully reassuring and vital to the mental and spiritual strength of those fallen on hard times.
4. Practical wisdom
Support needs to be handled with wisdom, grace and efficiency. The apostles were made aware of flaws in the system of welfare distribution in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6.1). Whether those failings were due to prejudice or inefficiency is hard to say, but it brought dangerous tensions and conflicts to the church. Indeed, anyone who has been in church life for any length of time will have experienced church tensions over money, especially when it comes to being generous with it! That is why it was necessary to have such a group of wonderfully spiritual men to sort the apparently pretty straightforward practical problem out (Acts 6.3). Support always needs to be wisely and sensitively tackled.
5. Outsiders too
The church’s responsibility is not restricted to those in our own back yard. Preoccupation with our own fellowship can be selfish and unspiritual. The New Testament gives us a vision, not simply for the evangelism of the whole world, but for meeting the practical needs of the wider church community. Surely, no thoughtful Christian can remain unchallenged by Paul’s preoccupation with the collection for the poor believers in Jerusalem (Romans 15.23-28).
One church’s experience
Among the things that we at Dewsbury Evangelical Church have been able to do to help believers financially have been the following. We have helped asylum seekers with their living and legal costs, including, on occasions, making a commitment to pay them a weekly ‘subsistence allowance’ and making collections for solicitors’ fees. We have provided holidays for poor families, sometimes by arranging for them to stay in the homes of believers (living in rather nicer areas than Dewsbury!) while the owners themselves are away on holiday. We have paid for youngsters attending YP groups to go on our church camp.
We have sometimes sent money with our Asian worker on his visits to Pakistan to try to help the struggling church there. We have set up a small disasters committee in the church so that the church members can be encouraged to make collections to support famine or earthquake relief (often through Christian organisations) when the need is most urgent.
Help on a weekly basis
And we have established a scheme to provide poorer members among us with bags of groceries on a weekly or fortnightly basis. Since this is an effective, much appreciated, and easily replicated scheme, it is probably worth explaining how it works in some detail.
This scheme was the brainwave of one of our lady members. We provide bags of groceries for those most in need in the fellowship, serving perhaps six or seven families or individuals in an average week. More than 10% of our membership has received them. Recipients include the unemployed, the low paid, asylum seekers, the sick, the elderly, and those under sudden and unexpected financial strain.
The groceries, including hopefully some more luxury items, are collected from better off members in the congregation — most of us! Members are encouraged to buy a little extra when they visit, or order from, the supermarket and to bring it with them to church on a Sunday. That is then organised into bags for those in need by two thoughtful ladies in the fellowship who have gladly undertaken the responsibility. A letter has been issued by the deacons to all who belong to us explaining the working of the scheme, and giving advice about the range of stuff required in our somewhat multi-cultural congregation.
The bags are then either picked up by those for whom they are intended, often after the evening service or the prayer meeting, or delivered to their homes. The bags of groceries are not huge, but they make a real contribution to those in need and express the sympathy and love of the church to those who receive them. We encourage all members to be on the look-out for those in need among us, as many believers are very reluctant to ask for help, even if their needs are urgent.
Giving and receiving
The scheme is far from perfect, but works well and is relatively simple to operate. If needs exceed supply we try to inform members of that situation, but often that has brought the opposite problem! Sadly, we have very little facility to store groceries, and none to store furniture: more room would be a great asset to this work.
Some have found it difficult to receive from the scheme, but it is easier when they realise that others in the church also benefit. Many also respond to the thought that if and when they are in a better financial position they will be able to contribute to the scheme which is helping them now (2 Corinthians 8.14). Sometimes it throws up difficult questions about whether we can and should extend the service into the community, but on the whole it has been a really helpful development in church life. I have written about it not to trumpet what we are doing, but simply to show others one way in which our corporate responsibility to the poorer among us can begin to be met.
Graham Heaps is pastor of Dewsbury Evangelical Church, Yorkshire.