Today over a billion people in the world live on less than a dollar a day. That means over a billion men and women face a daily struggle to find food, water and shelter with less money than you would spend for an order of fries or your favorite donut. More than 24,000 children die every day from preventable causes like diarrhea (contracted from unclean water); while more than 16,000 die from starvation.
The average American finds it hard to grasp this kind of poverty. Especially since the hardest struggle many face in their daily routine is to fasten their pants. Yet not all Americans are blessed by being average. More than 16 million children live in households that struggle to put food on the table. There are almost 14 million single parents (84% single moms) endeavoring to raise 26% of America’s children and half of them live in poverty. Over one-third of America’s elderly live below the poverty line. Thousands of panhandlers and homeless people beg on the street corners and sleep over the warm grates of every major city. Multiplied thousands of the working poor have homes in need of repair or cars in need of maintenance that can’t and won’t be fixed because there is neither the money to have it done nor the skill to do it themselves. Many of these folks sit in a pew next to you.
Should this really bother me?
Bob Pierce often prayed, “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Every serious Christian prays this prayer. They also go further. They strive to learn what breaks the heart of God and then act on what they learn. Fortunately for us, God’s view on the subject is not hidden. In the laws given to the developing nation of Israel, He addresses every segment of society that needs a voice of compassion spoken for them: the widows, orphans, strangers (aliens), the injured, the hungry, women, those who have been enslaved by debt, the marginalized, the disenfranchised and others who are oppressed or disadvantaged in some way (Leviticus and Deuteronomy). He makes it clear to the Jewish nation that honoring these laws is so close to His heart that their peaceful existence and continued ownership of the land is conditioned on their obedience to these laws (Jeremiah 7:5-7). The prophet Amos gives us a glimpse into both God’s attitude toward and judgment upon those who ignore justice for the distressed and exploit the poor.
The New Testament speaks loudly on behalf of this same group of people. Jesus communicated his concerns powerfully through such parables as: the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22), the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and the sheep and goats (Matt. 25: 31-46). The newly formed Church appointed a group of deacons just to care for the widows (Acts 6). When the Jerusalem Council gave Paul and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship and commissioned them to go to the Gentiles, it was with the admonition to, “ remember the poor” (Gal. 2:10). The Apostle John, who may have known the heart of Jesus better than any, spoke these words, “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”(I John 3:17). James tells us that pure religion and true faith are validated by how we respond to those in need (James 1:27, 2:15-17).
“There is no Holiness but Social Holiness”
The above quote is not from John Wesley but from Mike Avery! Yes, Wesley made that statement but he was talking about “Lone Ranger – separated-from-the-body religion” not social action. But I am referring to social concern and action. Why? Because social concern is where the central issue of holiness – love – meets the road! If the heart of holiness is centered in loving “the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself” then holiness is inextricably linked to the way one treats his neighbor. It seems to me to be quite impossible to claim a heart full of love for God yet offer a hand empty of compassion toward my neighbor. Dag Hammarskjold was correct to say that the road to holiness passes through the world of action (I John 3:17).
Calling the CHM to Social Concern!
The Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement Article IX states that the CHM has to a great degree turned its gaze away from society’s neediest people toward the “cloistered walls of a narrow and narcissistic piety.” It further states that by doing so the CHM has forsaken the pattern of her spiritual forefathers who not only declared the gospel verbally but demonstrated it visibly by building orphanages, establishing homes for unwed mothers and planting Gospel Missions on every skid row in every large city of America. To them taking the gospel to the “least of these my brethren” was the only way to both fulfill the command to “preach the gospel to every creature” and to “love my neighbor as myself.”
Has the CHM failed?
It is not as easy as it might seem to evaluate the extent in which the present day conservative holiness churches are engaged in social action ministries in their local communities. There are many cases where individuals (who attend a CHM church) are involved in volunteer work, or give significantly to fund these types of ministries, or are directly assisting individuals who are needy while the church itself has no formal participation in any social ministry. For example I found a situation where two men are supporting a single mom and her two children – housing, Christian school tuition, a vehicle to get her to work, etc. . . . Since it is not a structured ministry it would not show up in a list of ministries operated by a church. Nevertheless it is the very kind of social action that the Bible addresses and clearly reflects a passion for social concern. I am hopeful that this example is a norm rather than an exception.
I found a few cases where a church chose to give a small amount of financial support to organizations that specialize in some particular area of ministry to the needy rather than directly engage in these ministries themselves. Organizations like LAHIA, The Salvation Army, Regional Food Banks, Habitat for Humanity, City Missions, and Christian Clearing Houses. These and a host of others like them specialize in social outreach and do a good job on the local level.
The question remains as to the movement at large. Is the CHM failing in the area of social concern as a whole? The only way I had to find an answer to this question was a less than perfect method of just looking at the number of actual ministries operated and funded by conservative holiness churches. I did not include ministries that were federally or state funded with the exception of food banks. Out of approximately 3,000 churches identified as conservative holiness churches I was able to locate: 5 prison/jail ministries, 3 rescue missions, 6 food distribution ministries, 2 free clothing ministries and 1 home for unwed mothers. I am quite sure there are other churches with ministries that I did not discover. Nevertheless, even if the numbers above were doubled or tripled the ratio of ministries to churches would still be quite small. I will let the reader draw their own conclusions.
I also contacted World Mission organizations that identify with the CHM to see what they were doing to: provide care for orphans, clean water for villages, medical care for the destitute, and food the hungry. According to the Rope Holders Newsletter there are approximately 31 organizations that serve the CHM as Foreign Mission agencies. We were able to get responses from 29. With the one exception of work among Native Americans, all responses involved work outside the US. The Table below gives the question and the percentage that answered in the affirmative:
Care for orphans 17%
Food provided daily 27%
Education for the poor 48%
Clean Water 20%
Medical Clinic 20%
Medicine for preventable causes 34%
What is being done by individuals within the CHM is being done, as it should be, without knowledge to others so there is no way to draw any valid conclusions. If you look at what the CHM is doing organizationally in America and overseas one can draw their own conclusions. However, there is one conclusion that can be drawn that may not be as obvious as others but needs to be pointed out nonetheless. The CHM has clearly lost the full measure of the social conscience that gripped our forefathers. Our Methodist holiness forefathers filled their cities and towns with acts of mercy. John Wesley, it is estimated, gave over 30,000 pounds (Over $4,000,000 in today’s value) to other people during his life. He opened the first free dispensary in England for medical aid to the poor. He organized a society to aid strangers in need. He supported education for the poor, opposed the slave trade, and encouraged prison reform. Succeeding Methodist battled slavery, alcohol, ignorance, poverty, gambling, racism, political corruption, abortion and sexual degradation. Phoebe Palmer, known for the Tuesday Meeting for the promotion of holiness, may have done some of her best work through her Five Points Mission. Many of the churches among the Nazarenes and the Pilgrim Holiness had their origins as rescue missions. Many, if not most, of the early Bible Schools located in large cities so they would be near those who needed help in both soul and body. Martin Wells Knapp pushed God’s Bible School to the forefront of the “soup, soap and salvation” work in Cincinnati. Lela McConnell saw the need outside the cities and carried the same passion for acts of mercy to the Appalachian poor in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. As Larry Smith would say in reference to our history, “we Wesleyans have punched our holes in the darkness.”
Reasons or Excuses?
It would be simplistic and irresponsible not to acknowledge the many problems associated with undertaking many of these ministries. For example, the regulatory role of government through federal and state agencies has made it next to impossible for small denominations or churches to operate any type of facility for those who need both Christian compassion and professional care. Furthermore, government’s involvement in the whole arena of care for the needy has created such a “welfare culture” that it has taken the heart out of many who might otherwise be involved in helping the less fortunate. They are turned off by a generation of poor who not only expect help but demand it. However, this is not sufficient reason to face our communities with a closed fist.
There is also a very real danger that we allow social concern to become an end in itself. Our attempts to help society will not make a society with better men. It is the power of the gospel that changes hearts thereby making better men who will in turn make better societies. On the occasion of William Booth’s 80th birthday he wrote to his officers these words, “but while you strive to deliver them from their temporal distresses, and endeavor to rescue them from the causes that have led to their unfortunate condition, you must seek, above all, to turn their miseries to good account by making them help the salvation of their souls and their deliverance from the wrath to come. It will be a very small reward for all your toils if, after bringing them into condition of well-being here, they perish hereafter”.
Many have sought to alleviate the sufferings of someone in need only to find they had been duped by a professional con artist. I truly understand this dilemma. Since I travel a lot I am often asked for help with fuel when I stop at a service station. Of course I am skeptical, but since I have no way of knowing if the need is real or not I often help (I do so by putting fuel in their tank and never money in their pocket). I do not believe we should foolishly give money away or subsidize laziness, addictions or sin. But I believe it is better to help a hundred fakes than to close my heart to humanity and end up failing to help the one truly in need.
You may excuse yourself from helping others by claiming you can’t find any real needs or that you are too poor yourself to help someone else. You may not feel wealthy or think you are but if you have running water, a shelter over your head, clothes to wear, food to eat, and some means of transportation (public or private) you are in the top 15 percent of the world’s people of wealth. It has been my experience that those with less means are generally more willing to help than those with great means. The same is true with churches. Generosity is not controlled by ones bank account but by ones heart! Rich churches who neglect the poor are not the communities of God just as rich people who neglect the poor are not the people of God!
What can we do?
First, start with becoming a Christian who takes the Bible seriously! Our lives should be a living witness against a worldly church that has become self-satisfied with its affluence and privileged position. We should be a living reproach to the nominal Christian who cares more about the number of shopping days left until Christmas than he does about the poor. We should simplify our lives so that we can share with those who truly need our help both in our own community and around the world!
Second, care enough to be informed. Educate yourself about global issues such as preventable disease, clean water, hunger, sex trafficking, the plight of the unborn and education. Find out what is happening in your own sphere of influence and do something about it. Commit to practicing the law of love. Develop a systematic approach to helping others that follows the Biblical admonition to: care first for one’s own family (1 Tim 5:8), then fellow believers (Gal. 6:10), and then to every human being possible (Gal 6:10; James 1:27-2:26; cf. Rom. 13:1-10).
Third, give your financial support systematically and thoughtfully not just emotionally. It should be noted that the early church used great care in discerning who should receive their support. For example, a widow was to be put on a list for permanent, life-time support only if she met certain criteria. Paul sets these down clearly in I Timothy 5:3-6: she must be at least 60 years old, “left alone” without family or presumably any other means of support, a woman of prayer, married only once, and a reputation for good works, among other things. In contrast, Paul admonishes the Thessalonians to withhold their social care to those unwilling but able to work: “if anyone will not work, neither let him eat” (II Thess. 3:6-15). Giving should always be done in a way that doesn’t support bad behavior or subsidize addictive habits or close the door for the gospel. Give wisely but give. This also includes being wise in your giving to mission organizations and agencies that care for orphans and feed the hungry. Do some investigation into any organization that you plan to support. Ask for a public audit or go online and read the audit. Ask how much of your money actually goes to the need and how much stays in the local office for administrative overhead. If no answer is forthcoming, find another organization that will give answers. Legitimate ministries are more than willing to share any information that will help you give confidently and generously.
Fourth, pray. The giving of your time and treasure may be small but the offering up of your prayers can be large! We cannot take up every kind of injustice or concern in the world – to even try to do so would do us in. But we can enter the arena of social concern on the wings of prayer. Prayer is necessary if the forces of darkness and the demonic principalities that are behind the institutional structures that are responsible for so much poverty and suffering are to be defeated.
Everett Hale said, “I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything; but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do”. I cannot cut the ropes that bind the little girls of Thailand as they wait to be sold to some vile monster but I can pressure my government to get involved, support the organizations that do and be faithful in my prayers to defeat the demonic forces that hold this corrupt system in place. I can’t save every child that dies in the Sudan but I can support a missionary who braves the risk of working there. I can’t alleviate all the suffering in Cincinnati or even all that is found on the street where I live, but there are some things I can and must do! I will probably never feel that what I did was quite enough even though it was my best. I may always feel a little skeptical as to whether they really needed my help or truly appreciated my efforts. But I am always comforted and motivated by these words, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40).