In nearly every city and town across this country, today’s Christians are busy serving the poor, the distressed, the marginalized, the victimized. Churches collect canned goods for the local food bank. Used clothing is passed out to the homeless. Free medical clinics treat those with no insurance. Single moms get mechanical help for their sputtering cars. Volunteers spend time with at-risk schoolchildren, teaching them life skills as well as spelling and math. Church-organized work crews show up after a tornado, earthquake or flood. Families needing shelter are welcomed to use the church basement for a few nights. Even cash is disbursed to pay overdue utility bills, or make a move-in deposit on an apartment.
Enough direct outreaches to feed the hungry have popped up that various city governments (Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Orlando, among others) have actually begun to ban using parks for this ministry, citing concerns about trash left behind and other misconduct. We don’t mind you helping your neighbors, say the politicians, but at least do it indoors from now on. Advocates for the homeless are protesting vigorously.
The giving of “alms” to the needy is nothing new among Christians, of course. But in these years, a definite surge seems evident. If statistics could be gathered, we’d see a noticeable bump in percentage of funds and hours for compassionate work compared, say, the 1980s or before.
What’s driving all this?
The main motivation, no doubt, is that the words and actions of Jesus and his apostles are getting more spotlight. We’re actually hearing our Master when he says such things as “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt. 5:7). We’re listening carefully as he tells a wealthy young man, “Give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Luke 18:22).
We’re noticing how Paul went to considerable effort and travel to raise up a relief fund for famine-stricken believers in Jerusalem (see Acts 11:27-29; 2 Cor. 8-9). We’re taking to heart the blunt question of James 2:15-17: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
In addition to this entirely biblical response, there may also be a secondary impetus that is perhaps even subconscious: the cleaning up of our public image in the aftermath of recent “culture wars.” We don’t want to be typecast only for our opposition to abortion and homosexuality. We want to do positive things in the community, as a way of saying, “See, we’re not so cantankerous after all.”
As I say, this motive is perhaps subliminal; nobody voiced it in a meeting as part of an official agenda. But down inside, we’re exercising what I wrote about in my 2006 book Damage Control, the cover blurb of which was “How to stop making Jesus look bad.”
Whatever the intent, it’s all good—but incomplete without two additional things. One is the actual content of the gospel. Until the recipient somehow realizes that the food, labor, and other assistance is coming their way because of the One who loves us all, enough to die for our sins and to give us new life, we haven’t accomplished much in Kingdom terms. Even Jesus said, in his comment about giving cups of cold water, that they should be given “in my name” (Mark 9:41). Without that, our service to a needy person is simply a nice humanitarian gesture. We’re just another set of do-gooders.
The other vital element is the touch of divine power. After all, is Jesus just a nice role model who inspires the rest of us “nice guys”—or does he also step into human need in dramatic fashion? When heaven’s authority intervenes to melt hardened problems here on earth, everybody wakes up fast.
A couple of years ago, Christianity Today magazine ran a cover story on a missionary couple named Rolland and Heidi Baker, who serve in one of the poorest regions on earth—rural Mozambique. They dig wells, run orphanages and preschools, build homes for the destitute, and train national pastors. But they are best known for public meetings in which Heidi prays for the sick. Numerous Western visitors have documented that the deaf actually do begin to hear, the crippled are restored, and those harassed by demons are set free. The power of Christ to overcome the bondages of daily life is undeniable.
After one meeting in which several hundred villages watched a boy who had lost his hearing early in life get healed, “the village chief approached [Heidi Baker]. ‘Did you see Antonio healed?’ she asked him. He said he had seen it. He then announced that the elders would like to donate land where Baker could build a church, which could double as a preschool and meeting center…. Healing [had] opened the door for God’s love.”
Says Dr. Candy Gunther Brown, an Indiana University professor of religious studies who has spent extended time with the Bakers, “For Heidi and Rolland, miracles and concern for the poor are meant to go together. In their view, you can’t separate the two. Power and love are wings, and you need both to fly.”
Not long after finishing this article, CT senior writer Tim Stafford (a level-headed Presbyterian) released his book Miracles: A Journalist Looks at Modern-Day Experiences of God’s Power. He speaks for us all, I think, when he writes, “I believe in a God who made the universe out of nothing, who has extraordinary power and is alive and active today. That’s the God of the Bible, who has claimed my life, and so I want to see his power at work. Many of my neighbors and friends deny that God’s power exists at all. Miracles can blast through those doubts—theirs and mine—and make God’s power manifest” (p. 22).
That’s good news for the poor, and for us all.