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To what extent does the Assemblies of God believe it is called to minister to the poor? How is this to be carried out?
The way in which Christians can best help the poor is often influenced by their perspective on biblical truth. If one takes the sociological definition of poverty—below a certain percentage of average income—the number of poor in the United States is large and unlikely to decline, even though more money is dispersed from federal budget programs. The biblical definition of poverty, however, is different. The poor are those who lack minimal survival needs of essential food and clothing. That is why the biblical owners of grape vineyards were to leave some grapes for the poor to gather for themselves (Lev. 19:10), and why owners of grain fields were to leave some grain in the corners of the field for the poor to gather (Lev. 23:22).
Evangelicals and Pentecostals have sometimes been charged with neglecting the physical needs of the poor and concentrating solely on the spiritual needs. This perception has most likely grown out of our passionate emphasis on evangelism. Instead of it being a choice of evangelism or aid to the poor, it has been a matter of priority order. The spiritual needs of the poor are of primary importance, though essential physical aid should never be neglected. In fact, aid to the needs of the poor can often open a door for meeting a spiritual need.
The cause for one’s poverty must also be considered. Some are poor because they choose to be lazy and irresponsible (Prov. 10:4). Some choose escape from legitimate work demands by resorting to mind- and body-damaging drugs. The Church does not have a support obligation to those who voluntarily choose such lifestyles. Paul said, “"If a man will not work, he shall not eat" (2 Thess. 3:10). Of course, the church should not summarily dismiss the needs of such persons. It may be that they have chosen a neglectful lifestyle because of a spiritual lack in their lives. Some assistance may be warranted as a means of reaching a searching soul. But never in such a situation should a person be given continued support without any requirement of accountability.
Others are poor because through no fault of their own they have become victims of disease, accident, or major calamity. The outpouring of financial support from the American public in behalf of those who have lost loved ones to terrorist attacks is heart warming. But on a smaller scale, the local church must minister to the hurting in its community by showing and telling the compassion and love of Jesus.
Another group of the poor are those who have been victims of fraud and exploitation. In our land of freedom and liberty, Christians easily forget persons around the world who are persecuted by corrupt governments or by perpetrators of terror and war. Many live under burdensome and tyrannical religious cultures that teach predestined fate and fatalism. It is still true that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the one who sets free. Being set free from sin and its devastating impact on the routines of life can also mean being set free from poverty to find that God “will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).
So how does the Assemblies of God merge the first priority of taking the gospel to the lost with the second priority of providing material help to those who truly need it? We cannot say to the hurting, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but then do nothing about physical needs” (James 2:16). James then concludes, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (2:17).
Throughout history literally hundreds if not thousands of local Assemblies of God churches have reached out to the poor through church food banks and clothing centers. Others are now operating “Dream Centers” to help the needy restart their lives—physically, spiritually and economically. Only the Lord knows the full impact that these wonderful ministries and others like them have in reaching the lost and helping the destitute.
One of the great international ministries supported by the Assemblies of God is the Convoy of Hope. In cooperation with other evangelical groups in cities across America, and even in ravaged areas around the world, the Convoy distributes bags of groceries in low-income areas, along with games, wholesome family entertainment, and a solid gospel message. Success in bringing hurting people to Jesus is well documented by follow-up reports and requests that the Convoy of Hope return for a repeat ministry in many of the communities. Local churches form the backbone of this outreach ministry. In other smaller communities, the local churches have independent programs of reaching the poor with the gospel and a tangible expression of Christ’s love through help for the homeless and needy.
Through the years we have watched gospel-focused churches cool in their passion for winning the lost, turning more and more to social programs that meet only physical needs. We are concerned lest we too go that route. But our Pentecostal commitment to the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit is our hope that the Assemblies of God will not go down the faltering path that so many have followed. The Great Commission of going into all the world, preaching the gospel to every person, and discipling those who come to Christ must always have first priority. But we have found the biblical balance of helping the poor to be a powerful means of fulfilling our primary mission. The Holy Spirit has promised go with us and to equip us to do that great work. And with humble obedience to the Spirit, we can claim the blessing Jesus gave, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). The poor in spirit should minister to the poor in physical needs—in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The above statement is based upon our common understanding of scriptural teaching.