The church and the needy stranger
Wed, 14 Apr 2010 - 4:02 PM CST
By Scott Hutton
When needy strangers requesting help come to the church, they and their circumstances are unknown. How should the church respond? Study and experience have led to a few conclusions.
First, a biblical mandate tells us to help unfortunate believers (Matthew 25:40; Galatians 2:10). However, this does not include lazy Christians (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
Second, the Bible promises blessing for helping the poor-believer or nonbeliever (Isaiah 58:10)–and warning to those who turn away the poor (Proverbs 21:13).
Third, the Bible describes the kind of help to provide. In addition to kind words, there must be material assistance (James 2:16; Galatians 2:10).
Most Christians agree that: the truth of these passages needs little interpretation or explanation. However, carrying out their applications sometimes causes consternation. Here are some common-sense approaches for benevolent ministry from the local church:
1. Have requesters fill out a questionnaire that records name, address, phone number, license plate number (if there is no address), and why they need help. Keep this on file for future reference.
2. Check out their stories. Most people with needs offer reasons why you should help them. Verily that the needs are real. A man came into my study and explained that lie needed money for a motel room and gasoline to get to another town because his son had just died. When I called the county coroner, the hospital where the death had presumably occurred, the highway patrol who allegedly investigated the accident, and the county sheriff, no one could verify that a death had occurred. Similar findings on inquiries concerning automobile break-ins and Stolen purses are common. The individuals said police reports were filed, but no records of their supposed misfortunes were available. (The authorities are very cooperative in verifying reported crimes.) If individuals lie, they forfeit any right to receive help.
3. Check with other churches in your area to see if the requesters are making the rounds. Once you have established an informal network with a few pastors or church secretaries, double-checking will only take a few minutes. For example, a pregnant woman asked us for gas money for her car. When I telephoned a neighboring church, I found that she had just received $20 to fill her gas tank a few minutes earlier. I also noticed her male companion waiting in the car while she plied my sympathies.
4. Ask them if they are willing to work for the funds they request. Most strangers ask for reasonable sums $10 to $40–but this can add up quickly. Asking people to work will identify those who want easy money and those who are trying to meet a legitimate need. Churches always have weeds to pull, trash to pick up, or rooms to clean.
5. Maintain a small food closet of nonperishables that can be distributed in emergencies. Keep a container for depositing food where the congregation can place canned goods and other nonperishable items. (We occasionally and unobtrusively help people who are in need of a few groceries until payday or in other crises.)
6. Have a budget for benevolences and encourage the congregation to help the needy inside the church.
7. Avoid giving money unless you are certain it will be used for the expressed need. If possible, have the church write a check to cover the bill or make it out to the food store. Of course, if you trust the person, don’t add insult to their injured pride; go ahead and make the check out to him or her. Some local restaurants may agree to a voucher system for this ministry. Be careful that the voucher cannot be altered to cover more meals than you intended.
8. Support the benevolent ministries of your community on a monthly basis. Thus ministries can budget, plan, and grow as they help the needy in your area. Men and women have dedicated their lives to helping the poor and homeless. The local church is not equipped to do this but can extend God’s love to the needy by referring them to those who can help. You help the helpers by supporting the rescue mission or Salvation Army in your community.
9. Make sure your help is not temporarily relieving a recurring problem. In many cases counseling should accompany assistance. Certainly the greatest help we can provide is to lead people to Christ and a productive life-style.
In a day when the state does less and less for the population of needy people, the church has an opportunity to validate its message of love and salvation with material assistance. However, providing assistance indiscriminately is as incorrect as not providing it at all.
A practical, biblical approach to benevolent ministry provides good stewardship of dollars while ministering to those in need.