Rethinking How We Treat The Poor, Or Power Differentials Are Only Fun When You’re Up

I’m experimenting and meddling with my current blogging schedule (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) by doing a Monday edition of Charlie’s Church of Christ. Hope you can handle the disruption to status quo!

I’ve been intending to write this for a month as the follow up to this guy, and the kick in the pants I needed was delivered by a post by M. Scott Boren. He wrote a book about small groups being more than Bible studies to instead be “missional.” Interestingly he doesn’t just mean small groups should serve soup at homeless shelters or do evangelism outreaches, as he sees the church too focused on projects rather than people.

Though I’m all for the church being agents of change in justice and equality, I’m not a big fan of trying to carry out the commission to take care of the poor through programs and ministries.

From what I’ve seen church programs turn the people in need into clients, complete with applications, background checks and the like. By putting them into a client role it creates, purposefully or not, an unhealthy power differential as clients are automatically below us and at our whim. Though such an arrangement can often inspire humility, it can also feel like the organization or program is dangling money and resources over the client’s head.

That may sound like a minor complaint, but I think that Christians should be lifting people up to a more empowered humanity and not be treating the poor like the rest of the world does – as beneath us. Christians love to talk about helping disadvantaged people, but we prefer to place them as clients rather than brothers, sisters or partners.

I think we create this power differential because it helps insulate us from having any sort of emotional or relational connection. We get to go home satisfied that we fulfilled a Biblical command and keep our middle class life clean sterile.

I am in favor of the church focusing on being missional – but in a much more personal and relational way. I think our emphasis on programs and ministries to do these jobs is a product of mega-church mentality that structure and efficiency oriented. It’s efficient, for sure, if our job is redistributing resources, but our job is far more communal.

As I’ve concluded previously, dealing with disadvantaged and the widows and the orphans is difficult. I don’t have answers as to how we should do all of this, and some of the things I think are best are very difficult (give personally, not to an organization that funnels the money). So I offer this as some commentary, and I for sure want yours.

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33 Responses to Rethinking How We Treat The Poor, Or Power Differentials Are Only Fun When You’re Up

  1. Two things….

    Churches usually take WAY too much responsibility for “proper stewardship of God’s money.” This is usually, in practice, more correctly translated as “making sure that we have enough money to keep our building beautiful and our parking lot paved before we give ten dollars to the freezing widow across the street, because, after all, she really oughtta get off her stinking lazy @$$ and get a job.” God doesn’t need our money, God really doesn’t even WANT our money, and the fact that Jesus Christ didn’t seem to have any money, or give any money, or even ask for any money, really oughtta tell us a lot. And he bragged a lot about the widow who only had a little bit to give.

    Second, very few Christians GIVE their money. MOST Christians, it seems, loan their money to their church or other organization, then expect that organization to report to THEM what they did with THEIR money. Likewise, the poor. If a Christian gives $5 to the homeless guy beside the stop sign, he usually feels duty bound to do SOMETHING to make sure that guy isn’t spending HIS money on alcohol, prostitutes, or drugs. In other words, we always attach strings based on our morals. We don’t GIVE.

    • Chris says:

      “very few Christians GIVE their money.

      Is that a bad thing? You seem to imply it is.

      Giving with zero regard to whether or not the “giving” may be causing the individual to further plunge into despair is not giving at all. It is taking. It is taking their humanity made in the image of God and demeaning it by enabling their destructive behavior. Attaching some strings seems to be the most responsible thing to do.

      • My problem here is complicated.

        Basically, too many pastors and churches teach that giving 10% of your gross income to your local church is what God requires by the “commandment” to “tithe”. They claim you are “giving it to God.”


        While I believe pastors should be compensated, staff people should be paid, electricity bills should be paid, and all that other stuff should be paid, why do churches have to masquerade as “God” in this equation? Christians are guilt-tripped into “tithing to God” when actually they’re just supporting the operating expenses of the church and perhaps 10% of that is going to some other organization, whether missions or whatever. Yes, that money is being used to do the work of God, but it’s a bad use of the English language to claim that they money is actually going directly to God. It’s going to organizations that can be corrupt, that are subject to mistakes, that are run by humans, and that can be tricked.

        But my point is that most of us claim to “give money to God” but we never let go of it. We feel that it’s still “ours”. I’ve had church members say to me “don’t go spending all our money”. Whose money? If they really GAVE it to God, it’s not theirs. So, they DIDN’T give it to God, now, did they?

        So, many churches aren’t really honest about who they’re asking people to give money to, and most givers really don’t give at all.

        As to zero regard about plunges into despair, I agree. However. I get really pissed off (scuse my language) when Christians say things like “I’m not going to give him a dime, because he’ll just spend it on booze.” Really? I propose that this is typically just a cheap escape from an opportunity to help somebody. Are they con artists? Yes, probably, because that’s how they survive. Could they get a job? Maybe. Could they keep it? Probably not. Where do we get such a kick out of judging what the guy will do with “our” money and justify not doing ANYTHING at all? Are we willing to do the dirty work of actually helping him get over his problem, or do we just write it off because “he only wants to buy booze”? We take our conviction that the guy is a drunk and justify not caring for him at all, and our pocketbook is the first place it hits.

        In other words, we don’t even love that ONE GUY more than we love our George Washingtons. Let alone the whole world like Jesus wants us to.

        And, yes, I’m just as dadblamed guilty as anybody. Maybe more than everybody. I see all kinds of people that need help and I’m just as guilty as Charlie of seeing the problem but not doing anything at all, partly because I don’t know what to do, and partly because I’m in my own little bubble of liking my life as it is.

      • I really think both have good points here. But calling it our money in a sense we really haven’t given it away. I haven’t thought of it like that. And to be honest I’m distrusting of how many churches (the last 3 of 4 I’ve been part of) spend tithe. Which I realize is me not giving my money away because I care about where it goes, but at the same time $2 million buildings out in the ‘burbs is not something I support.

  2. Jeff says:

    For most of the people I know it is not a matter of doing the right thing with the correct motives. It’s more a matter of not doing anything.

  3. Chris says:


    you said: “I am in favor of the church focusing on being missional – but in a much more personal and relational way.”

    But then you said: “I don’t have answers as to how we should do all of this, and some of the things I think are best are very difficult…”

    Come on, you must have some examples in your mind of how this should play out. You let yourself off way too easy when you just say what’s wrong and then don’t offer up any solutions whatsoever. In the business world (and the church world, I think) that’s being part of the problem. The person that just comes in and complains why everything stinks, but has nothing creative or substantial to offer in terms of what would make things better. If, as you think through some examples, you find yourself anticipating some potential negative consequences, then know that maybe people before you have thought about these things as well and had some of the same misgivings as you and determined that programs or ministries or the like are the most effective way (I’m not saying it necessarily is) to help, given our fallen nature and world.
    But if you can think of some new specific solutions with no potential downside then I’m open to hear them.

    Remember, the “church” is just the people, not a building. If you want to interact personally with “the poor” (who exactly is the poor anyway?) nothing is stopping you from sharing the love of Christ with them.

    • There’s nothing wrong with pointing out a problem, even if you don’t have a solution. For instance, it’s obvious to me that nuclear powerplants have inherent dangers, but I don’t know how to power the world without them. The old “shut up complaining if you don’t know how to fix it” response doesn’t hold water, bro.

      • Chris says:

        Looks like we’re online at the same time.

        “For instance, it’s obvious to me that nuclear powerplants have inherent dangers,”

        Yes. As you said, you’re stating the obvious. Everyone knows this. So how does this help? Where do we go from here? At some point the questions and the complaints have to settle down and someone has to say: Here are some solutions.

        Unless you’re just happy complaining, bro’.

      • Sometimes a guy might just want to stimulate discussion.

      • Chris says:

        Discussion I can get watching Oprah.

        I’m interested in solutions. Or possibly better stated, solutions inspired by the Holy Spirit.
        I’m really starting to see that a lot of people have had some seriously damaging experiences in their church life. I feel very badly about that. I’ve also been disappointed and found sharp disagreement at times. But I guess for me I don’t let my hurts turn into cynicism and negativity. Cynicism and negativity are a kind of spirit that is much akin to a state of non-forgiveness, and what does God what us to know about forgiving others and being forgiven? So let me offer up a suggestion (as I’ve suggested others do).
        Don’t abandon your local church, but don’t accept the status quo either. When you see something wrong get in there, roll up your sleeves and plead your case. It’s well-formed ideas, persuasively and respectfully expressed that usually win the day. But make sure that you are in touch with the Holy Spirit and make sure that you understand that not everyone is at the same place as you and it’s not just your ideas that you want to promote, but you want to be in submission to Him and are always trying to serve most effectively according to His will. Let others know that the church establishment and machine as it exists now is standing in the way of your service to God. And try to remember that they are praying too, but sometimes the HS just doesn’t speak clearly to all. Much grace is required when working with other fallible human beings like us. This is why when it seems that there is confusion we have the bible. Turn to it. It is God having already spoken to his people.

        Whenever I perceive a problem within the church I try to bring it out into the open. I try to be sensitive and caring in my disagreements. I also relinquish my desires to the community of elders because I know that they are Godly people who also are doing the best that they can and I want to be in submission to their authority, and not just run away crying and complaining that I didn’t get my way. Where did God ever say that I would always get my way?
        Maybe I just really don’t understand. Maybe the churches that people talk about here are just so God-awful that I’m giving some really bad advice, like telling a wife to go back to her wife-beating husband. That’s possible, I admit.
        I guess I just want to say that, just as good marriages really do exist, so too do good, Christ-centered, God-loving, humanity-serving churches exist. Try not to be jaded and cynical.

      • Discussion on Oprah is an absolute waste of time, sir. (Assuming the “bro” twisted your knob a little based on the response and acknowledging that you’re twisting my knob a little by criticizing us for discussing…)

        There are a lot of churches that do extremely damaging things, even though there are very few people in them that would harm a fly, if that makes sense. There are really good people in churches that do things in terribly wrong ways. Addressing those wrong ways, in my neck of the woods, only brings about a church split and does nothing to fix the problem. Some of us here are tired of stirring up fights but still have frustrations. Until YOU have lived my life for me, please don’t assume that you know enough to criticize how I respond to a particular church situation. Trust me, you don’t, even though you may be the most Godly, humble, loving, and RIGHT man on the face of the earth. You are not me. You are not Charlie. You have not seen the things we have. We have.

        The spiritually screwed up person that I am is the product of churches. I don’t know how to fix it, but I definitely know it’s a problem. And I don’t like being told that I have to have a solution in order to have a problem. That’s about as helpful as a football bat.

      • @Chris – the current church I’m semi-involved in (I rarely attend Sunday mornings, but I’m apart of a community group affiliated with it) has a non-profit where it distributes money to disadvantaged “clients” (their term) – and as someone who’s been working in homeless shelters, rehabs and other programs for 7+ years taking a non-program approach in favor of a more personal approach is all new to me.

        Living in Oregon people are passionate about “social justice” or whatever we want to call it, but that almost always takes manifests itself in supporting organizations. So that’s the reason I don’t offer answers – in fact

        I wrote this post because I want to hear more opinions. I want to come up with well-formed ideas and that’s why I’m asking for help, I certainly can’t come up with it on my own. This whole don’t treat people as clients thing – this isn’t a concept I got out of a hip Christian book, but just where I’ve felt the Spirit lead me – and so I don’t know much about it.

        I don’t write that to sound defensive, but so you can know where I’m coming from. When I was writing this post I wanted to write more, but it was getting too long. I’ll be honest here – my ideals are people helping people, and less organizations helping people. I think that’s the power of the gospel. But my wife and I barely spend everything we make each month – and I can honestly say we are great with our money. We just don’t have much of it. And so I was afraid to bring up my ideal as a solution because I’m not living it.

    • Jeff says:

      I am with Chris on this one. i think Bernard has issues.

      • Chris says:


        thanks for the support but Bernard is right. I have no way of knowing what others have gone through. Re-reading my posts I sense I really came across as condescending, which is a quality I really despise. If Bernard has issues it’s because he has a good reason.
        Bernard. I totally apologize. I think in my efforts to give people within the church a break, I’ve neglected to see how the church at times has actually done great harm. My experiences as I said have been generally good, but not always. I’ve known people right in the church to diss me behind my back. My own son relayed to me how he overheard someone do so. My response was just to laugh it off (much to his chagrin). But this was very much a minority experience for me as I try to see the good in people most of the time.
        Anyway, I didn’t mean to imply I knew the particular details of your life. I certainly don’t. So I hope you can forgive me.

      • great response Chris. From what I’ve observed from Bernard’s blog he has some issues, and quite frankly my early church experience really messed with my head too. And similar to Bernard the people were generally nice and wholesome, however they spread ideas and doctrine that are wickedly unhealthy and even more difficult to get rid of. So all that to say thank you for your grace, not to just Bernard, but others who’ve experienced harm.

      • Chris – Thanks for the apology. Your grace in the moment has improved my morning, and all is forgiven. I really wasn’t holding any “grudge” against you, but it’s sometimes amazing how a little difference in perspective can degrade into a web argument, and I’m personally sorry for being a little (or a lot) too quick to snap at you about it. Interestingly enough, I don’t hold a grudge against the churches in my past. Neither do I have “victory” over the fact that the things I have had to deal with have left me spiritually screwed up. I still love those people dearly, and even miss the community that I am no longer a part of. I’m not happy with my current situation, either, but it’s not always about bad teaching or even doctrinally wrong practices. Sometimes the atmosphere just seems to become “wrong”, and putting a finger on it isn’t easy. And like Jeff says, I’ve got issues. Probably not the kind he means, because that short comment will lurk in my head for days and cause me to continually question what kind of jerk I’ve become, but we ALL have issues of some sort.

        My faith is tenuous. It terrifies me how tenuous it can be. I was thinking this morning of the fact that my “break” from the extremely strict Christianity of my youth has given me no spiritual “victory” at all. I’ve seen a type of Christianity that is supposedly more free than the legalistic path, and the ills of my life have not been conquered. I still fight with faith. I still battle to believe. I have come to find belief to be the most difficult work of all, to see that the semi-Amish lifestyle is actually easier than the confidence of truly believing that Jesus forgives freely. I have found that being mocked for not having a television or for my mom not wearing pants is actually much easier to endure than the constant internal question of “do you really even believe?”

        We’re a product of the things that are plugged into us. Many times, well meaning, loving, good people plug into us things that destroy us, and the things that are plugged into us FIRST will never be wiped away.

        So, yeah, I’ve got issues. I maintain that many Christians do. I refuse to believe I’m alone.

        And we don’t know how to fix the problem. Satan has screwed up the church bit by bit by bit over thousands of years, and the result is that many who would believe have to fight continually to even find and believe truth. There is no black and white in the issue, because thousands of denominations have created monstrous gray areas in their effort to establish black and white.

        Let God be true and every man a liar. We can all have ideas. But the problem is huge, and Charlie has just touched a small piece of it here. My rambling here is FAR off course from his post, but I hope you’ll give me grace for trying to explain a little bit of why I responded to you the way I did.

        Thank you.

      • Bernard – sorry for the late reply to this, don’t take away any personal message from it, there is nothing there. Anyway I feel your pain when it comes to that old way actually being easier in some sense. That blessed assurance or whatever you want to call it is not around like it used to be. I have always said their is actually incredible limitations to freedom. Have you ever been paralyzed by all of the choices you have? You’d think it’d be so great but instead it’s too overwhelming. It’s almost like we created legalism just so we can have a little more direction and concreteness in the world.

        I too think Satan has really messed with the church as a whole and gotten us to go down some crazy rabbit trails. It’s scary actually.

  4. David says:

    I am sort of with Bernard again today on giving. I think we need to give to the Kingdom, not to churches, pastors, ministries and the like. If we don’t trust the church (however big or small) to get it to the places that God wants it, then we don’t trust God.

    I like your comments about the “client” mentality. I suppose we should have a “looking for an employee” mentality – especially if we have vision to give a job to every one that comes through the door. In fact, that is one of things that made that Salvation Army very successful in the early days. They took care of the needy and put them to work. Yes, I understand there are those that can’t work all, but that is a small percentage of the needy. (It is the same sort of thinking that goes on in the abortion debate. Pro-Choice folks point to the less than 1% of rape an incest cases, ignoring the 99% that are out of convenience.)

    Ministry is about meeting needs, and people need relationship, they need food, they need healing, they need demons cast out, and they need Jesus. Ministry requires money true, but more importantly it requires hearing from God, not just handing out services we perceive to “like what Jesus would have done.”

    George Mueller seems have it down, and his ministry was fruitful as well.

    • and i think ministry is best carried out as individuals. I’m not saying there should be no formal organization, but I think in American we get puffed up from all of our protocols, website, slogans and logos, and we therefore can lose the person/people. You can’t have great relationships with ministries as you can with people.

      • David says:

        Relationship with others is only half the equation. We must have a relationship with God – in fact that is the most important. In terms of ministry, teams are the best. We have quite a few small teams (10 and under) at my church and they function much like a small-group.

        I think in America we are very religious, and God is second thought. We just don’ have the needs of impoverished places where God is the ONLY hope.

        I know what you are getting at in terms of ministries that are commercial organizations, but hey, stop going there. 😉

        You really need to read Like a Mighty Wind, it far more exciting then trying to figure out why the church is basically a religious bureaucracy in the US.

      • I’m starting to think you get royalties for that book David 😉

        you are right in that we don’t have such extreme impoverished places, and I won’t complain about that

  5. Ike says:

    1John 3:17……… many “christians” say they will pray- and yet do nothing. If brother Joe doesn’t have money to pay his electric bill….he doesn’t need prayer….he needs the bill paid!

  6. Amy says:

    Wow…everyone who commented here is a guy. So weird.

    Anyway, I don’t actually open my window to give the bum on the side of the road five bucks…and do you know why? Because he could attack and rape me! This is the same reason I don’t pick up the other homeless guy who wanders up and down the highway near my house. As a single woman, I do have to think about my personal safety.

    Having worked with the homeless and mentally ill and disadvantaged, let me tell you that is it GOOD to have the backing of a program or a church because you’re not in the lone ranger mentality, you have stewardship, and you have access to resources that you don’t have going solo. Also, background checks for staff (at least) are a good thing because you DO have to be careful you don’t get sued and all sorts of other unpleasant stuff. Such is the culture we live in, and we have to adapt to it. I think ministry in Ethiopia looks a lot different than ministry in the United States.

    Of course, I may be feeling a little sour about lack of background checks because the deacons at my old church gave my con-artist ex-stepfather and his crazy daughter money, which they used on drugs and other nonsense claiming it was for rent (they got evicted anyway). This was just after my mom left my stepfather because he was abusive. But the deacons WOULD NOT help my mom with much of anything. Eventually, the senior pastors did get involved and helped my mom (and another pastor told my ex-stepfather to be gone from the church), but that was $1000 and a ton of crying/heartache later.

    It’s nice to say that we should give and not judge and all this stuff, but the reality of the situation is A LOT harder. Churches DO get ripped off and people DO get hurt in the process. I know that I as a Christian should be better than that, but I’m human, too.

    • you raise some valid concerns. I like the more personal approach of hanging out with the person, but safety is a concern for me to as I have an infant daughter. Likelihood of anything happening – small, but I even need to think about disease (hope that doesn’t sound like a stereotype) as my daughter hasn’t had any shots/immunizations.

      man it’s just hard to know how to handle this stuff, I’m as unclear as ever!

  7. theoldadam says:

    Good comments here!

    Here’s my 2 cents.

    I think Amy is right to be wary of those that might possibly harm her, and we ought to also (depending on the circumstances). I think God has given us all the wherewithall (is that a real word?) and the freedom to discern when and where and to whom to give. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way, depending on the individual and the circumstances.

    I do, however, believe that we ought to help where we can and that our first priority ought to be sharing the free gift of the gospel where it is possible to do so.

    Basically, use common sense and muster up some guts to speak of Christ whilst giving.

  8. Pingback: More content, less time… « MOSTLY QUESTIONS

  9. >>Though I’m all for the church being agents of change in justice and equality, I’m not a big fan of trying to carry out the commission to take care of the poor through programs and ministries.

    Dude. Oh my. We actually see eye-to-eye for once. I wonder if this is in the Book of Revelation? LOL!

    • YEE HAW! I’d bet we could have some fun together if we met over soda (Pepsi) and uh, Tamarindo (a preferred beverage of mine)

      • Your preference of Tamarindo, (I am familiar with this beverage), only serves to solidify my pre-conceived notion of you that you are a liberal Christian hippie.

        Jokes! Just jokes!

        I don’t know if it would be fun that we would be having, but perhaps we could spend time mocking passers-by. That seems to bring a smile to my face. 🙂

        Got ya covered, Charlie.

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