That isn't to say that I haven't attended churches which have set such funds aside, but the subject tends to be kept under wraps for the most part. It's so much more glamorous to raise funds for missionary trips to exotic foreign countries or for dramatically catastrophic needs which have been well publicized by the media, than it is to raise funds for the folks who are living right around the corner and barely managing to survive from day to day.
The first kind of charity admittedly makes for much better "PR" (public relations). But it seems to me that our first priority ought to be to meet the needs of people in our own local communities, if we are able to do so. I am not suggesting that the other category of giving ought to be neglected; I'm only suggesting that the needs of people in the local community should not be neglected, either.
It's in the best interests of every local church to do whatever can be done to help Christians in the local community to prosper. After all, the extent to which such people are able to support the church with their tithes and offerings is shaped in large part by the question of whether or not they are themselves prosperous. One would think that this would be common sense, but if it's so "common", why do so many church leaders neglect to act as if they believe that it's true?
I did a web search just now, regarding the definition of a church benevolent fund. I found a section at Ask.com, where "What is a church benevolent fund?" was the question.
One person answered, "Every week poor people visit churches in hopes that they will give them some money to help with their living expenses. It could be food or an electric bill or medicine. It is a way for the church to help out those in need."
Another person answered, "A benevolence fund is a sum of money (that can be added to) that is used for people in need. If the members of the church see someone in the community with a need for something food, clothes, whatever, money from the fund can be used. If there is an emergency situation within the church or the community, like a fire or other disaster, the church benevolence fund can be used to give aid. A 'poor box" or 'alms' is a little bit different. That money is collected specifically for the poor. Most churches in most communities have benevolence funds."
A third answered, "It's probably where the pastors get their nice cars from. There's not much accountability to the congregations, so the pulpit monkeys can pretty much do as they please. They lie about the scriptures, so what's a little fib to the flock? If the funds were going to the needy, we wouldn't HAVE needy people. It's such a sham, and it's why we have government assistance. If the churches were doing what they are supposed to be doing, there would be no need for our taxes to feed the needy. SAD, BUT TRUE." (Tellingly, I thought, this person identified himself or herself as NXile, as in the phrase "in exile". I know the feeling.)
The first two answers represent the types of things pastors would most likely say in answer to the question. When benevolence funds work as they ought to work, those first two answers are sometimes accurate.
The problem is that there's a lot more truth to the third response than a lot of people would like to admit. NXile's statement that "there's not much accountability to the congregation" is spot on, in my opinion.
Over the years, I've found myself in positions where I was desperate for help with basic and necessary expenses. Sometimes, when I've approached church leaders for help, I've gotten the help I requested. More often than that, I have not. (As for the question of whether or not I will receive church help with my current need, I think that's still an unresolved question, and it's still a question for which a speedy positive response is needed.)
I still remember the time (more than 20 years ago) when I approached the pastors of Rolling Hills Baptist Church in my hometown of Springfield, MO because I was in desperate need of funds with which to pay for dental work (specifically, a root canal) in order to alleviate pain which was jeopardizing my ability to make a living at my new telemarketing job. (I hated and still hate telemarketing, but one does what one needs to do to survive.)
I was told that a particular person on the pastoral staff was the person with whom I needed to meet. So I set an appointment to meet with that pastor, only to discover that he had no intention of offering any help to me. Instead, it seemed to me that he wanted to look for any excuse (consisting of a real or imaginary flaw in my personality or character) which would justify sending me away with NOTHING.
I was so angry about the fruitless mini-inquisition I'd just undergone in his office, when I drove away from that meeting, that I was unable to focus on my driving. As a result, I had a car accident on the way home, and since I was technically in the wrong, things just snowballed from bad to much worse. I eventually lost both my license and my car, which of course made it even harder for me to find work, after I'd lost the telemarketing job and moved to Chicago in search of emergency housing.
Thank the Lord, nobody died in the aforementioned car wreck, but if that had happened, I think that that particular pastor would have shared in the blame. I went to him needing meaningful help, but he preferred to play mind games instead.
One of the first things Christians did on the day of Pentecost after being filled with the Holy Spirit was to help to meet the material needs of other Christians. Acts 2:44-45 says, "All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need."
There's a good reason why some pastors continue to preach that there are both sins of commission and sins of omission. But other pastors don't seem to recognize that Christians have responsibilities to one another at all.
A few years ago, I approached the leaders of the downtown Chicago branch of Willow Creek Church. I requested financial help so that I would not be evicted from the YMCA room in which I was living at the time. In response, I was told that they had no program, either formal or informal, with which to help people in my situation.
Frankly, I was appalled. To my knowledge, Willow Creek was one of the largest megachurches in the nation. (The third largest, according to my most recent visit to the listing for that church at Wikipedia.org.) I'd visited their suburban church in South Barrington, Illinois, so I knew that their church had far more material resources than the vast majority of the inner city churches in Chicago, many of which were little more than little storefront operations. I would have understood it if churches with far fewer resources of their own had been limited with regard to what they could do, but Willow Creek has plenty of resources with which to help the poor, if they choose to do so, so I thought that that church's treatment of me was despicable and inexcusable.
I didn't leave Willow Chicago immediately. I persisted in asking for help, and hoping against hope that they would change their minds. But I eventually got tired of waiting for the leaders of that church to treat me the way that Jesus said people should treat "the least of these". My situation was dire, and I simply didn't have time to spare (i.e., time to waste) trying to find solutions where there were clearly no solutions to be found in that church.
Later, I read a news story about how their pastor Steve Wu had recently been forced to leave his position at the church, as a result of the discovery that he'd been involved in unspecified sexual sin. "Aha!" I thought. "Now I understand why he couldn't be bothered to find help for me. "He was too busy boinking the church secretary, or whoever he'd been sexually sinning with, to think about the needs of the poor."
(By the way, the incident was well publicized in the media, giving Christianity a black eye in the process. I googled the phrase "Steve Wu resigns" just now, and Google came up with a whopping 2,800,000 search results.)
It seems to me that it says something bad about the church that they're so focused on sexual sins, but uninterested in enforcing other types of equally important moral standards, such as those which pertain to pastoral responsibilities to the flock. Jesus told Peter to "feed my sheep" THREE TIMES. That says to me that he wasn't kidding around! And while I realize that he may partially have been referring to the need for "spiritual food" (in other words, good teaching), I also think that it's pretty lame to suggest that Jesus ONLY cares about spiritual matters. He demonstrated throughout his life that he cared about the material needs of people as well.
I'm not going to deny that there have been other occasions when I've received compassionate help from church leaders, even in one case giving me $1000 of badly needed and greatly appreciated help. But such instances have been few and far between, compared with the times I've been turned down.
Most people, let's face it, find it rather humiliating to have to ask for such help. I know that I do. I am a capable and qualified worker, and I'd much rather know that I've earned my money legitimately. But what am I supposed to do, if I find myself in a situation where it's a choice of either asking for help or sleeping on park benches?
The other day, I asked a young man who was preparing to serve as a pastor what the church could do in order to combat the problem which existed in the church with regard to the prevalence of divorce even among people claiming to be followers of Jesus. He correctly answered that we needed to teach the meaning of covenant.
The problem is that people who teach covenant tend to lack credibility when they do not practice the making and keeping of covenants. I'm thinking in part of those pastors who have broken their covenants with their own spouses, of course, but covenant is not a concept which should be limited to sexual relationships. As a community of people ostensibly bound together by love, Christians should make covenants with one another, and they should keep those covenants.
It's unlikely at this stage of my life that I will ever have the financial resources with which to finish the kind of education I'd need in order to get a job as a pastor.
Of course, Jesus didn't need a college degree in order to have a ministry on which all other ministries have ostensibly been based for more than 2,000 years. In light of that fact, I'm inclined to think that we rely on academic credentials far more than we ought to rely, when assessing a person's suitability for that particular position. But what do I know? Not much, according to a lot of "leaders" in the church.
So, OK, it's pretty much a given that I am unlikely to become a pastor. Also, I'm not necessarily convinced that that's the specific ministry to which God has called me. Nevertheless, I have ideas about how I would serve as a pastor, if time were to prove me wrong.
Here is a covenant which I as a pastor would make with everyone who entered the doors of my church, if I were ever to be put in such a position of authority, regardless of whether or not that person chose to enter into a formal membership arrangement with my church:
As a pastor, I, Mark Pettigrew, on behalf of this local body believers and the much larger body of believers known throughout the ages as the Church, do solemnly pledge to you the following:
I will treat my position of authority here at this church as the stewardship and moral responsibility which it is, bearing in mind the truth of the scripture which says, "To whom much is given, much is required."
I will treat you, to the best of my ability, in a manner which recognizes that my responsibility to "the least of these" entails an obligation to treat all people (and not just the people privileged to live inside some arbitrary inner circle of my favorite folks) as I would treat Jesus Christ himself.
I will base leadership decisions on defensible scriptural principles, not on prejudicial assumptions which cannot withstand logical or scriptural scrutiny. This will especially be true when it comes to decisions which affect the manner in which this church responds to extreme needs within the body of Christ.
I will treat all of the members of the local community, and particularly those who do their best to support this ministry with their tithes and offerings when they are able to do so, as if the meeting of their basic needs is my first priority. If there is a surplus after that goal has been achieved, I will allocate as many funds as possible to the meeting of the needs of people in other regions and other churches. But I will not expect people to believe me when I claim to be engaged in the meeting of the needs of the residents of distant lands, if I cannot show evidence that I even care about the needs of the people in my own local community.
I will not play self-serving mind games with people in an effort to excuse my indifference to people's needs.
If evidence is presented to me that I have intentionally or unintentionally sinned by omission, by allowing unmet needs to exist within the local community of believers, I will repent of that sin (openly and publicly, if necessary) by not only acknowledging my guilt, but by doing everything within my power to make things right.
Maybe it's naive of me, but this is the kind of church for which I long, and it's the kind of church for which I would gladly sacrifice my time, energy, resources and talents.
But some might say that it's pretty meaningless of me to talk about what kind of pastor I'd be if I were offered the chance to be a pastor, given the fact that that's pretty unlikely to happen.
Fair enough. I want to be a person of integrity, so when it comes to the subject of compassion for people with unmet material needs, I am determined to do the best that I can do in order to raise funds with which my church and others can help the needy people in their midst.
The concept behind my project, The Artistic Rescue Project, is to raise funds for folks in crisis, to be administered by reputable organizations such as World Vision, Convoy of Hope, and the United Way.
But smaller needs also exist within the church, so local churches have a necessary role to play, too, in terms of meeting those modest needs. I don't ask that they do all the work themselves. I just ask that they help me to publicize my efforts to raise funds on their behalf, so that they can do what God wants them to do. It's a win/win scenario, in my opinion. The folks who would come to church in the hopes that their needs would be met would walk away satisfied and content, not disappointed or maybe even angry. The churches' reputations would improve, and the result would be church growth, which most pastors would tell you they desire. And yes, I would hopefully be able to raise enough funds that my immediate needs would be met as well. (Is that too much to ask?)
For more information, please visit www.ArtisticRescue.com. Also, feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. This invitation applies to the leaders and members of my current church, of course, but also to other churches throughout the city of Bellingham, WA and to any other churches which want to stop being part of the problem and becoming part of the solution when it comes to the problem of poverty.
Postscript: Dare to criticize churches or their pastors for the way in which they operate their ministries, and sooner or later, one is sure to be criticized for failing to exhibit the proper submission to authority. But the last time I checked, Jesus was the ultimate authority, to whom church leaders ought to be subservient.
Jesus could have thrown his weight around, but he did not do so. Instead we are told this: "For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give my life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45).
The surest way for a pastor to disqualify himself as an authority, in my opinion, is for him (or her) to define a pastor's prerogative in such a way that it entails ignoring the needs of hurting people.