Dr. Terry Steele, Ph. D., Dr. of Missiology
When people are in need, the world’s governments and nonprofit organizations step in to meet those needs. What would happen if the government and not-for-profit agencies were not available to provide aid? What would the Christian church do? How can the church get ready to fill the gap when government exhausts their resources?
Historically, the church has been involved in helping those in need. Plagues ravaged the Roman Empire from the mid-200s to the 400s. The first century church provided for the needy through donations and supernatural healings. In 260 Emperor Dionysius wrote, “Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead (Stark, 83).”
Churches demonstrated a willingness to risk contamination in order to care for the sick. Historian Peter Brown (Jenkins, 90) notes that, “During public emergencies, such as plague or rioting, the Christian clergy were shown to be the only united group in the town, able to look after the burial of the dead and to organize food supplies.” Even in 362 the pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate complained, “The Impious Galileans [worshipers of Jesus] support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us (Stark, 83-84).”
This pattern of benevolence can be currently observed in many church communities. After the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, New Orleans hurricane Katrina in 2005, and 2010 Haitian earthquake, church aid, through missionaries, food, resources and financial gifts, filled in gaps in government aid.
The Mennonite denomination of Canada is running food dryers, six stories high, twenty-four hours a day to provide food for 1 million needy around the world. Instead of distributing such a wealth of food through governments, they are passing these supplies from one Mennonite missionary to another in a personal network of provision rather than organized governmental means.
The most effective way for the church to provide help to the poor worldwide is through investing in relationships and partnerships. Developing relationships cross-culturally can be a challenge since the expectations of relationships often differ between cultures. The church culture needs to intentionally learn how needy culture makes relationships and adapt to their perspective. These relationships should also stay away from utilitarianism, that is building a relationship in order to gain trust so that aid can be given. Utilitarian relationships tend to be short-lived and always for a purpose other than the relationship. While utilitarian relationships might be somewhat normal in Western culture, they are offensive to many in the rest of the world.
When reciprocal relationships are developed with the needy, physical and emotional needs can be met. The goal of such relationships is to move from being an aid giver to a partner and friend. In this way when aid is provided it can be given in a way that works to further the reciprocal relationships and maintain the dignity of the needy so that they can move out of poverty.
When governments and aid agencies do not or cannot step in to care for the needy, the church can step into the lives of the needy to give aid as well as friendships. In times of crisis, churches can think creatively about how to reach the needy in their neighborhoods and around the world.