Reconceiving Service to the Poor & Needy

At several points in What Is the Mission of the Church? Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert go after guilt-oriented motivations for doing good in the world.  I completely agree with them on this note.

My family and I were recently part of a ministry effort on behalf of the poor in our city that was preceded by a presentation playing upon guilt and sentiment.  This is short-sighted, ultimately destructive, and isn’t how Scripture motivates.

As DeYoung and Gilbert indicate, being motivated by guilt and sentiment leads to strategies that perpetuate poverty and injustice.  If we seek to help others motivated by guilt or emotion, we will typically seek to pacify our own immediate feelings rather than seek to do what’s in the long-term best interest of others. 

Doing good that ultimately helps is something radically different.  It requires incarnational love and boldness to get involved personally with difficult situations.  It may also take long periods of time to build trust and establish healthy relationships of mutuality.  Further, most ministry situations will require that we relate from our weaknesses rather than our strengths. That can be very disorienting.

Perhaps most difficult—and why guilt and sentiment hinder rather than help—doing good challenges us to discern when and how to act in ways that benefit others in the long run.  We may have to fight our impulses and resist the manipulations of others in the interests of avoiding doing immediate and long-term damage.

Beyond all this, Scripture doesn’t motivate service to the poor and needy out of guilt.  Solidarity with the suffering and service to the poor and needy are motivated eschatologically and sacramentally.  That is, we are motivated by a future-orientation toward the day of Christ and by an awareness of where we have access to the life-giving and sustaining presence of Jesus.

We could look at a number of texts, but I’ll just point to John 12:25-26:

Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

If you grasp too tightly to stuff and give yourself to lustful accumulation, you will lose your life.  But if you let it go in service to Jesus, you will honored by God himself!  That’s the eschatological orientation.

But Jesus goes on to say that “whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.”

Where is Jesus?  Read the Gospels.  Where is he? 

Jesus spent his days on earth with the poor, the outcast, the shamed woman in the Samaritan village, the despised and traitorous Zaccheus, the single mother from the red-light district in Syro-Phoenicia.  Jesus goes on to say in John 15 that when we serve others we are sustained by Jesus’ own joy.  There’s a “sacramental” character to serving those in need.  That is, those actions and patterns of life are encounters on earth with the very presence of Jesus.

We serve others, especially those in need, because that’s a pattern of life that is sustained by the life-giving and joy-generating presence of Jesus.  And we serve because that’s the mode of life that has its end in exaltation with Jesus himself at the final day.

I agree with DeYoung and Gilbert that there’s nothing life-giving about acting out of guilt or sentiment.  Christian leaders would do well to cultivate language that expresses these motivations, shaping the imagination of God’s people to serve the world joyfully in the name of Jesus.

5 thoughts on “Reconceiving Service to the Poor & Needy

  1. joelshaffer

    As an Alumni of GRTS and a urban ministry worker in the hood of Grand Rapids, I have enjoyed your critique of DeYoung and Gilbert’s book. Also glad that you are trying to practice what you preach in the city. A book that comes to mind that has been helpful to us is “When Helping Hurts.”

    However, can you elaborate what you mean or maybe don’t mean with the sacramental character when serving the poor? The ones who often use this terminology are Shane Claiborne, Mother Teresa, Tony Campolo, and etc… Through their eyes, Jesus is somehow mysteriously present in the poor due to their interpretation of Matthew 25. Do you believe that the poor are really “Jesus in distressing disguise”? Or are you using the sacramental terminology differently?

    1. timgombis

      Hey Joel,

      I was thinking of that book, but mainly of the lessons we learned in our work in a very poor urban setting. Serving in such a context takes serious love for people and can’t involve sentiment. You have to develop relationships of mutuality instead of the natural power relationships that develop. And you find that you must often say ‘no’ to immediate help and develop longer-term strategies that will ultimately help those in need.

      I’m not so sure how far I’d push Matt. 25 so that Jesus is present among the poor, though I’d not want to deny some legitimate extension of that passage. But just in the very act of boldly going beyond comfort zones and serving those in need involves drawing upon the power and presence of the Spirit. Loving and serving others in need has a way of unleashing into the presence of the church the presence of God.

  2. joelshaffer

    Hey Tim, I know I didn’t really show my cards when I asked the question…..

    So many of my urban ministry colleagues around the country, many of whom are influenced by Claiborne and Mother Teresa, have embraced a sacramental view of the poor….that somehow Jesus is somehow mysteriously present in the least of these. Unfortunately the consequences to this view has led to romanticizing the poor. And of course, if Jesus is somehow present in the poor, then they really don’t need Jesus to save them from their sins.

    .As much as I am encouraged by the outpouring of young evangelicals having a heart for justice for the poor and oppressed, I am quite discouraged by the lack of disciple-making similtaneously taking place, some of which is because many already believe that Jesus is mysteriously present in the person. Now of course, there are many of the poor and oppressed that are believers in Christ so they have the spirit of Christ in them. Anyway, I wrote an article about this in the Baptist Bulletin a few issues back……here is the link.

    1. timgombis

      Yeah, that’s a big problem. But I’d rather talk about how for Christians, there’s something mysteriously powerful that happens as we serve the poor and get involved in doing bold acts of love for those with whom we’d naturally be uncomfortable.

      At the same time, poor people are people, as fallen as any of us–as devious, manipulative, deceptive, etc., as any of us. So, to minister among them and to them requires the same savvy and pastoral wisdom as among any other group of people. In fact, to be among them and do them good requires, like I said, serious character and wisdom to avoid being played for our upper-middle-class guilt. So, there’s nothing inherently “good” about this or that group of people, but at the same time, when the church steps out of its comfort zone and does good in a way that challenges it to its core, it is seriously in touch with the power of God and the presence of Jesus in a very unique way. What we do with that fact is precarious, however. Don’t push it too far to say something ontologically true about poor people. They’re people who need love and care–not naive and condescending coddling. They need serious love, as do the rest of us.

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