If the Church Did Its Job… and I Did Too.

“If the church did its job, the government wouldn’t have to.” So says the person who is volunteering to cut their net income by at least $9,000 next year in order for the church to take on the job of caring for the nation’s poor. (As explained in the last post, this is an absurdly conservative figure.) This post, too, is about counting the cost of the church caring for the poor, especially those costs that aren’t strictly financial. The point of this post is the same as the last one: If you’re saying the church should care for the poor instead of the government, here’s what you’re signing up for. If the cost is too high, admit it and revise your opinion.

Who Is the Church?
When we say the church should do its job, who are we talking about? Exactly who should do the job? If we define the church as Scripture does, not as an organization and certainly not as a building, but as a people, then we’re saying it is the job of those people who are the church to care for the poor. If I believe it is the church’s job to care for the poor, then I am saying it is my job to care for the poor.

If I am not willing to personally pay the cost for that, then I should stop saying it’s the church’s job because I’m not willing to actually back it up. Worst case scenario, I am trying to leverage faith or theology (or at least what sounds like faith and theology) to keep a little more money in my pocket.

Perhaps I don’t understand what the church is when I make the claim that the church should be caring for the poor. If the church is simply the people formed in Jesus’ name, then whatever is true of the church should be true of my life. Does the church pray? The question is answered by looking at the lives of those who make up the church. Do I pray? Do you pray? If not, our church is not committed to prayer. That’s not to take anything away from common prayer in the community, but neither is there some impersonal organization called church that mysteriously works apart from the unified effort of each part doing its work.

Do I believe the church should care for the poor? Do I believe I should care for the poor? The answers to these two questions cannot differ except in the case of a serious misunderstanding of what the church is. How could a church care for the poor when all its members disregard this concern as having anything to do with their actual day to day living? It is impossible for the church to care for the poor when it is filled with people who don’t care for the poor–personally, sacrificially, lovingly.

As Christians we must take personal responsibility: My church is committed to the poor to the extent that I am committed to the poor. My church will care for the poor when I care for the poor. It is not the church’s job unless and until it is my job.

Avoiding Personal Responsibility
Perhaps to avoid the personal (not just the financial) cost of caring for the poor we would rely on church programs to do the work for us, creating a religious bureaucracy to replace the government bureaucracy. It would certainly cost less that way. If I were to personally care for the poor–not just supporting a charitable program with money or words only–it would mean actually knowing a poor person. Do I? Do I know that person’s name? Do I know where they live? Do I know their story? Or have I created a life for myself that puts me conveniently out of touch with the poor? Was avoiding the poor a concern in choosing my house? In choosing a school for my children? In choosing my church?

Lots of Christians want to go to a church that gives money to charities that minister to the poor in their need–for food, for healthcare, for mental healthcare, for substance abuse recovery, for shelter, for education, etc. But how nervous will we become if the poor don’t maintain the boundaries that our religious bureaucracy creates? What if the mentally ill person shows up not at the clinic we send a check to, but at the worship service where the plate is passed? Will they belong, or have they transgressed? What if the homeless man shows up at my small group? Does he belong? Can he belong to a home group if he has no home? Or is a home group intended to provide a home only in a spiritual–that is to say, a figurative–sense?

Probably everybody would say, “Sure, the poor can come and belong. I wouldn’t be opposed to that.” But there’s a difference between not being opposed to the poor belonging in my church and actually wanting them to belong. Still further away is the conviction that care for the poor is the legitimating mark of Christian ministry. That’s what Jesus pointed at to legitimate his own ministry (Luke 7.18-23) and what James said amounts to pure religion (James 1.27). Blessed is the one who is not offended by this.

The fact that the poor by and large do not find a place of belonging in our churches shows that either we don’t really believe loving the poor is our job or we are just really bad at our job. Hypocrisy or incompetence. Neither are fatal. Both can be cured through confession and repentance. I have to be honest with myself and about myself before God. If I am dismayed about trying to make ends meet this year, I can just say that without reaching for theological claims to justify my complaint, claims that I am not prepared to pay the cost for financially and personally.

Against Creating a Religious Bureaucracy
The thing is, though, the church could care for the poor and do it much better than the government. Many make this claim out of suspicion of the government or frustration over government ineptitude. Perhaps that’s justified. But the church will do no better at caring for the poor simply by creating a religious bureaucracy in place of a political one. Bureaucracy institutionalizes care, defining the task of caring for the poor as a transaction between a disinterested, task-oriented organization on the one hand and a faceless mass of human lives and hopes and sorrows flattened into a class on the other.

The church can do a better job not because of how terrible the government is, but because of how great the church is. But that’s only if the church is faithful to her calling to be not an organization, not a building, and certainly not a bureaucracy, but a people. A people who incarnate the paradox that we should bear one another’s burdens and at the same time that we should each bear our own burdens. A people who do not regard justice and mercy as opposites, but who see the need for personal and social holiness as one and the same yearning for the kingdom of God.

The reason the church could do a better job than the government is not just because smaller bureaucracies are more effective than larger bureaucracies, but because a community of love recognizes in each face the unmistakable and ineradicable image of a personal God. Such a community regards every prodigal not according to the pig stained garments of poverty, nor according to the stench of upper class prejudice, but according to the robe and ring that signify belonging within the Father’s house.

Dignity Restored
There is no dignity inherent in being poor, nor dignity restored simply by becoming rich. There is dignity in being human, but it’s a dignity poverty and riches alike can efface. Dignity is not restored by scaling the size or changing the type of our bureaucracy, because bureaucracy itself quietly and efficiently dehumanizes a community into makers and takers. Dignity is restored when I recognize humanity in the other, when I recognize my neighbor as my neighbor, and when I love my neighbor as myself. The church will do its job when every Christian considers it their job to care for their neighbor–personally, sacrificially, and lovingly.

The failure of bureaucracy is a double failure, eroding the personal responsibility both of those who receive and those who give. If I say it is the church’s job to care for the poor, I’m signing myself up for a lot more $9,000 in extra giving next year. I am opening my life, my schedule, my talents, my home, and my heart to the poor. There is an enormous personal cost that will come to each Christian if the church does its job.