by Tom Wacaster
They come in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life. White, African-American, Hispanic, and Oriental, to name just a few. They come in the best of times, and the worst of times; during times of plenty, and in times of famine. Some seek to avoid work, some have just been fired from work, some are in the process of looking for work, and some are on their way to a great "job opportunity" in some far off distant place not even remotely close to the church building. Their faces reflect desperation, sorrow, heartache, anger, and hope. Their stories are as multicolored as the flowers that bloom in the Spring time, and often as empty as the cupboard they seek to replenish. This month marks 40 years that I have been preaching. Most of that has been with local congregations in Texas and Oklahoma, in small towns, mid-sized cities, and metropolises such as Houston and Fort Worth. I could fill a book with the stories of those who have sought financial help from the church where I labored. Some of those stories are sad and heart-rending; some pathetic; some boarder on the insane; and some are obviously scams to bilk the church out of money for some unholy or ungodly life style of the one seeking financial help. The requests come in all forms: some ask for food, some for a place to stay, or a bus ticket to some destination.
I have had some really strange requests since moving to the Fort Worth area, including but not limited to, a request from a woman for money to pay her divorce lawyer, funds to buy children some video games, money to help with electric bill, gas bill, food bill, water bill, and/or mortgage bill. One of the most unique requests was a woman who asked if we could help buy her a lottery ticket in hopes that she might be blessed by God with a good fortune so she would not have to call around and ask churches for money. I guess she thought that if a church bought the ticket (or at least provided the funds for the ticket) that such would give her an inside chance at winning the big one; after all, who would know better what the winning numbers are going to be more than God? The list is endless; and it seems that in difficult times the requests for financial help are more frequent, and more bizarre.
One thing I have learned in my conversations with each one of those who sought help is that none of them had any knowledge of what the church is supposed to be as set forth in the New Testament. The church is looked upon as a relief organization, something akin to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), a soup kitchen to feed the hungry, or a department store that provides free clothing and household necessities. Denominations like the Salvation Army have contributed much to such a misunderstanding. I am not suggesting that the church must not help feed the hungry, or cloth those who are destitute. But the physical man is secondary to the spiritual man, and common sense and proper stewardship dictates that there are limits to which the church can engage in such social programs. One of the questions I often ask people who seek help is whether or not they attend church anywhere on a regular basis. I have never had anyone answer in the affirmative. I'm not saying such folks do not exist; only that I have never come across one like that. Those who are associated with a church, and who are active in religious preference, usually go to that particular church of which they are a member to obtain help.
Some weeks back I had a young lady drop into my office asking for financial help. I told her we did not provide money for any situation, and that before we could give her food or some other form of assistance, we needed to know a little bit about her, her family, and her financial status. I make it my practice to ask for references - a name of a relative, friend, or neighbor who might vouch for the authenticity of the need. The young lady had a poor attitude, refused to give me anybody's name, and wondered why we would not help her. "After all," she asked, "What is the church for anyway?"
That is a good question, and it is one that deserves an answer. If what is taking place in some churches in America is any indication of how people view the church, then you and I have an uphill battle in trying to teach and persuade men with regard to what the Bible teaches on this matter. I hear of everything from social dances to a drama presentation of some topic that has nothing whatsoever to do with Christ, the spiritual man, or things eternal. If going to church makes one spiritual, then I suppose our country is one of the most spiritual countries in the world(?) But, without doubt, there are some mighty strange things going on in churches today. As one preacher pointed out, you are likely to see nightclub artists perform their disrobing act at Sunday services; ballet dancers perform "prayer dances"; guitar picking, banjo plucking, gyrating youngsters (and some not so young) furnish the musical background for what is supposed to be a worship experience. The sermons one hears may use an occasional Bible verse as a sort of novelty, but they are just as likely to deal with ecology, foreign affairs, the flight of the inner city poor, or the political scene in Washington. Since our nation allows freedom of religion, we have assumed that God has joined the ranks of democratic thinking and allows us complete liberty in our worship and service to Him. If you think, dear reader, that WHAT is done in your worship service is not important, then you had better open up your Bible and start studying. God is a spirit, and they that worship Him "MUST WORSHIP HIM IN SPIRIT AND IN TRUTH" (John 4:24). It is not enough to just "go to church." The Bible teaches me that the church is the "body of Christ" (Eph. 1:22-23; Col 1:18). As the body of Christ we are to "be set for the defense of the gospel" (Phil 1:16). The church is the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). We are to be "zealous of good works" (Titus 2:14), active in evangelism (Mark. 1:15; Matt. 28:18-20), "speaking the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15), "keeping oneself unspotted from the world," while making sure that we "visit the orphans and widows in their affliction" (Jas 1:27). There is a sense in which the church ought to meet both spiritual and physical needs of its members (1 Thess. 5:14; Gal. 6:1-2; Jude 20-23, etc). The church must seek to strike a proper balance.
Tom Gaumer once wrote: "There is a vast difference between what these passages teach and being preoccupied with the needs of people in the church from a socially oriented standpoint rather from a spiritual concern for their salvation. It appears that not a few of the programs in the churches ... are designed more for successful adjustment to the world rather than to the kingdom of Christ. One of the direct results we are concerned with is that in such cases, as they progress in the direction they are headed, the Bible becomes less and less in evidence, evangelism has for all practical purposes gone by the wayside, and the congregation has been reduced to nothing but an adjunct of the social institutions of the community where it is found."
While compassion motivates us to help others, stewardship calls for careful use of what God has given us, and wisdom dictates that we never loose sight of the spiritual man in our efforts to assist the needy. After all, if we manage to eliminate hunger, raise those in poverty to a better way of life, and they end up being lost, what have they really gained?