In our church communities, we sometimes struggle with how to put our resources to best use. Time and money are limited, so they are generally allocated to what we feel our mission priorities are. Growing up in a conservative congregation, I remember that more liberal denominations were often labeled as "social gospel churches," a pejorative term in my early circles. The idea was that while these churches might be feeding the poor, they neglected to simultaneously preach the actual gospel to the recipients of their charity.
Photo Credit: The Courier of Montgomery County
As a result of this influence, I long maintained the notion that emphasizing programs that met people's economic needs were somehow less spiritual than pure evangelism. I somewhat understand where this thought was coming from; the Church's main mission is to facilitate spiritual transformation. Years later into my own spiritual journey, I wonder now if there was not something more to my church's view of these programs than a concern over lack of religious teaching. Perhaps a bit of unconscious pride and judgment was sneaking in as well, but we'll revisit that later.
In any case, I have found an undeniable truth in my study of this topic. The early Church's assistance to the poor was a primary function of their community. We see this over and over again in various passages--Mark 10:21, Galatians 2:10, and 1 John 3:16-18--as well as writings by early church leaders such as Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Augustine of Hippo. The ancient Roman world was a hard and cruel place, especially for those without an able-bodied man to protect and provide for them, and the Church made it a priority to give aid to those who were in need.
Thankfully, we live in a much better time and place than most first century Christians. The poor and marginalized are still among us, though, and it is our calling to discover in what ways we can best meet their needs. So what does it look like to help the disadvantaged in 21st century America? In particular, how can the local church use the principles of economic mutuality to assist people in its own community?
The most obvious answers are ones that are already a part of many churches' outreach programs. Foodbanks, second-hand thrift stores, and youth mission trips to impoverished areas are all great ways to help people in the short-term. There are so many other ways, though, to assist people economically in the long term. As the proverb says: "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." While both short-term and long-term solutions are necessary, it is the often overlooked long-term answers that I'd like to focus on.
While most of us have not given church-supported economics a lot of thought, there are a number of resources that can assist local congregations in both defining the types of programs to begin and guidance for how to do so. The Criterion Institute (CI) is one such resource. CI offers a small group Bible study that helps church members choose an issue on which to focus. The group then makes a microloan to a local small business that is associated with this issue. The relationship between the group and the business owner continues afterwards with support and communication.
A number of churches have implemented a microloan program after going through this Bible study, and their stories demonstrate both successes and important lessons learned along the way. As the CI website states, "This experience changes how people think about their commercial transactions. It gives them courage and confidence to become more active, informed, and faithful actors in shaping the economy over time to more closely resemble God’s economy."
We at Better Capitalism are excited to see God's love in action in the churches through a resource such as Criterion Institute. In Part II of this post we'll expand on this topic and look at a few more resources and ways to address this very vital issue. See you there.
What about you? Share your story, question, comment, idea, disagreement -- yes, we welcome disagreement for the sake of mutual benefit! -- with us at blog@PartnershipEconomics.com. We will give a thoughtful response.
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