Sunday, September 27, 2009

Awakening to a World of Need - An Urgent Message for the Church Today

We are commanded to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute, to defend the rights of the poor and needy, the cause of the fatherless, and to plead the case of the widow (Prov.31:89, Isa.1:17) because God commands us to love them as He loves them. Deut.10:18-19. That is the purpose of this article. The purpose is not to criticize and judge but to inform and provoke us to urgent action. May we feel the heart of God as we ponder over this message and its implications.

Some thoughts expressed in this message are mine, some are borrowed from others who share a similar burden. Statistics have been drawn from various sources including from UN agencies, World Relief Corporation, David Barrett and Todd Johnson of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, World Evangelization Research Center, Caleb Project, etc.

This is an urgent message for the church today. What are the basic humanitarian needs in the world today? What concern is it of the church? Should it be of concern to the church?

Facts and Figures

Here are some statistics :

· 34,000 children die everyday of hunger and preventable diseases.

· More than 1 million children join the sex trade each year.

· 120 million street children in mega-cities.

· 349 million homeless/family-less children.

· 670 million children work to earn a living instead of being in school.

· 250,000 children will become permanently blinded this year for lack of a 10 cent vitamin A capsule or a daily handful of green vegetables.

· Millions of children are orphaned by war, civil strife, revolution and terrorism.

· 55 million refugees and internally displaced people (35 million who are children).

· 2.64 billion people do not have basic sanitation and safe drinking water.

· 1 billion “absolute poor and destitute” defined as those whose existence is characterized by malnutrition, illiteracy and disease, and do not have access to basic health care, education and safe drinking water (230 million or 23% are Christians).

· 500 million are on the verge of starvation.

· 246 million child laborers.

· 10 million babies born malnourished per year.

· 3 billion (nearly half the world’s population) living below the World bank’s poverty line.

Christians / the Church in the World Today

Now let’s take a look at how Christians and the church have responded to the plight of the poor :

· Christians today have a total annual income of over US$17 trillion

· It would cost less than US$70 billion a year (0.004% of total annual income of Christians) to provide all people in developing and under developed countries with basic education, health care and clean water - the fundamentals to eradicate poverty.

· However, 96% of all money given by Christians stays in the local church

· 3% of all money given goes to work among those who are already evangelized

· Less than 1% of all money given goes to work among the 2.2 billion unreached in the world (who are also the poorest) – that works out to roughly 0.00001% of the total annual income of Christians

God’s Laws Concerning the Poor

There are numerous verses and passages in the Bible that tell us how God has a special concern for the poor. A simple word check in a good concordance on words such as “poor”, “needy” “widows” “orphans” “fatherless” “destitute” “alien” “stranger” “sojourner” “hungry” “naked” “weak” “afflicted” etc. will tell us a great deal about how God feels for the poor and needy. Take for example God’s institution of the tithe and how it is to be used. The collection of tithes was an Old Testament law that was instituted for a particular purpose. Although there are no commands in the New Testament for the collection of tithes, the church today has adopted the practice of collecting tithes based on the Old Testament. The church today challenges its congregations to tithe with Old Testament verses and passages. But the church largely seems to be ignoring the commands in the Old Testament as to the purpose of the tithe and how it is to be used.

In the Old Testament, the tithe was in the form of food; not monetary currency “so that there would be food in My house” Mal.3:10. Who was in God’s house that needed feeding? Deuteronomy 14 and 26 tells us that the tithe was to feed the Levites, the fatherless, the widows and the aliens. The aliens were people who were landless - displaced because of war or famine. Today we call them refugees. God identified with the Levites, fatherless, widows and aliens when He commanded the Israelites to set aside that “sacred portion” for them. He considered giving to them and feeding them as giving to Himself. In the New Testament, Jesus said the same thing, “In as much as you have done it for the least of these My brethren, you have done it for Me” Matt. 25:40. That is how God feels for the poor and needy.

How about us? When we keep 96% in the church and give less than 1% to the most needy; that is surely a horrifying reflection of what we, the church think and feel about the poor. When only 0.00001% of our total global annual income goes to work among the poor; is that not a terrible indictment on the state of our hearts?

Parable of the Good Samaritan : Luke 10:25-37

Whenever we read scripture, we must ask ourselves how it applies to us today – what God is saying to our present day situation.

The lawyer asked, ”What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer Jesus acknowledged as correct was not the confession of sins and acceptance of Him as our savior. Rather, it was to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That should challenge our traditional evangelical understanding of salvation!

The Samaritans in those days were people who were not accepted by the Jews as true children of Abraham. They were not considered as part of the chosen people of God because they inter-married with other races. In today’s church language we would say they were mixed up with the world; not true Christians.

What about the priest and Levite? Who would they be in today’s context?

Why did the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side? Could it be because they didn’t want to get defiled? It seems to me they didn’t want anything to interfere in their religious duties. They didn’t want their schedule upset or interrupted. They were too busy with their own agendas and businesses to take care of. It was inconvenient to care.

The awful truth is that we are not much different from them. Most of us care enough to do anything only if it is convenient for us to do so; not like the Samaritan who went out of his way to care. Many in our churches today express a desire to serve God, but come short of full surrender. The honest truth is that people want to serve God only upon their own terms. When we want to serve God only when it is convenient to us; when we determine how, when and to what extent we will serve God, do we not remain master of our lives? Are we not just being religious?

I have been asking that question in many churches : “Why did the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side?” The best answers came from a group of Sunday school kids from a slum. One little boy said, ”I know Uncle, its because the priest and Levite did not want to get dirty”. Another little girl said, “I know Uncle, they thought that someone else would help the man”. Perhaps they were speaking from their own experiences.

The lawyer’s concern is not much different from the average person’s concern – who’s job is it to take care of the man? Who is my neighbor? To what extent am I under obligation to help? Jesus however side-stepped the issue brought up by the lawyer. Jesus looked at the whole thing from a different paradigm. To Him what is really in issue is not who’s job and responsibility it is – that’s looking at things from a selfish and legalistic perspective. What really matters is - how is our heart towards those in need? Who was truly a neighbor to that man? Are we being neighbors to people in need? The paradigm is shifted : we need to look at it from the perspective of those in need; not from our’s. From the perspective of those in need, are we being neighbors to them?

It is true that the command to love our neighbor does not just apply to the poor but to everyone around us. However it is also pertinent to note that Jesus answered the question of who our neighbor is, with this parable, focusing on people in need. Clearly Jesus was making a point to the lawyer that “love” was not to be kept within our own families and communities but reaching out especially to people in need.

In our world today, in our churches today, how much are we concerned for the poor and needy? How much are we like the Samaritan who went out of his way to care? How much are we like the priest and Levite? How much does our heart go out to the poor and needy? Aren’t we too busy with “church” to care about the poor and needy? Or do we think that it is someone else’s responsibility; not ours – “someone else will go and help them” ?

When we keep 96% in the church and give less than 1% to the most needy; when only 0.00001% of our total global annual income goes to the poor; are we not passing by on the other side?

Whose Responsibility is it to Feed the Poor?

Before Jesus fed the 5000 in Mark 6, the disciples told Jesus that the people were hungry. Jesus replied, “You feed them”. If Jesus were standing right in front of us and we were to say to Him, “Lord, 35,000 people are dying of hunger each day”, I believe He would reply no different to us today. I don’t believe He would tell us to call the UN to go and feed them.

We need only to ask ourselves two questions, “Does God care?” and “Is He able?” If the answers to both are a resounding “Yes”, then the question to ourselves must be, ”Why aren’t we doing anything about it?”

Perhaps the truth is, we don’t even care enough to ask what the situation is and where the poor and hungry are. I have shared these statistics in many churches and Christian meetings. It has come as a surprise to many. How is it that in our churches, we never ask about the poor? Many have responded that in all their 10 or 20 years or more in church they have never looked at, discussed or considered the problem of poverty, whether in the world or in their own communities. This is true even in churches in poor nations like India and Indonesia. Could it be we are so caught up in ourselves and our programs and activities that we don’t care? Or could it be that our whole theology and understanding of what Christianity is, is terribly misconceived?

Not Seeing the Wood (Forest) for the Trees?

Often we can get so caught up in the details that we loose sight of the big picture. The Pharisees were so caught up with the tiny little details of the law and making sure that everyone kept strictly to it, but clearly they lost sight of the heart and soul of what the law was all about. They loved the law but not the God of the law or the people whom He loved. They were so blind that when Jesus was standing right in front of them they couldn’t recognize Him as the very God they professed to serve.

It is important always to ask what’s the big picture. For example if we were to ask what the book of James is all about, many of us would agree that it can be summarized in one sentence – true faith will result in action. One day the Lord asked me a question : “How would you summarize the whole Old Testament?” I thought about it a while, scanning through in my mind the whole of the Old Testament. What was the cry of the prophets in the OT against the kings and religious leaders? For what was Israel and Judah judged by God? It was for idolatry, for worshipping false gods and for ignoring the plight of the poor, for failing to defend the poor, for passing unjust laws that oppress the poor, for forcing the poor to work for nothing, for enslaving the poor, for taking land from the poor. I realized the whole of the OT can be summarized in 2 points : Worship God and God only and obey all His commandments; and love people, especially the poor and needy. In response, the Lord reminded me that that was why Jesus said the whole of the law hangs on just these 2 commandments ; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourselves.” Mark12:30.

How would we summarize 1 John? I believe it might go something like this – if we really love God, we would love people. True love for God will naturally and evidently be expressed in love for people. If we truly love God we will feel His heart for people, especially His love for the poor.

What is True Spirituality?

The focus of evangelical teaching has been on personal spirituality alone. Spirituality is rarely understood or expressed to include love and concern for others. Spirituality is understood only on the individual and personal level/context. Spirituality is individualistic – private daily devotions, understanding of spiritual things, praying in tongues, etc. Spirituality is hardly ever understood in the context of the needs of others in the world. Yet the greatest commandment includes both loving God and loving our neighbors. That surely must have something to say about what true spirituality is if not being the yardstick or measure of spirituality.

As Bryant Myers has pointed out, if the spiritual world is only an interior private place and the church has allowed itself to be relegated to this spiritual world, while the state and other human institutions assume responsibility for what happens in everyday life, and since the spiritual realm is confined to the inner invisible life, the gospel as we know it has little to do with the material condition of the poor nor can it provide adequate solutions for the present. Again, in our limited understanding, since the gospel’s focus is on eternity, there is no vision for a better present, instead the Christian hope waits for the return of the Lord when He will be the final equalizer, where He will wipe away every tear from the eyes of the poor.

Gospel of the Kingdom or Gospel of Salvation?

What is God’s intention for this world? Many Christians today believe Jesus is coming back again soon. That He is not concerned about this world and neither should we. It is perishing. We ought not to have anything to do with this world. We just need to wait for Jesus to return when He will establish a new heaven and a new earth. Meanwhile let’s stay close together in our holy huddles and make sure the world doesn’t get into the church. It is for this reason that I believe the church has ceased to be “salt and light”. To be “salt and light” I believe, is to be visible and relevant.

Suppose I were to ask you to close your eyes and I would give you a word, let’s say “table”, what would you see in your mind’s eye? Each of us would imagine different sizes, types and colors of tables. Now let’s try another word, “church” – what do you see? I think for many of us who are evangelical Christians, we would no longer see a building but people. We are very proud to say that in our understanding the church is not a building but people. But in what you saw in your mind’s eye, what were the people doing? Many, if not all of us would see the people in a meeting – either in a church service or Bible study or cell group whether in a church building or some other building or even on the beach, but still in a meeting. The understanding of church has shifted from being a building to a meeting of people. There is a meeting on Sunday we call a Sunday service, then there is a meeting on Wednesday we call the mid week prayer meeting or Bible study, then there is another meeting on Saturday we call the youth meeting and another one we call the children’s meeting and another one we call the women’s meeting, etc. But is that all what church is supposed to be? No wonder the world thinks we are irrelevant. And we are invisible too because we are usually still stuck inside some building or other.

Jesus however preached the Gospel of the Kingdom; not the Gospel of Salvation. What's the difference? According to the Salvation concept - this world is evil, this world is perishing; have nothing to do with it. Let's get people saved from this world and its systems. Let’s get people into our churches and keep them away from this bad, bad world. Soon Jesus will return and take us away to heaven. According to the Kingdom concept - Jesus came to redeem all things to Himself. God is concerned with every aspect of what’s happening in this world, in people’s lives. Christians should be penetrating into the world and affecting the world by their values. Christians should be taking the lead in business, education, entertainment, sports, engineering, science, technology, civil administration, government, social concerns, family, environment, etc. to model to the world Kingdom values. Jesus told us to occupy till He comes; not run and hide till He comes.

Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come; Your will be done on earth as it is done in heaven.” The focus of the gospel should therefore be this world; not heaven. Our role is not to try and get people to heaven, but to live out kingdom values and be God’s agent for His kingdom to come into every sphere of life. If we confine “ministry” to the “spiritual”, and therefore only “full time” ministry workers do the work of the ministry, we will never be able to fulfill God’s mandate in Matt.28 to disciple nations, because the rate at which we are raising up “full time” ministry workers is being far exceeded by the natural birth rate of nations by millions of times. Instead, if “ministry” is understood not only as preaching, teaching, prayer, Bible study, etc. but being agents of reconciliation and transformation in every aspect of life and bringing the whole counsel of God and of His rule to every work place and community, and the skills and natural talents of every Christian is seen as ministry and harnessed and released into the world, only then would we be discipling nations and allowing His kingdom to come through us.


In Jesus’ ministry, Jesus showed a special concern and love for the poor and needy. He said He was anointed to preach the good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to release the oppressed, to give sight to the blind. He touched lepers, healed the sick who had no money for medical treatment. He had a special interest for the crippled, the lame, children and prostitutes. He said when you give a banquet, don’t invite your friends, or your relatives or your rich neighbors; instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Luke 14:12-13. Not everything of what Jesus did was recorded in the Gospels : John 21:25. However in Acts10:38, Peter who had been with Jesus, said this of Jesus : “You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached – how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with Him.”

Compassion or Pity?

The church needs to rethink its mission. Where the poor and needy are concerned, the way the church thinks and responds seems to be no different from the world. Darrow Miller has pointed out that150 yrs ago, in the English language, the word “compassion” meant “suffering alongside someone”. Now in the English dictionary, the word “compassion” has a modern meaning – it means “pity”. Compassion is measured by how much we give ourselves to the plight of the person in need. Pity is merely feeling sorry for someone without getting involved with their situation. When we feel pity, we give money to ease our conscience. We are motivated by guilt; not by compassion. Compassion is a feeling that makes the person want to help or show mercy. Pity looks and feels but stops there. Compassion looks, feels and then does something.

Someone said this : "It might well be that the greatest threat to human survival now confronting us is the loss of compassion. We are confronted daily with the pain of human tragedy to such an extent that we soon learn to turn off what we see. In order to cope with our feelings of helplessness, we teach ourselves how not to feel. The tragedy in this response which is probably more widespread than we dare to believe is that we also deaden our capacity for love.”

When we have compassion, we will seek to enter into the world of the person in need. In the Gospel record, Jesus had compassion for the poor; He had compassion for us. God did not just throw down some food from heaven, or send His prophets with a rescue plan. He Himself came in person to identify with our situation. He identified so much with our condition, He took on our sins on His own body and took our punishment. In today’s context, it would be going to jail for someone else. It would be going to be executed in someone else’s place. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you” Just as He entered into our world, we are to enter into the world of those in need. It is to suffer alongside the poor, the helpless, the oppressed.

What is Missions?

St. Augustine is attributed to have said, “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words”. What did he mean? I believe no matter what culture, background or educational level a person may be, one belief is universal throughout this world : action speaks louder than words. Missions and Gospel must be redefined to reflect more of the Biblical mandate – not only of preaching and teaching but the original mandate given to Abraham – that all nations will be blessed through him (now us, as children of Abraham). See Gal.3:8.

Eph.2:8-9 says “For by grace you have been saved through faith; not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast.” The next verse says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should do.” (verse 10). The preceding verse cannot be read on its own. The thought in the preceding verse continues into the next verse and often gives light and meaning to the preceding verse. We are certainly not saved by good works, but what are we saved for? We are saved to do good works! “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no works? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” James 2:14 -16. “If anyone … sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” 1 John 3: 17-18.

Why do we confine Church planting to getting people into meetings? Should we not be concerned for the welfare of the community? In extending the blessings of Abraham, and in being concerned for what God is concerned, nutrition, shelter, water, education, health care, etc should not be taken as just a means of reaching people with the Gospel. All these - nutrition, shelter, water, education, health care, a means of livelihood, etc. are a part of the Gospel and ought to be part of our mission. Why? Because God cares and He has sent us to care.

I was training a group of pastors and church planters working in very poor areas. I asked them, “If a child in the community was seriously sick and needed emergency medical evacuation, won’t you immediately take him to the hospital?” They answered “yes” without hesitation. I asked, “Why? Are you sure that is part of your ministry as church planters?” They replied, “Yes of course, because we are to love and care for people.”

Then I asked, “So its part of your ministry to love people only after a problem develops, but it is not a part of your ministry to prevent or mitigate the problem from happening in the first place? You mean giving someone medicine is part of your ministry as church planters, but helping his parents with livelihood so that they can provide nutritious food to that kid and he wouldn’t be so susceptible to sickness is not part of your church planting ministry? And visiting someone in prison is part of ministry, but helping him with getting good income so he wouldn’t get into crime in the first place is not part of ministry?”

They gave me a perplexed look. They confessed they hadn’t thought about that. They said they had been taught in seminary not to get involved in social work but to concentrate on ministry. They confessed they had been having a fixed mindset/paradigm about church planting and ministry. Its amazing how the church has divorced church planting and ministry from life itself. Notice how Jesus kept talking about the kingdom; and not about church. Unfortunately, for most of Christendom, we have been focusing on church instead of the kingdom. It is no wonder we have more than 38,000 denominations in the world today!

Seek first the Kingdom of God

Besides a faulty theology, there is a second reason why we don’t respond to the needs of the world. We give to the needs of the poor and missions but all too often only after we have paid our mortgage, our insurance, our car, etc. When Jesus taught us not to worry about life, food, clothes, etc. His purpose was not to just comfort us when things are financially tight. Rather, we are told not to worry about these things so that instead we can give ourselves in the service of God. What hinders our love is a lack of faith. Lacking faith in God’s ability to provide and care for us, our priorities are upside down. Darrow Miller was right when he said we have bought in to secularism and a closed system where the belief is - for one man to gain another man must lose. So we conserve and preserve and hold on tight to what we have in case we lose it. Even when we do share we share only what we think we can afford, “in case there’s not enough for ourselves”. But that is a big mistake. In God’s economy, the one who gives gets more in return. We must understand that Biblical Theism calls us to live in an open system where God can intervene; not a closed system where all we have is all there is. Churches challenge their congregation to give and to live by faith, but are churches themselves afraid to give “in case there’s not enough for ourselves”? Otherwise why do the statistics tell us that 96% of all money given stays in the local church?

Timothy Chester says this - the New Testament has little to say on how and when we should evangelize. Instead it has much to say on how Christians should live their lives. 1 Pet.3:13-16 tells us to always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us for the hope that we have. Why would anyone ask us this? Only when they see how we live our lives not caring for worldly things but living for others. If we live for the present blessings it is not surprising that we are not asked to explain our hope. No wonder then that our evangelism is ineffective. While we lay up treasure on earth or while we make future security a priority, while we live like the rest of the world, people are not going to ask about our hope. Having become like everyone else, we have nothing to tell them because our lives do not provoke their questions. When that happens, our evangelism ceases to be based upon a lifestyle of trust and hope and becomes a technique.

Books abound telling us how to evangelize effectively, how to turn conversations around to Christ. We are answering questions that people are not asking! When Christ is Lord of all our lives, when we are living radically for the kingdom, no conversation will need to be turned around.

I end this message with a plea that we hear the cry of the poor and needy. More than that, may we hear the cry on the heart of God.

PS. Please feel free to circulate this article. I also welcome your feed-back. I once shared this message (condensed form) in a church. As soon as I finished, an elderly man asked, “I have been an elder of the church for more than 38 years of my life and I’ve heard thousands of sermons and teaching, but I’ve never heard anything about poverty or what you just shared. Why is that?” Why do you think that is so?

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