A Trip to the Zoo


By Dan Crain

The evangelical church is waking up to the needs of the poor, and this is a very promising change. Since the early 1900s, during what church historians call the “Great Reversal,” mainline conservative churches have been wary of substantial involvement with the poor, or “getting their hands dirty.”

The Great Reversal was a pivotal point when conservative and liberal theology parted ways about church involvement in social action. Liberals sought to bring the Kingdom of God on Earth through social action. Conservatives recoiled at this new so-called “social gospel” and focused primarily on the world as a fallen place, and getting everyone out of this mess into heaven.

Until then, the church was active in taking care of the poor and vulnerable. In fact, as Rodney Stark writes in his book “The Early Rise of Christianity,” this was the primary path as the early church grew: Believers welcomed the poor and homeless into their midst. When plagues would sweep through cities, Christians were the ones who gave up their lives to save those afflicted.

In the past few decades, there has been resurgence within the conservative evangelical Church ranks to care for the poor.  Many have realized that the Gospel is not just spiritual or physical. It is both.

Unfortunately, the way many churches have responded causes more damage than helping. One such expert on alleviating poverty, Phil Hissom, commented that, in many ways, “The church is not a sleeping giant waking up, but rather a bull in a china cabinet.” Churches are serving the poor, but are doing so on their agenda. This breeds unintended consequences that separate the affluent from the poor.

A verse Polis references often is Proverbs 19:2, “Passion without knowledge is not good, how much more will hasty feet miss the way.”

We should applaud and affirm churches serving the needy. God is at work in people’s hearts in taking care and getting to know people in times of distress. But we need to do so in the best possible way.

Polis has a unique voice in this conversation, particularly though Dignity Serves. We are learning as we go along, allowing the poor to teach and mold us. We have discovered that the poor hold strong perceptions about outside churches and their ministries coming in to help. We have asked our friends in distress what they think.

Too often, churches ministering to the needy are amazed at what they see: the homeless who are starving for a meal, how many people show up to eat, or their children running around in diapers. Some Christians actually will invite others to see the poor people and how they live – in order to get a proper perspective on how much God has given them. This is a visit to the zoo gone horribly wrong. No one likes to be objectified, so why do we think people in poverty like to be?

Let me repeat:  We should affirm and applaud churches that step up to help the poor. But let’s remind our brethren not to miss a relationship built on giving and receiving. As Bob Lupton writes in his book “Toxic Charity”: “To be a recipient of charity is to sacrifice some of your human dignity.”

Let’s serve people in need but do so in the best possible way. Let’s be involved in their lives but make it clear that we are not there to “solve their issues” but to offer ourselves as friends. We cannot be for someone until we are with them.

Dan Crain is a liaison/trainer in South Atlanta for Polis Institute. He can be reached at dan@polisinstitute.org.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.


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