“Serve” is one of the most used Christian words. Serve, servant, service, or any of their derivatives, are used in the Bible over 1,100 times. It’s what we are called as Christians to do: serve God, serve the Church, serve each other and serve the poor.
But the truth is I don’t want to “serve” the poor anymore, and neither should you.
Maybe I should clarify: I don’t want to “serve” the poor in the same ways that we as a Church and society have been serving for so many years. Frankly, it isn’t working, and it’s not just hurting the poor, it’s hurting all of us as the Body of Christ. Jesus did say that “the poor will always be with you” (Matthew 26:11), but that doesn’t mean what we often think it means, and it certainly isn’t an excuse for us to give up in the face of failure either. What we need to do instead is step back and re-evaluate our approaches, redefine what it means “to serve,” understand different methods of serving (and when to use them) and most importantly, re-evaluate why we serve.
So, what does it mean to serve the poor?
Jesus served the poor in many different ways. One of the ways He served was through charity—the giving of material things such as money, food, clothes—and He calls us to do the same (Matthew 25:35-40). Charity can be an easy, quick and tangible way of sharing Christ’s love and compassion for people who are experiencing a temporarily difficult situation. It is 100 percent necessary and part of our responsibility as the Church, and in the U.S., we are pretty good at charity.
However, charity is not always what is needed in every situation, or for indefinite periods of time.
For example, think about the effect that pouring millions of pounds of food aid or dumping piles of used clothing has on an already fragile foreign economy—it absolutely destroys it because local farmers and tailors simply cannot compete with free. We may be feeding and clothing people, but at what cost—at the cost of someone’s dignity and livelihood? Is this the type of service that the Bible calls us to?
More often what is needed is development rather than charity. Inappropriately giving charity in the place of development, whether done intentionally or unintentionally, only serves to bolster our savior complexes by further strengthening the dependency cycle between the economically wealthy and poor; it pities rather than respects; and it fails to recognize God and to celebrate the God-given potential and value of those we are “serving.”
There comes a time for charity to stop and development to begin. Jesus served through charity, but He also served through development and we should, too.
So, what does development look like and how does the Bible and Jesus model this?
- Development is about creating a system where everybody has the opportunity to work.
Even before there was sin in the world, there was work (Genesis 2:15), and we are not helping anybody by taking away their opportunity to work. Work is a gift from God to us, a sanctifying act in which we can use the gifts that God gave us to connect with Creation, each other and with God. We need to start focusing more on providing things like education, opportunities and empowerment in place of things so everyone has a chance to work and use their God-given potential.
- Development treats the root causes of poverty alongside of the symptoms.
This means exploring the hundreds of complex reasons, both societal and individual as well as physical, mental and spiritual, that contribute to poverty and working to solve them rather than continuing to treat the symptoms with charity alone. Just as doctors don’t ignore the symptoms of a disease while looking for the cause of the disease itself, neither can we ignore the immediate needs of people around us as we look to understand the deeper issues. Jesus was charitable, but He also came to both treat expose and to treat the root of the problem so that all might truly live (John 10:10, Luke 16:15).
- Development is a wise investment into people and their futures, not just their current state.
As Christians, we shouldn’t just be thoughtlessly giving our money away. We should be seeking out organizations, places and people where we can strategically invest it. It may take years until we can see the return on that investment for society, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. People and their futures are worth it. Good intentions with money are not enough which Jesus demonstrates in the Parable of the Talents, making it clear what it means to be good stewards of the resources our master has given us (Matthew 25:14-30).
- Development frees people by breaking the chains of oppression.
Despite how it may typically be interpreted, Matthew 26:11 is actually one of the strongest calls to action in the biblical mandate to end poverty through development. In those words, Jesus is referencing Deuteronomy 15:11 where God is giving the Israelites instructions on how to end poverty and bring about the Jubilee: It wasn’t just through charity. Instead, it was to be a social movement acknowledging God as the Savior that focused on sacrificial giving and forgiveness and freedom for the poor in order to restore equality, justice, peace and unity with God and each other.
- Development asks what people need.
It doesn’t assume. It values people and their voices and it recognizes their ideas and potential as not only equal but more valuable than our own. It is about taking on a humble attitude of searching and seeking, rather than entering into every situation with our own plans. How often do we forget this simple step of asking in our service to the poor—reinforcing dependency cycles, wasting money and robbing dignity? Even Jesus asked a blind beggar what he wanted before He performed the healing and so should we. (Mark 10:51).
- Development is about relationships, humbly working with people rather than for people.
Jesus invited everyone to the table (Luke 14:13). It’s about equality. It’s breaking down barriers and stereotypes. It’s engaging our hearts on a deeper level and not being intimidated or afraid of the differences, of the unknown, of getting in too deep, of feelings, of failing, or of sharing in the reality of someone else’s suffering. For this reason, development is messy and it’s complicated and typically slow. There is no one perfect easy path or way of doing it, there is no grand solution or one organization that’s doing it perfectly. It’s confusing and it’s humbling, but it’s these relationships, not things, which make it all possible and worthwhile.
Relationships with people matter, but as Christians wanting to do or emotionally/financially support development work there is one relationship that matters even more: our relationship with God. 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because He first loved us.” Christ’s life and sacrifice for us is the ultimate display of God and His true love and if we don’t know Christ, then we don’t know love. We may have the best intentions, “but if we don’t have love, we have nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). And if we have nothing, then we have nothing to give, nothing worthwhile anyway.
So many of us, myself included at times, are trying to serve the poor on our own, either because we want to feel good, meet an invisible Christian obligation or we think that maybe God can’t do it Himself. Before we go out and try to serve the poor (or anybody for that matter) through our actions or even through our money, we need to look within, re-evaluate and rededicate our hearts. Jesus knew this. He knew He couldn’t do this work of serving that God had called Him to without first spending some serious time seeking God through prayer and His word (Luke 6:12, Mark 1:35, Hebrews 5:7, etc).
We need to be recommitting our hearts to the Lord daily, pouring ourselves out before Him, ridding ourselves of any selfish motivations or prideful thoughts, and allowing God to guide us and fill us up with His love FIRST so we actually have something worthwhile to give. When we fail to do this, what we end up doing is interacting with people from a safe distance, dispensing out a cheap manufactured version of love, bringing glory to ourselves and parading around a weak and needy hollowed-out version of Jesus who apparently needs us and our “good works” in order to save humanity. The result? Neither the poor nor the rich will come to know Christ nor the power, mercy, goodness, love or strength of the gospel. Nobody will experience true freedom or grace, we will just be applying patches to a failing system.
I guess what I really meant when I said “I don’t want to ‘serve’ the poor” was: I don’t want to serve the poor if it’s creating an oppressive system that fosters dependency and destroys dignity. I want to do more, to do better for society. I want to serve through charity when needed, but I also want to build relationships and empower people through development, even if that is messy and complicated and I don’t see results as quickly. I want to seek God first so that through Him I can serve and better support others who serve in a way that leads us ALL to thrive rather than just survive, in a way that gives people eternal life rather than just a longer life. I want to change the way we view the poor so that we can change the way we serve the poor so that the Body of Christ can truly be restored.