Poverty, the Church, and the Posture of Self-righteous Defensiveness

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not in any way reflect the official policy or position of anyone my institution, its affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. They are mine, and mine alone. Disagree? Feel free to contact me! (ONLY me)

The Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty seems to have ruffled a few feathers in, of all places, Southern Baptist life. The response to the Summit and its subject matter are not getting nearly enough attention.

First, a Baptist professor took issue with speakers, including President Barack Obama, using the term “the least of these” from Matthew 25. (Please note:  This is evidence that knowing the technicalities does not mean you understand the full application of a passage in the Bible).

Following that, Southern Baptist Convention Executive Director Dr. Frank Page fired off a response to the President’s remarks regarding churches and poverty. In a somewhat painful experience, I went to the podcast of Tony Perkins (Family Research Council) in order to hear his interview with Dr. Page about the President’s remarks. One word came to mind as I listened:  Defensive. I would even make the case that it was extremely defensive.

This may be an overview and perhaps an overstatement, but churches and denominations lately are taking an aggressive, near-angry defensive posture in regard to criticism. Perhaps this is justified, and even understandable. The talk of church decline and Pew Reports and the glut of “open letters” from Millenials is bound to cause churches to get the gloves up and counterpunch.

Unfortunately, this approach is also dangerous, pushing the limits of our discipleship in Christ. It lends credibility to the criticism. A defensive posture also leads to notoriously bad interpretations of scripture. Worse yet, it can lead us to enclose ourselves in forts of self-righteous, self-satisfied indignation.

And we cannot afford to do that. Especially when it comes to the issue of poverty.

In his interview, Page states that, “We have 46,000 (Southern Baptist) churches…I’m sure there are some churches that are not involved, but I would guess to say that at least 40,000 of our churches all have some community based ministry to help hurting people.”

Although he is “guess-timating” rather than citing hard data, I have little doubt that his assessment is accurate. The vast majority of churches are giving money, food and/or volunteer hours to relieve physical suffering. Most churches are doing something to help.

The truth is that churches really do make a difference in reducing poverty in a wide variety of ways. This includes Baptist ministries such as Disaster Relief/Baptist Men, World Hunger Offerings, etc. It should also be noted that Dr. Page’s last pastorate was at a church with significant community-based ministries.

But the flip side of that truth is that we still spend 96% of our budgets on buildings, staff, programming, etc. Let’s look at that percentage with our eyes wide open:  The majority of this is probably not directed towards poverty in any way. And we need to own the reality of what we are choosing not to do as ardently as we own the good things we do.

Here’s the thing:  A posture of defense trumpets that we are doing something, while preventing us from asking whether or not we are doing something well. A band aid and a kiss from mom are great when you skin your knee, but don’t help much with a broken leg. I fear that our church “solutions” to poverty amount to little more than the band aid and a kiss.

For too many churches, benevolence is a part of the church budget and maybe even the programming. But is it an overwhelming factor in who we are and what we do? Is the response to community poverty and needs a key component in our planning, practice, education, and discipleship?

Dig a little into the mentality of some (many?) churches, and you are sure to find some people who do not think the poor should be a priority at all. Why? Because they are all a bunch of “freeloaders” who are just looking to get by without doing anything!

Here’s the scary part:  These members may be right, at least in part. Churches often encounter these so-called “freeloaders.” What the members do not comprehend is why.

This segment of poverty will target churches. They know what time to come in order to catch people and pastors off-guard. They know that members will give them food or money if they arrive right before or after services. They know what story to tell, and they know how to tell it.

Why? Because they know that churches are compassionate, but not prepared. They have not invested in the training, staffing, and ministries required to know how to effectively serve “the least of these” in our population—and yes, I am unapologetic in my belief that this is a Biblical use of that term.

Compassion is an absolutely necessary mandate from Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. But how much more effective is compassion combined with preparation? Commitment? Investment?

What if churches would…

Invest in social workers and mental health counselors as staff? 

…Partner with local schools (private or PUBLIC) to improve education opportunities for poor children? 

Empower the poor by putting them into meaningful relationship with well-prepared members?

…Pursue policies to encourage welcoming poor or homeless people into worship?

…Design discipleship and Bible study around acts of serving others?

 …Repurpose little-used space in church buildings for the needs of the poor and homeless?

 …Engage with organizations or individuals who are trained to deal with the problems of addiction?

…Bond with community partners and other churches (and even other denominations) to expand resources and opportunities to serve?

Yeah, I would say that there are a few more things we could do.

It is not to say that any of this would be easy. Addressing a problem as broad as poverty takes a huge culture change and commitment on the part of the church that will stretch hearts, minds and resources. But if we are serious about moving from alleviation to eradication of poverty, then we need some honest assessment and reflection on what we are doing.

Expending our energy on angry, defensive rebukes for our critics and waving our pom-poms will not help us move forward in addressing poverty. Whether or not the President has the right to offer it, you can bet that his critique reflects a certain degree of both perception and reality. A posture of self-righteous defensiveness will not help us to overcome either one.

Instead, we would be wise to look ourselves with a helpful dose of “sober judgment.” At least we will be sincerely searching for a cure, rather than continuing to offer band aids for broken legs.

Let’s keep doing the good that we have been doing, while not being afraid to acknowledge that we can–and should–strive to do better. Quite simply, that is the journey of discipleship.

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