It’s no secret that the church is called to serve the poor. The church can be a great place to help with practical needs of those in poverty. But is just serving the poor really loving the poor, and is ministry to deprived areas only for those who feel “called” to that type of ministry?
Before coming to Scotland, I had no prior “experience” working among the poor. I never helped at a food bank . . . but I did donate money. I never evangelized in a trailer park . . . but I sang Christmas carols in one. And I am sure many wondered, and may still wonder: Why am I now living in a poor community on the other side of the world and helping to plant churches in these areas? Well, because having a ‘heart for the poor’ is important to God and this is where God has led our family to serve.
But do we have to feel some sense of “calling” to this type of ministry, or is it something all Christians need to consider further? Here are a few thoughts.
1. A heart for the poor is a consistent characteristic of the people of God.
Scripture has a lot to say about the poor and deprived and how God’s people should respond. The book of Amos in the Old Testament is quite striking. God begins to pronounce judgement on the nations around Israel for many social injustices. The people of Israel would have been cheering! “Go on God! They hate You and have treated us wrong. Judge them!” And the standard by which God measures those nations is their treatment of other people created in His image.
God would judge the Arameans because they were cruel to their neighbours. He would judge the Philistines because they bought and sold other human beings. The Phoenicians traded in human lives, in spite of a covenant in which they pledged not to do so. The Edomites were unforgiving and took revenge. The Ammonites were cruel. The Moabites were violent and vindictive. The Judahites had despised the Lord’s instruction regarding what their treatment of others should be.
And then Amos turns to God’s people, the Israelites. Obviously, those pagan nations didn’t have a heart for anyone, let alone the oppressed. But God’s people were different, right? They were the people who were chosen to reflect God’s glory on earth, the ones that were supposed to point the way to Yahweh, the ones that were to show kindness and love to the deprived in society (Deut. 15:7–11). And what did they do? They had oppressed the poor and needy, even among their own people.
“They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth. Therefore, because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes on grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards but you shall not drink their wine.” (Amos 5:10–11)
Now listen, I am not saying that we are all guilty of injustices to the poor or that we don’t have a real desire to help. Many of us help is so many practical ways as individuals and also as churches. But if a heart for the poor is so important to God, it at least begs the question: How important is it to us today and our sense of “calling” to help?
2. Expand our understanding of poverty.
Before moving to Scotland, I didn’t understand the practical side of poverty—let alone the emotional, spiritual, and even physical battle that occurs in nearly every home in deprived communities. And when you are in that environment, I now see that it is going to take more than a “if you feed them, they will come” sort of an attitude to reach out to our schemes, council estates, trailer parks, and projects. Having a ‘heart for the poor’ and marginalized of society should be for every Christian and should be seen as a responsibility for all of us, even if we don’t feel “called” to live or serve in a deprived area.
No matter what church you attend, or where it is located in the world, or what ministry experience you’ve had, I think we need to dig deep to see if we do have a heart for the poor. If this is important, indeed important to the Lord, then God will obviously call some to serve Him full-time in these areas. If it is important to all of us, the church will respond and go and make disciples among the poor, not just bring a handout.
3. Understand the heart of Jesus.
But I fear, if having a heart for the poor and deprived of our communities is only important to a few of us, then those who do commit their lives to this ministry will look like outliers. They may appear to be missionaries or servants we look up to because they will go and do something the majority of the church members will not do. But if it is part of the vision and heart of the local church, then we can simply see it as just another family, couple, or individual that is called to commit their lives to serving Christ, no matter where that takes us.
Then ministry to the poor it becomes less of an issue of “calling” specifically to the poor, but simply a calling of the church to go and make disciples in another area where there are lost people. And we are in good company, because having a heart for the poor is the same heart of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.