20schemes works and lives in communities where sometimes over half the population is out of work. Some of our people come from families that haven’t worked for three, four, or five generations. In these cases, aversion to work runs deep in the fabric of family life. And it is difficult to work out who is unemployed and who is on the breadline because there is a lot of cash-in-hand work going on. Others have set up small garages and workshops in their back gardens, and there is a lot of black-market buying and selling going on, not to mention money to be made peddling drugs.
As I address the topic of discipling the unemployed, two texts seem especially relevant.
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.1 Thess. 4:11–12
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example. For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread.2 Thess. 3:6–12
The letters to the Thessalonians are difficult insomuch as working out the exact context of what was happening when Paul wrote them. There was obviously a lot of confusion about the second coming of Jesus. It appears that some people were so taken up with His imminent arrival that they just stopped working. They didn’t see the point. The problem was that the end didn’t come like they expected it to. And the longer it went on, the longer people were out of work. So, people would have resorted to blagging off their friends in the church. But also, with too much time on their hands, they were gossiping and causing mischief in the church.
There was obviously some sort of historic problem given the wording of verse 10. Paul was even stronger in his first letter to Timothy: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Tim. 5:8) The context there was around poor widows who were left without financial assistance. So it seems, at least according to Paul, that it is a serious thing for an able-bodied Christian not to work. It is a bad witness to outsiders, it’s bad for the church, and it dishonours the gospel.
So, knowing these things, how do we disciple the long-term unemployed and even those used to cheating the welfare system and earning money cash-in-hand?
In our communities, the problem is further compounded by those who are unemployed because of chronic illness and/or mental health issues. Some are just not able, and never will be, to work a normal job. However, that does not mean that they shouldn’t be occupying their time and their minds in a productive manner.
Set An Example
In these cases, Paul’s words in 2 Thessalonians 3:7–9 give us a little insight:
For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example.
We are to live among our people and show them an example of the right work ethic and industry. Of course, those involved in pastoral, evangelistic, and missionary activities for the Lord should be supported by the church. As should orphans and widows, although the latter would have needed help from the church in a world which lacked any of the social welfare safety nets we have today.
Paul is clear here that he didn’t presume on people just because he was an Apostle. He had every right to presume on them, but he didn’t. Instead, he led from the front in working hard in order not to burden the church.
I think the people Paul has in mind here are those who could work but chose not to. In my context, these would be people who are physically able to work, but instead deliberately choose to mooch off the dole. In our discipleship of the unemployed, we also need to deal with those who work outside the system by working cash-in-hand. That, too, is an offence to the Lord and brings shame on the gospel.
Another aspect of this comes out in verse 11, when Paul condemns those who live an undisciplined life: “For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies.” (2 Thess. 3:11) As I always tell my new believers: The Christian life is more drill than thrill. Personal discipline in life is such a key biblical concept in the life of every new believer.
It is especially so in the lives of those who are saved from the chaotic backgrounds into which we minister. Most people in our context will have grown up with, and therefore only ever known, total chaos their entire lives. Different partners and children. Ducking and diving to get by. Cutting corners at every point. Taking the path of least resistance, in both their personal and work/non-work lives. Invariably, they will have an unhealthy relationship to money. They will be in serious debt and will think nothing of not paying their rent or other bills on time. Violence and uncontrolled anger are common when things don’t go their way. All of this will affect how we disciple people. It is not just about getting a job, earning money, and putting bread on the table. It’s so much more than that. It’s about rebuilding whole lives and reordering worldviews from the ground up.
Look at how harsh Paul is as he writes to the Thessalonians on this issue:
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. . . . If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.2 Thess. 3:6; 14–15
If we are modelling and teaching people the importance of working hard—which, according to Paul, is part of living a godly, disciplined life—but they still refuse, then we have no responsibility to support them.
What about the innocent parties affected by a person’s selfish and lazy lifestyle? The children or the wife, for example? Should we allow them to suffer want just to make a point about a responsible work ethic? My advice is that we shouldn’t be drawn into that trap. We, in the West anyway, have a more-than-adequate social security system. People have no need going hungry. We can direct them to food banks and other social outlets.
But here’s what I want to emphasize: We—as the church—do have a responsibility not to enable sin. If we continually bail a person out, and they refuse to look at the root causes of their situation, then we are fostering dependency and enabling sin. It’s as simple as that.
Let me make one more point on this. People in our communities are survivors. Believe that. They have survived long before the church and handouts came along. Part of what it means to repent is to turn away from the old life, which includes the old way of ‘work’ and making money. Often, this will come at a financial cost to people. 20 years ago, I was making a grand a week selling drugs. Then I got saved. Suddenly, I was making abut £40 a week. So be it. That is the price of walking faithfully with Jesus.
The problem with Paul’s shame argument at the end of verse 14 is this: while it would have been a shameful thing to not work that culture, it certainly is not in ours. People in our culture are proud to be getting one over on the man. They’re proud to be screwing the system. Cash-in-hand work is a staple of everyday life here. It is so normalised that it’s not even counted as a crime.
All this to say that discipling the unemployed is a complex thing. There are no easy answers, and it is certainly not black and white. Every single case is different, and every single person comes into relationship with us with different baggage. Some people pull on our heartstrings and we stretch the rules to help them. Others are more clear-cut, simply looking to get something for nothing.
It is tiring out there. There’s no escaping that fact. Yet in the midst of Paul’s strong words, he tucks away this little gem for us in verse 13: “But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good.” So to pastors and others ministering in poor communities around the world, here’s what I’d say: Don’t grow weary of doing good, despite the fact that you’re surrounded dodgy gangsters, con-men, liars, thieves, and manipulators.
Principles for Discipling the Unemployed
Bearing all that in mind, let me outline some principles and helps we employ at Niddrie Community Church when it comes to discipling the unemployed.
As a pastor, I operate under the principle of Ephesians 4:12. One of my jobs is to help people identify the work of service that God has saved them into the church for, to benefit the body. Obviously, the context is for encouraging and building up the local church, but I still think it applies to us. In other words, every person saved by God has been gifted by God to serve Him in both the church and also the world. One of the jobs of the church, therefore, is to help our people find both of those things and equip them to do them well.
So even if someone is physically unable to work in paid employment (there are many in my context), there is still work to be done in the body. Some of our people will require ongoing—that is, for life—discipleship and care. They will never hold down a job. They are simply mentally and physically incapable. Yet they can still know a purpose and have a hope through finding their God-given gifts, which they can use for the service of others and the benefit of both the church body and also the wider community.
Be careful in giving out handouts. “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Gal. 6:10) Our principal in this is to only help the household of faith financially. We don’t give anything for nothing. Why not? Because, that’s not how life works. If somebody wants our help, then we will usually ensure that they work it off and meet with somebody in the church to work out what the root causes of their money problems are.
Let me be clear: It’s not that we don’t help unbelievers. We do. But we never do for anybody what they can (1) do for themselves or (2) are entitled to from the government. As far as we are able, we want to model godly, responsible living. We certainly don’t want to be known as just another income stream when life gets tough, or another social worker in their lives (there are already many of both of these things).
Offer non-financial practical help. There are ways to help people who need money that does not involve just giving them money (imagine that!). But, make sure they do the majority of the work. So, if somebody wants help with a CV or a job application, then we will help them, but we will not do it for them. Remember the golden rule: Don’t do for them what they can do for themselves. Guide, help, and provide critical feedback.
Provide voluntary roles for people. This is key, especially when dealing with the long-term unemployed, ex-cons, and ex-addicts. They will have no clue of the discipline needed to work, even in the most basic jobs. We offer work experience and internships in our community cafe, around the church, and even in some members’ homes (cleaning, decorating, gardening, etc). We also encourage people to get a voluntary job in the community—home help, street cleaning, charity shops, etc.—at least once a week so that they can give back to the community and feel a sense of personal pride.
Start a couple of low-cost businesses. We are currently in the stages of developing three businesses.
- A coffee shop
- A cleaning business
- A gardening/handyman business
The aim is to start two small businesses that require very little capital outlay. These have the potential to help people get into meaningful work which they would otherwise struggle to find.
Build discipline into their lives. If people want our help, then they have to make a commitment to us as we make a commitment to them. They have to attend our morning prayer meeting/Bible study. They are given a one-to-one mentor, who will find out their particular needs and put together a programme to help them build a more disciplined life. They will learn the basics: handling money and budgeting being the priorities, but also basic things like cooking and shopping as well.
Here’s what I know from 20 years of experience—Proverbs 16:27–29 is completely true:
A worthless man digs up evil, while his words are like scorching fire. A perverse man spreads strife, and a slanderer separates intimate friends. A man of violence entices his neighbour and leads him in a way that is not good.
In other words: The devil finds work for idle hands. Most of our pastoral issues come from our unemployed people because they have too much time on their hands. They suffer from paranoia, depression, and easily sink back into sin and old patterns of living. These things often happen because they do not have structure in their lives. That’s one reason we think helping them with structure is so, so important. Think of it as building the scaffolding around them in the early days, with the intention of removing it so they will be able to stand on their own in the future.
Provide extra help for those that show the most ‘get up and go’. We pay for people to go on courses for computing, hair dressing, media, etc. A couple of people have earned a degree with our help. These are the ones who have been self-starters and have shown the most initiative. Several men have been employed by a local Christian businessman as well.
At every point possible, help these new believers to turn to Jesus and rely on the Lord’s provision and not on ours. They need to trust Him more than they need to trust us to safeguard their life and look after their future.
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