The Church as Social Service Agency

There is a popular misconception that the Church is a sort of social service agency. The concept probably started back during the depression, when the Salvation Army would feed people if they first listened to a sermon (that isn’t really charity in my mind, but that’s another issue for another time). It has been continued unwittingly by the fine tradition of churches offering food pantries, free meals, clothing banks and other similar services. There isn’t anything wrong with any of those programs – in fact, they are fine examples of direct social justice work. The problem is that people have generalized from those programs and have decided that the Church is a full time social service agency with unlimited cash at her disposal. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

We’ve had a gentleman stopping by the church several times over the past week. The details of his story aren’t terribly important, except that there were some obvious contradictions in his story that made me suspicious of his sincerity. We have a policy here that we do not offer financial assistance beyond bus fare and/or a McDonald’s coupon – and then only once a month to any one individual. In the course of this gentleman visiting us over several days he expressed some notions which I suspect may be fairly prevalent.

He was looking for housing, claiming that his wife had left him a few weeks ago and that he had a friend who would put him up in a few days once he got back to town. He said he couldn’t stay in the shelters because he had an assault charge in his past, and so he was looking for money ($50 a night) to stay in a hotel until his friend returned. At first his friend was to return last Thursday, then was delayed until Saturday, and finally when he stopped in yesterday he explained (no surprise here) that his friend was still delayed.

I allowed this gentleman to use our phone on three occasions, the last one being yesterday. As he called around looking for money, he became increasingly annoyed that he wasn’t getting the response he sought from churches. Never mind that he had no relationship with these churches, that he is from another town about 30 minutes west of here, that he admitted he hadn’t attended his home church for many years and so couldn’t avail himself of their assistance, that he was offered food from several churches and refused it – he was absolutely fixated on the notion that churches have money laying around in abundance just waiting for someone to come ask for it and seemed to believe it was the “Christian” thing to do. He also told me he walked the main streets in the area looking for “Christian” bumper stickers or “fish” signs. Upon finding one he would enter the nearest store and seek out the mark…er, Christian…and hit them up for money for his hotel. Finally, yesterday, he became belligerent with a woman on the phone and I asked him to leave.

I don’t want to dismiss the problems that folks encounter, nor do I wish to disparage the homeless. I want to say quite clearly that local parishes (for the most part) have programs through which they do outreach. These are vital, important ministries to which these churches devote substantial funds. For security reasons, churches do not leave cash on site. For reasons of doing effective ministry, churches do not distribute cash – it is the least effective way to help people.

What’s the moral of the story? Church is about community. If you want to avail yourself of the help of a community, be a part of that community before you need the help. If you need a referral to an appropriate social service agency, your local church may well be able to help – but we aren’t the social service agency. The work of God should not be confused with an ATM machine.

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