Feature Article: Rethinking Compassion Ministry: God’s Precedent, Paradigm and Prescriptions

– Ben McLeish

Allow me to set a very common scenario: The church office phone rings and the person on the other line asks “Do y’all help pay peoples’ rent?” or “Do y’all pay water bills?” to which I always say no.  Others stop by the office seeking similar assistance.  Inviting them into my office, I work through a questionnaire that quickly paints a picture of brokenness.

In their book When Helping Hurts: How To Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting The Poor And Yourself, Corbett and Fikkert describe poverty as a broken relationship between God, self, others, and the rest of creation which has negative effects on how one navigates social, religious, political, and economic systems. With each person who is asking something of us or from us, this definition of poverty is clearly at work. However, the truth be told, all we really have to do is look in the mirror to see this paradigm of poverty.  We are all broken at one level or another.  In light of this, God, through His Word and Son, has provided a precedent, paradigm and prescription for us, His Church, to enter into the work He is doing in redeeming and restoring all things; a work that ultimately produces joy. McLeish graphic

Biblical Precedent

The foundation of a changed life is coming to faith in Christ.  After all, it is He who is at work reconciling all things to Himself (Colossians 1:19). However, we see all throughout redemptive history God’s care and concern not just for the spiritual but the physical as well.  The law is full of commands to live a holy life and part of that is to care for the orphan, widow, fatherless, materially poor and stranger.  When describing the use of righteousness in the Proverbs, Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke says “The wicked disadvantage others to advantage themselves, but the righteous disadvantage themselves to advantage others.” This truth is ultimately lived out in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.  As stated in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”  The Bible is full of examples, accounts and commands about loving God and our neighbor.

As a people who have undeservedly received the riches of Christ such as eternal life, mercy and grace, this should move us to a life of compassion and mercy towards others, particularly the materially poor.   In a recent sermon, New York pastor, Tim Keller said,

A deep social conscious and a life poured out in deeds of service to others, and especially the poor, is the inevitable sign of real faith and real connection with God.  If you think, God says, that you have a real connection with me, you have humbled yourself and you have found me and yet you don’t care about the poor then you haven’t. This is a real index of your heart. Justice is the grand symptom of real faith. It’s the great symptom of a real relationship with God. And it will be there, maybe slowly, but it will develop. But if it never develops then you really don’t have the relationship with God that you think you have…Do you understand that this is at the heart of Biblical faith?

Why was Sodom judged? We often point to their lewd behavior but that only tells part of the story. In Ezekiel 16:49 the prophet proclaims “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” This could easily be attributed to the American Church and those who fill the pews. The Church and her people are guilty of the same sin of Sodom, but guilt alone will not solve the problem. It will not move the materially non-poor from apathy to action for very long. A lack of appreciation along with no quick fixes will fast turn guilt into bitterness and resentment toward the materially poor making things just feel more hopeless for all who are involved. As Corbett and Fikkert comment, this only reinforces the God complex in the materially non-poor and the marred identity of the materially poor.


However, if Christ is redeeming all things, this means work too. When we look to the scriptures the very first thing we read about is God working: “In the beginning God created…”  Soon after, God assigns Adam to work caring for His creation as a botanist, agriculturalist and zoologist. All of this happens before the Fall ever occurs.  So in our original, pre-Fall condition work was good and a part of the original design to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. When sin entered, it was not just our relationship with God and each other that broke, but even work:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the   plants of the field. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:17b-19.

The effects of the fall were all inclusive and utterly devastating so we find ourselves in Romans 8:22 with “the whole creation…groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”

It is also interesting to note John the Baptist’s commissioning.  We often associate him with a call to repentance, but Luke tells us that he was also called to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.” This is quoted from Malachi 4:6 where it reads “And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” The lack of fathers whose hearts are turned to their child is alarming in my community.  Many children have not even met their dads.  It can often seem like my neighborhood has been struck “with a decree of utter destruction” as a result.  As a father of three young children, it is unfathomable to me for my heart not to be turned towards my children.  However, for a myriad of reasons this seems not to be the case in my community. Is it because these fathers really do not care about their progeny?  I have never met such an individual.  Instead I witness an overwhelming sense of shame that is due in part to being unemployed or underemployed and all the effects of powerlessness, hopelessness, self-loathing, embarrassment, rejection, desperation and insignificance that follow and often lead to negative behaviors.  This leaves the two of the greatest repellents to poverty, work and intact families, busted.

Dr. Carl Ellis comments that for discipleship efforts among at-risk, minority populations, there is a pronounced need for the church to address dignity, identity and significance if we are to have any hope of seeing conversions, reversing generational poverty and “turning the hearts of fathers to their children.” Yet most churches and Christian non-profits rarely see this central to Gospel ministry.

Prescription One: Penicillin for Paternalism

We must all start with a look in the mirror.  As practitioners, pastors, church members or  middle or upper class laity, we easily run the risk of thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought. We would do good to take heed of the apostle Paul’s admonition to the Church at Philippi, 

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Philippians 2:1-4

Paternalism is deadly to the work among the materially poor and an anti-apologetic to the Gospel.  It only perpetuates the God complex in us and reinforces the marred identity of the materially poor. The work of sifting through our paternalism, racism or classism in our own stories is tedious and is often worked out over time but accelerated when we enter into authentic friendships with people different from us, particularly the materially poor, and allow them to graciously point out our deficits.  Proverbs 27:6 declares, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”

Prescription Two: A Dose of Dignity

Many Christian community development practitioners, such as Bob Lupton (author of Toxic Charity), have brought light to the fact that many of our models of compassion or mercy are broken, often leaving people inappropriately dependent on our programs to survive and stripping them of any remaining dignity.  The reality, though, is that handouts are much easier than entering into authentic relationships with the materially poor; relationships that can often be marked by long-suffering, let down and hopelessness though certainly joy, generosity, courage, and faith too.

Jobs for Life (JFL), describes the common scenario for most churches in their promotional video. They describe how churches often lead with food, housing and shelter when caring for the materially poor and rarely include work in their paradigm of assistance.  JFL offers a 8 week, 16 class curriculum to help equip people to enter into or improve their position in the marketplace.  With topics including conflict resolution, resume writing, skills assessment, interview skills and more, this program equips participants for success in the workforce.  The linchpin, though, is the mentor component.  JFL uses mentors, known as champions, to serve as a coach, encourager, reference and a network for participants.

A similar approach is taken with the Chalmers Institute’s Faith and Finances curriculum and Launch Chattanooga’s small business development curriculum.  With both programs, the core subject matter is taught through a biblically based curriculum and participants are matched with mentors to walk alongside them.  Together, these three programs offer the Church excellent tools to affirm the dignity, identity and significance of the materially poor while encouraging mentoring relationships that are marked by mutual indebtedness.

These are just a sample of best practices that are being implemented to provide a dignified solution to help alleviate and eradicate poverty. Others have launched businesses or hired at-risk teens or ex-offenders. The point is the old methods of clothes closets, Thanksgiving turkey giveaways, food pantries and Christmas toy giveaways are lacking, and often hurting those they intended to help.  New models of development must be implemented.


In Isaiah 58, the Lord instructs Israel, “Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him.”

Listen, though, to the promises God offers if we partake in such a fast:

  • your light shall break forth like the dawn
  • your healing shall spring up speedily
  • your righteousness shall go before you
  • the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard
  • you shall call, and the Lord will answer
  • you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
  • your light shall rise in the darkness
  • your gloom will be as the noonday
  • the Lord will guide you continually
  • He will satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong;
  • you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.

I urge you to not settle for a mediocre, lukewarm, Christian life. Do not internalize the Christian radio station mentality of “safe for the whole family.” There is no joy to be found there. C.S. Lewis remarked,

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

There is also no Biblical mandate for our good works, which God has prepared for us, to be efficient, clean, tidy and safe. The Psalmist declares that a “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” Together let us find ourselves in the margins, the place empire has abandoned, the place of God’s holy habitation.

Ben McLeish – Since graduating in 2002 from the University of Georgia with a Masters in Non-profit management,  Ben McLeish has served in the inner-city of New Orleans.  Initially on staff with Desire Street Ministries, Ben was a part of a team that helped launch St. Roch Community Church (SRCC) in New Orleans’ 8th Ward in 2007.  At it’s core, SRCC is about loving God and loving their neighbor.  In his current role as Diaconal Ministries Director, he helps oversee the purse (fundraising & business operations), property (building up-keep) and people who are materially poor and seeking assistance. Ben also serves as the executive director for St. Roch CDC, a community development corporation that SRCC launched in 2008.   Ben and  his wife, Stephanie, are also helping launch a public charter school called Homer A. Plessy Community School. They, along with their three young children, live in the 8th Ward of New Orleans. 

St. Roch CDC – In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the community development needs of the 8th and 9th wards of New Orleans were endless.  In light of the overwhelming task at hand, St. Roch Community Church launched a community development corporation, called St. Roch CDC, to address the felt needs of the community.  Since its inception, St. Roch CDC has completely renovated six units of housing and four commercial spaces, including an art gallery and program space for the church. Additionally the CDC provided assistance with small project repairs for dozens of homeowners and helped advocate for several public and infrastructure improvements.  The CDC served as an IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site for several years serving over 300 clients.  In 2009, the CDC started teaching financial literacy and has since served over 60 clients. In 2012, the first jobs training course was offered and saw eight graduates. The CDC has also provided technical assistance to three start-up non-profits and a new art gallery owner. As the CDC moves forward, it is working to bolster its efforts with financial literacy, jobs training and small business development. To learn more, please visit www.strochcdc.org

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