It’s vitally important, I think, to distinguish between the church as institution and the church as organism.
Here’s a final and brief follow-up to the discussion about the loss of faith in institutions over recent decades. We might observe that the increase in charitable giving to religious organizations amidst declines in charitable giving overall might show that at least there is not a corresponding loss of faith by religious people in charitable institutions. This is the implication, in fact, at least for institutions other than local churches.
Overall, though, it does seem clear that “big charity” is suffering from loss of faith as much as big government, big business, and big religion (here’s some 2008 data from Brookings).
So during the recession both overall faith in and giving to charitable institutions has declined. But this isn’t the case either for religious charities or for religious givers.
People of faith continue to be faithful in giving to those institutions that they judge to be faithful in their own callings. And within that context, if you have found the Acton Institute to have been a good steward of its mandate over the last year (and the last 20 years as come to the conclusion of our anniversary year), please consider making a contribution in support of the mission of the Acton Institute to promote a society characterized by both freedom and virtue.
In today’s Acton Commentary I argue that “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church.”
I note some statistics that show that American Christians are increasingly looking beyond their local congregations and churches as outlets for their charitable giving, in spite of the fact that giving to religiously affiliated and religiously focused charities is increasing.
What it comes down to, I think, is that in large part Christians don’t trust their local congregations to spend the money in a way that is responsible and in accord with the Gospel mandate. They see other nonprofits and para-church organizations as doing the real work of Christian charity. I believe the key to reversing this perception is to revitalize and reform the office of deacon in the Christian church. This will help us in myriad ways, not least of which is properly dividing the labor, so to speak, between the responsibilities to proclaim the Gospel, administer the sacraments, and exercise discipline, as well as to “do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10 NIV).
It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.
I cite The Deacons Handbook: A Manual for Stewardship in the piece, and the insights from this book by Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef are worth examining in more detail. While the book is currently out of print, Christian’s Library Press is planning to release an updated second edition of The Deacons Handbook in 2011.
With Berghoef and DeKoster I say, “Dream, deacon!”
And once you’ve given as you feel you should to your local congregation, please consider supporting the Acton Institute with your year-end gift.
In an otherwise fine piece focusing on innovative techniques used by food banks to increase efficiency, while at the same time improving service and the recognition of the dignity of those they serve, Bread for the World president David Beckmann uses the opportunity to throw a dose of pessimism into the mix.
“We can’t food-bank our way to the end of hunger,” said Beckmann, co-recipient of the 2010 World Food Prize. “Christian people need to change the politics of hunger as well.”
Well. So what if “we can’t food-bank our way to the end of hunger”? Does that mean that we have to make governmental lobbying our primary focus? How about using the opportunity to praise best practices and improvements in the way food banks are run? How about talking about the important and indispensable role that food banks play?
It might just be that framing the problem as political by definition minimizes the role that private charity and local giving play. The emphasis all too easily becomes one of lobbying and advocacy rather than taking practical steps to address hunger in local contexts.
Perhaps I’m making too much of this. But I think we can see right where the “politics of hunger” mindset leads. Here’s an example from my local area: “West Michigan food pantries see drop in demand, but not for a good reason.”
Here in West Michigan local food bank officials point not to decrease in demand or need, but instead toward “increased state food assistance and accessibility.”
While local food banks are seeing their usage numbers decline, “We have continued to set records every month (for the food assistance program) for the past 18 months, said Edward Woods, communications director for the state Department of Human Services (DHS). “Recovery funds (federal stimulus) did increase the amount of food assistance by nearly 14 percent.”
If changing the politics of hunger means that fewer people use food banks and food pantries in favor of government welfare then I have no interest in changing the politics of hunger. Instead I want to see hunger de-politicized.
All too often discussion about charitable causes end up downplaying direct charitable giving and activity with calls for political activism and advocacy. Jim Wallis, for instance, has said “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.”
Instead of talking about what food banks can’t do and what Christians can’t do, I like the observation from Ron Sider about the untapped potential of Christians to act on their own through their own institutions without resorting to government advocacy.
Sider says, “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”
Obviously evangelism shouldn’t be a “leftover” priority, but you get the point. Christians and churches can and should do more, and calls to change the “politics” of hunger, poverty, and a host of other issues let us off the hook too easily.
There’s a story that I heard, of a miner, a family down in– it was in the Appalachia area and the church there really thought that they were doing a great deal because they would go in, they said they would pick the poorest families and they would take them Christmas gifts and turkeys and that sort of thing. So they did. They went to this family and they presented them with all the gifts and gave them to them and all the children had gifts; they had a hot meal on the table. The church was so pleased with what they had done, and then they left. And the husband just broke down and cried because he said, “You mean in this community, we are thought of as the poorest family in the community?” The shame that came with that, with the charity that had been given so lovingly out of the best of intentions, but it absolutely shamed him and it destroyed his life. I heard it from his son. He said, “It destroyed my father because he said he was so shamed in front of the rest of the community because they didn’t think that he was a person of worth that they had to take care of his family for him.”
There were a few stories from the Grand Rapids Press over the weekend that form data points pointing toward some depressing trends: a decline in charitable giving (especially to churches), supplanting of private charity by government welfare, and the attempt to suppress explicit Christian identity.
Here’s a list with some brief annotations:
- “Study reveals church giving at lowest point since Great Depression” (10/23/10): This is really a damning first sentence: “…congregations have waning influence among charitable causes because their focus now seems to be on institutional maintenance rather than spreading the gospel and healing the world.” For various reasons, people seem to increasingly see places other than their local congregations as the place where their charitable dollars ought to go. Overall, I think this is probably a bad thing, but it does show that there is some basic accountability inherent in the donor/charity relationship. That may not be the best way of characterizing the relationship between the individual member and the local congregation, but it at least has to be seen as an element of it.
- “West Michigan food pantries see drop in demand, but not for a good reason” (10/23/10): As the headline states, there’s no good reason that state aid by government should be supplanting the help given by private local and regional organizations.
- “Should it be illegal to post ad seeking Christian roommate?” (10/22/10): What business does the government have regulating postings on a church bulletin board? The Alliance Defense Fund is helping out with the woman’s defense, and the words used by their counsel represents the case pretty well: “absurd” and “insane.”
In a recent article in World magazine, Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky urged evangelical minister Jim Wallis to drop the pretense of being post-partisan. Olasky, World magazine’s editor-in-chief, went on to assert that (1) Wallis’s organization, Sojourners, received money from the foundation of secular-leftist George Soros, and that (2) Wallis had lent the Sojourners mailing list to the Obama campaign.
In an interview here, Wallis appears to deny these charges. But now former Acton research fellow Jay Richards has followed up with some additional findings in a new piece at NRO. The findings strongly support Olasky’s claims, and make it all the more unclear why Wallis would respond to them by denying them and calling Olasky a professional liar.
Richards has been keeping tabs on Wallis for a while now. In an October 2005 review of God’s Politics, Richards shows how Wallis sits squarely on the left and has even capitulated to the secular left on key social issues. The book review also examines Wallis’s questionable biblical exegesis as well as some of the economic fallacies that drive much of Wallis’s political thinking.
Wallis may mean well, but the big-government policies he advocates have been a wrecking ball to the very communities he seeks to help. An Acton/Coldwater video short examines why the left’s approach to poverty alleviation has done so much harm. It’s called How not to Help the Poor.
I have close friends here in Michigan who are out of work–talented, principled, hard-working people who are either unemployed or seriously underemployed. My heart breaks for them and for everyone eager to work who has been blindsided by the current recession. Unfortunately, government policies to help sometimes make the situation worse. A recent Detroit News story offers fresh evidence, evidence suggesting that Michigan’s bloated nanny state is creating perverse incentives in the labor market, incentives that are both economically and morally degrading:
In a state with the nation’s highest jobless rate, landscaping companies are finding some job applicants are rejecting work offers so they can continue collecting unemployment benefits.
Members of the Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association “have told me that they have a lot of people applying but that when they actually talk to them, it turns out that they’re on unemployment and not looking for work,” said Amy Frankmann, the group’s executive director. “It is starting to make things difficult.”
Chris Pompeo, vice president of operations for Landscape America in Warren, said he has had about a dozen offers declined. One applicant, who had eight weeks to go until his state unemployment benefits ran out, asked for a deferred start date.
“It’s like, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Pompeo said. “It’s frustrating. It’s honestly something I’ve never seen before. They say, ‘Oh, OK,’ like I surprised them by offering them a job.”
Some job applicants are asking to be paid in cash so they can collect unemployment illegally, said Gayle Younglove, vice president at Outdoor Experts Inc. in Romulus.
State benefits last for up to 26 weeks.
The unemployed can then apply for extended federal benefits that increase the total time on the public dole up to a maximum of 99 weeks.
The federal jobless benefits extension “is the most generous safety net we’ve ever offered nationally,” said David Littmann, senior economist of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market-oriented research group in Midland. The extra protection reduces the incentive to find work, he said.
The solution isn’t to walk away from charity. The solution is to return the lion’s share of charity work to families, churches and local communities. This is charity with a human face, charity that can make important distinctions informed by local knowledge, charity that promotes human flourishing rather than dependency and dysfunction. It’s a change that will require governments to stop crowding into the sphere of private charity, and for families, churches and community organizations to prayerfully crowd back into charitable work they may have turned over to the government in decades past.
No system of charity is perfect, private or otherwise. And government-directed help has its place, such as in the case of some natural disasters. However, the evidence continues to mount that long-term, state directed charity leads to moral and economic disaster. It’s time to change.
A local food bank and distribution network was featured on a Michigan Radio piece the other day, and it really captures how to give to people in a way that respects their dignity. For one thing, when you are giving food to the hungry, you don’t just hand them wax beans and canned beets.
John Arnold, executive director of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank, says that people shouldn’t be getting what he calls “bomb shelter food.”
“Products like powdered milk and dry beans and dried noodles sound and look nutritious but you never see in people’s shopping cart,” he observes.
Instead, as Kyle Norris reports, Arnold recognizes that “nobody eats that stuff, but somehow food agencies think that’s what they supposed to give people in need. Arnold says we need to get people good, nutritious food in a way that makes it fun.
Arnold also says agencies have to let people pick the food they want, as opposed to handing someone a box filled with a random assortment of food they may or may not eat. These things aren’t just his personal theories. He points to research from United Way and Michigan State University that backs these conclusions.”
One of the principles of effective compassion is that we are to discern and respect each person’s freedom, constitutive of their dignity as created in the image of God. In this concrete case, it means in part having people exercise their own autonomy and choose their own foods, rather than be handed what someone else assumes they need.
So this is a good rule of thumb for treating others as you do yourself: “When we do care for one another it should be with food we’d want to serve our own family.”
The AP reports that of the roughly $379 million spent by the US government on relief efforts in Haiti, less than 1% has been in the form of direct government to government aid.
This has raised complaints from the Haitian president, Rene Preval, who says his government isn’t getting its fair share. According to the report, Preval spoke at a news conference and complained, “There’s a perception of corruption, but I would like to tell the Haitian people that the Haitian government has not seen one penny of all the money that has been raised — millions are being made on the right, millions on the left, it’s all going to the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations).”
But is that really so bad? If it is the citizens of Haiti who need direct assistance, why should more of the money be routed through the Haitian governmental bureaucracy?
Undoubtedly the government is struggling to provide any modicum of law and order in the chaos of the last two weeks. And whatever money the Haitian government receives should go firstly toward providing that kind of stability within which aid workers, food suppliers, and virtuoso entrepreneurs don’t have to be so concerned with theft and violence.
And in any case, the amount spent by the US government thus far is a small percentage of the nearly $2 billion in aid that has been sent in to the disaster zone. Indeed, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, private aid from America is running at about $470 million, topping the government’s contributions by nearly $100 million. Preval’s claims to a greater share of that aid money seem to not have much merit.
It isn’t the Haitian government that is the object of charitable aid; it’s the Haitian people, and that’s where the vast bulk of the money ought to be (and seemingly is) going. That’s also why calls for forgiveness of the Haitian government’s debts are so misguided, at least in the short term as the dead are still being pulled from the rubble.