Put your money where your mouth is

June 25, 2011 in Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers, What is government's role in caring for the poor? Should churches and civic groups do more? by Rick Donlon

On Monday, the Shelby County Commission restored funding for the Office of Early Childhood and Youth this week after first voting to cut the program, which works to reduce infant deaths and teen pregnancies.

Commissioners Wyatt Bunker and Terry Roland spoke against funding the program, arguing that churches and civic organizations — not government — should care for the poor.

“These type social programs should not and should never have existed in government,” Bunker said.

“I’m like my friend, Commissioner Bunker: This should be taken care of through the churches,” Roland said.

What is government’s role in caring for the poor in Memphis and Shelby County? Should churches and civic groups do more?

Shelby County Commissioners Bunker and Roland have inadvertently drawn attention to a lamentable truth: churches and their members spend only token amounts of money on the poor.

According to the 2008 book, Passing the Plate, by Smith, Emerson, and Snell, committed American Christians earn $2.5 trillion annually–and give away less than 3%. If Memphis church goers actually tithed (few do) and their churches subsequently tithed on that amount (even fewer do), tens of millions of dollars could be directed yearly toward our city’s most bedeviling problems.

Regrettably, our churches spend money like we do: on expensive buildings and self-serving programs. An additional 30% or more of church funds go to salaries for pastoral and support staff. The little that’s left over goes to variously described “missions” programs, with nearly nothing set apart for the poor among us.

I agree whole-heartedly with Commissioners Bunker and Roland: our churches should expend meaningful resources on behalf of our needy neighbors. More importantly, we should be expending ourselves along with our finances–and not in token ways only. We need more than “home missions” Sundays, Thanksgiving baskets, or short “plunges” to inner city communities.

Julian VIII was the last Roman emperor (c. AD 360) to persecute Christians. Though he reviled Christianity, he admitted that “the impious Galileans (Julian’s term for Christians) support not only their own poor, but ours as well.” Historian Eberhard Arnold notes, “Most astounding to the outside observer was the extent to which poverty was overcome in the vicinity of the (Christian) communities, through voluntary works of love… Christians spent more money in the streets than the followers of other religions spent in their temples.”

The Christian Church has a rich tradition of transforming society by serving the poor. If Memphis churches halted our multi-million dollar building campaigns, surrendered our meticulously maintained ball fields and gyms, and hired a few less people to entertain our children, we could put millions of dollars and hours of sweat equity to solving infant mortality, teen pregnancy, and a host of other problems. More importantly, we could make God look great and expand the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.