WASHINGTON (BP)–Pastors and church members have more questions than answers as the United States enters the early stages of welfare reform. They keep hearing about the church doing more to help the poor, and about state-church partnership. The bottom-line question is: What does all of this mean to your church?
Pastor Charles Roesel of First Baptist Church, Leesburg, Fla., has a frank answer: “The churches are going to have to pick up and do what they should have been doing all along.”
Saying welfare reform “doesn’t intimidate me in the least,” Roesel insisted the church is called, and has the resources, to make an eternal impact on the needy.
“I’m convinced that the welfare system should never been established,” he said. “If churches would do what we ought to do, we wouldn’t have an inefficient system.”
Roesel said he believes ministry-based evangelism, or servant evangelism, is going to sweep the country. “And the SBC will pick it up,” he said of Southern Baptists. “Ministry evangelism is a bullet that will fit any gun, no matter how large or small. We’ll see a new day. We’ll become known as a church that cares instead of wastes. The world is not impressed with baptisms, budgets or buildings, but it is impressed when it sees us helping hurting people.
“The pastors are going to have to let the people loose. People are willing if they’re asked, and if they realize that they get to help instead of have to help.”
Roesel isn’t spouting mindless philosophy. He took a mid-sized church 20 years ago and developed servant ministries that have touched countless numbers of lives. A $2 million Ministry Village is near completion. It will cover a city block and consolidate the church’s rescue mission, women’s care center, pregnancy care center, children’s shelter and home for abused girls.
First Baptist of Leesburg started off slowly and grew, as all servant ministries must. But the key is to get going.
“This (welfare reform) opens up enormous opportunities that have been there all along,” said Marvin Olasky, an evangelical author who has written extensively on the subject. “The incentive and urgency is all the greater now for people to be involved with the needs of poor folks in the community, materially and spiritually.
“Churches generally, and deacons and staff, need to look into our neighborhoods and see what the needs are and respond. The church has got to be thinking through what it can do.
“It has taken us 70 years to get into this present welfare mess, and it’s not going to be fixed on any given day. But we can start the ball rolling in a different direction. If churches are not prepared now, it’s not surprising. The question is, How can we get the ball rolling so that we take more and more responsibility, so that we look less to government and more to ourselves?”
There are plenty of servant ministry-minded people to help answer that question, including Deanna Carlson, community outreach coordinator for the Family Research Council. Her job focuses on welfare replacement — how the church can reach out to the needy.
“Churches should not panic, but they should begin to form a philosophy of how they are going to deal with the needy in their area,” she noted.
Carlson reminds churches the full effect of welfare reform will come in increments, with total loss of benefits to the poor not coming, in some cases, for five years. She said churches have a two-to-five-year window in which to have a firm, workable plan in place.
“The first thing I would encourage a church to do is revisit their mission statement,” Carlson said. “Every church has a commitment, whether they’re doing it or not. My clarion call is to pastors; they really need to take leadership in forming outreach programs.
“Any outreach program needs to be integrated with scriptural truth. We want to protect church members from helping out of legalism instead of grace.”
Carlson encourages pastors to look for lay leaders who have a heart for serving and who can carry the weight of outreach activities.
After identifying lay leaders, churches should do a community needs assessment. “An assessment is going to the community and identifying — through census reports, visiting neighborhoods and other pastors, hearing from the people who live there — what is going on in the community.”
That will reveal the needs. Churches should simply seek to match the needs of the community with their resources — and they should think big, Roesel said.
“I have found that resources are absolutely no problem whatsoever,” he said. “I never ask for any more than we can afford, because if I’m asking in God’s will, he can afford it. We’re totally debt-free, even though we’ve bought 19 parcels of land and built a $2 million family life center and village for hurting people.”
Carlson said churches should research what other churches and ministry-based organizations have done, such as Roesel’s church and The Urban Alternative, based in Dallas.
Once a church identifies the needs in the community, it needs to gain a specific understanding of what resources it has. It needs to know its spiritual gifts and what professional expertise is at its disposal.
“Larger churches might hire someone on staff to deal with outreach,” she said. “I really see this as the wave of the future for churches. Instead of having counseling centers — moving outside of self and having someone deal with the needs of the community.”
Carlson said she knows of situations where smaller churches have joined together to hire an outreach coordinator. “The needs are going to force churches to cooperate with each other and not focus on denominational differences.”
Many churches aren’t prepared to worship with someone culturally or racially different, either. “Churches will need to learn to be more flexible,” Carlson said.
“If every person in the SBC formed a relationship with one person in need — a welfare recipient, a child in foster care — the results would be dramatic, overwhelming.”
A major issue for churches will be whether to contract with the government to provide services. Debate is raging over whether taking federal or state funds will ultimately endanger the church, possibly drawing it under further federal guidelines in the future. Part of the welfare reform legislation reads that churches can contract with the government. But, Olasky warned, “sooner or later the hooks come in. I’d be very, very wary about any Christian organization taking money directly from government.
“I’d like to hear the church say, ‘We don’t want your government money. We are the church and we don’t want to pollute our vision. We don’t want the government to have any say.'”
Gerald Hutchinson, director of the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board’s church and community ministries department, is less troubled by the idea.
“I personally think that churches should explore the possibility,” he said. “I think there is a lot of paranoia about partnering with the government. I like the concept of using government resources to render a service.”
For the evangelistic church, the bottom-line question is whether it can render services and openly share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Asked that question, Stanley Carlton-Thies of the Center for Public Justice hesitated before saying, “I think so.” That is an issue that must be fleshed out. Carlton-Thies said one way to avoid the problem may be to have churches set up ministry organizations as para-church ministries.
Despite all the issues yet to be resolved, the key is to get moving, begin developing a philosophy and a plan. Roesel likes to point out how important this is by looking at Matthew 25:31-46, where the sheep and goats are separated according to who did and did not minister to the needy.
“That’s the final exam,” Roesel said. “Every bit of it has to do with ministry. If it’s so important that God says, ‘This is my standard of judgment,’ then ministering to the needy must matter a whole lot to him.”