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Helping the hungry helps a church, too

EDITOR’S NOTE: On Oct. 12, Southern Baptists will observe World Hunger Sunday and congregations across the United States will collect offerings for the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund. Since its inception in 1974, Southern Baptists have given $230,877,650 through the fund. In 2007, Southern Baptists gave more than $5.5 million; in the first six months of 2008, $2.3 million has been received. For information on the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund, visit worldhungerfund.com.

HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–If a church’s giving is down, conflict is up and baptisms are nonexistent — and the pastor has tried everything he can think of to remedy the problem — Steve Nelson has a suggestion.

Minister to the poor.

“We have been praying for revival for years and yet not seen it. A lot of churches are in conflict. I believe one of the stumbling blocks is that we have become more callous toward people in need,” said Nelson, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., and former director of hunger concerns for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Too often, ministry to the poor is nothing more than a footnote in a church’s ministry plan, but other than salvation itself, no issue is addressed more often in Scripture than ministry to the poor, Nelson said.

“The Bible is very clear that ‘whoever shuts his ears to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be heard.’ That’s Proverbs 21:13,” Nelson said. “What I have seen is that churches are happier and stronger when they get more involved in ministry to the poor, whether it be direct physical aid, ministry to the homeless or financial gifts.

“I believe ministry to the poor is dear to God’s heart.”

Nelson recalls a conversation several years ago with Philip Lane, who then was pastor of West Main Baptist Church in Alexandria, Tenn. A child in the congregation had become burdened for hungry children because of a television commercial she had seen. Her passion spread to the other children and then to the adults. Over the next year, the congregation raised more than $20,000 for world hunger, Nelson said.

“I asked [Lane], ‘How are your other offerings?’ and he said, ‘They are all up and budget giving over the next five months was up over 50 percent,'” Nelson recalled. “And he said, ‘The strangest thing is that there’s no conflict anymore. When something comes up, it’s like smoke. It just blows away.’

“He asked if I could explain that and I said, ‘Yes, Proverbs 14:21 says, “He who has mercy on the poor, happy is he.” You got some happy Christians on your hands.'”

Starting a ministry to the poor doesn’t have to be a major undertaking, Nelson noted.

“Churches need to start where they are. If they haven’t been very involved, they need to start in a non-threatening way,” he said. “I wouldn’t try to take a church that has been doing nothing and immediately launch a homeless shelter or some major thrust.”

A congregation could start with the simple biblical practice of gleaning, Nelson said.

“Leviticus 19:9-10 tells us not to go over the fields a second time but to leave something for the poor and the alien among us. We certainly can relate to that in our day in America,” Nelson said. “Most of us, however, aren’t farmers. So how can we practice gleaning?” He explained that gleaning, as opposed to tithes and offerings, “is a systematic practice of making a portion of our excess available to people in need.”

“This can be done by collecting spare change on a regular basis or writing small checks on a regular basis to the World Hunger Fund or the church benevolence fund,” he said. “Small gifts, systematically given — just our gleanings — can make a huge difference. If every Southern Baptist gave $1 a month, hunger funds would multiply many times. We’re averaging well under 50 cents a year per Southern Baptist right now. That certainly hinders the progress of programs and I think it grieves God’s heart.”

Ministering to people’s physical needs — whether done directly by the congregation or indirectly through monetary gifts — creates openness to the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, Nelson added.

“Gleaning is a demonstration of God’s caring for all people,” he said. “It piques curiosity about who would do this for us and why and therefore opens hearts to the Bread of Life, and not just bread for their bodies.”

Ministry to the poor gives hope where there is no hope, Nelson said.

“When someone is desperate, when they are hungry and don’t have the resources to provide their next meal, they are without hope,” he said. “Ministering to them gives them hope.

“A ministry of presence is powerful,” he added. “No matter how meager what you are doing for them is, the fact that you are there and that you care opens doors for sharing Christ.”
Mark Kelly is an assistant editor with Baptist Press. For information about the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund, visit worldhungerfund.com.

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