Our light could be brighter…
Jesus said “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
The American church currently does much to care for the poor—each year, religious organizations in the United States deliver $1.2 trillion in benefit to the U.S. economy!
However, for the first time, the majority of the unaffiliated believe that the church does not contribute to social challenges. We have major challenges facing our society, and the church needs to serve in a radical way that points people to God and His goodness.
The Impact of Faith-Based Organizations in the U.S.
Religious organizations’ annual benefit to society
60% of emergency shelter beds are provided by religious organizations (including churches,synagogues, and mosques). Source: Baylor University
Faith-based relief work has a strong influence in reducing crime, helping addicts to remain sober, and assisting ex-prisoners in staying clean. Source: Baylor University
The American church's witness to society is eroding across every demographic, and for the first time, a majority of the unaffiliated view the church as no help to our communities.
% OF U.S. ADULTS WHO SAY CHURCHES, SYNAGOGUES, AND OTHER HOUSES OF WORSHIP CONTRIBUTE POSITIVELY TO SOLVING IMPORTANT SOCIAL PROBLEMS
We used to be famous for our care for the poor.
Read about the early church’s radical and effective care for the poor.Read more
Impious Generosity: First Century Church and Social Crises
One of the more revolutionary elements of the early church was their devotion to the belief that all people were deserving of God’s love and therefore our compassion. There was no shortage of humanitarian and social crises in the early Roman Empire, and from its onset the early church made it a central part of their witness to care for those in need.
In the second century, one of the more devastating plagues in human history swept through the Roman Empire. It is estimated that a third of the population of the Roman Empire was killed by what is now to be believed to be smallpox. Panic ruled the streets, as bodies were tossed in heaps and carts of the dead were hauled to be burned. Family members pushed their own living relatives out of windows for fear of contagion; even the father of modern anatomy, Galen, fled in terror to the country.
In the midst of this panic, the church rose up in compassion. As the second wave of the plague ripped through the empire, the church, as the Bishop of Alexandria wrote, “showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains… winning high commendation so that in death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal to martyrdom.”1
It was not only in times of plague; early Christians were so generous with the hungry that by the fourth century, the church had become a major force in the Roman Empire. Even the Roman Emperor Julian took note and launched an Imperial welfare program, giving wine and food to pagan priests to share with the poor, instructing them that: “the impious Galileans in addition to their own, support our [poor], and welcoming them into their agapae, they attract them as children are attracted with cakes. While the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious lies… this causes contempt for our gods.”2
By the fourth century, care for the sick and poor in the church was such an important component of the church’s ministry that one of the Council of Nicaea’s directives was that every cathedral should have a hospice, where the sick and leprous could be cared for. This was the origin of the western hospital.
The church grew substantially in this moment—it is estimated that there were 40,000 people in the entire Roman Empire who were Christian at the time of the first plague, less than one tenth of one percent. Less than two centuries later, there were 32 million Christians across the entire Roman Empire. While growth was not singularly due to the care for the sick and poor, unquestionably it was a significant factor for at least two very practical reasons: mortality rates for Christians were lower due to better care during illness, and it attracted non-believers who needed the same care. The church, by fulfilling the work of Christ to care for the least of these, transformed an Empire.
1 See, Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (New York: HarperOne, 2011).
How Can I Help?
To meet the significant challenge of improving our care for the poor and using it to shine our light to all the world, we believe the church can take action in many ways. For a deeper exploration of ways to take action, download the report.
- Pastors and
- Funders and
Is my church or organization modeling radical care for the poor? What would it look like for us to increase the amount of care and/or giving?
With what organizations and other churches in our community could we collaborate to increase our ability to help those in need?
How can my church or organization better communicate about its good works, keeping the focus on Christ’s example of sacrificial love?
How can I increase my giving to follow Christ’s radical example?
Have I prayed and looked for opportunities to bless others in need this week?
Am I currently giving my time, talent, or resources to help those in need in my community?
How can I increase church-driven care for the poor via better approaches to fundraising and resource mobilization?
Am I specifically gifted or equipped to help our broader society see the good works already being done, through awareness-building and targeted PR?
Am I able to increase the effectiveness of church-driven care for the poor via investments in social entrepreneurship, cross-church collaboration, and more effective tools?