There’s a rather stunning statement about poverty in Acts 4:34 — “There was not a needy person among them. …” In a quarterly prayer meeting in our city, I once heard a well-meaning brother quote that verse, praying that one day there would be “no needy people here, in our city.”
I would love to see that day come, but I don’t believe it will. Not before Jesus returns.
I’m not a pessimist. And my reasoning is not based on Jesus’ statement, “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7). That verse is not primarily a statement about the persistence of poverty (which Jesus said we can address whenever we want). Jesus was trying to help the disciples understand His imminent departure and what it would accomplish.
Still, there seems to be a contradiction between Acts 4:34 and Mark 14:7. It’s cleared up easily when we read Acts 4:34 in context:
32 “the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. … 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
It was the believers in Acts 4 who had no poor among them. Yet, at the very same time, there were also poor people in Jerusalem, “for you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them.”
The same apparent contradiction about the poor is found in Deuteronomy:
“(T)here will be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4)
“There will never cease to be poor in the land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11)
It seems to me that the absence of poverty in the church in Acts 4 was a fulfillment of Deuteronomy 15:4, while Jesus and Deuteronomy 15:11 both remind us that we always see poverty in “the land” and in our communities.
That’s why I believe the gospel compels our churches, led by the deacons, to be involved in both merciful inreach and outreach.
Inreach: Taking Care of the Family
People in our congregations should not experience ongoing poverty. Yes, there are cases when the loving thing is to allow someone to feel the consequences of his own bad choices. (See the excellent book “Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence.”) But family takes care of family.
When members experience a job loss or a major financial crisis, a deacon seeks them out to say, “No one in this church has to go into debt to meet their basic needs. If you ever find that you are buying groceries with a credit card, I want you to call me.”
In those conversations, we usually explain the “Mercy Ministry Sandwich” we see in Acts 2:42-47. These verses are a picture of God’s kingdom solution to poverty: the local church, simply being the church, and taking care of one another.
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The sharing of resources in verses 44-45 is the “meat” of the sandwich. It’s a check for rent, money for car repairs, a grocery card, etc. It’s the material solution to a material need, provided by the church family. Verses 42-43 and 46-47 are the “bread” of the sandwich. The bread is the crucial context of mercy ministry. It was the believers who “were together and had everything in common.” They were united with one another because they each had union with Christ. Because they had Christ in common, they were a community that reflected His character.
We pray together to “Our Father, who is in heaven,” which means we are brothers and sisters. We ask our Father to “give us our daily bread,” not “give me my daily bread.” We pray as a community for the spiritual and material resources needed by the community. A church is a family that experiences and strengthens our familial bonds as we devote ourselves to the teaching, and to fellowship, to worship, to breaking bread, and prayer.
That’s simply a summary of what church life is. And right in the middle of a list of normal church activities, we find that helping one another is the natural result of living in close, loving community. A community where everyone has needs, and everyone helps. Mercy ministry should be done in the context of, and through the development of, covenantal relationships where we say to one another: “Come with me to the cross, where we will both find the healing, truth, and encouragement we need. Let me carry some of your burden, and soon you’ll be carrying some of mine.”
We aren’t trying to be exclusive by helping our own congregation before we help people outside the church. But we love our own family because they are family. If someone isn’t in the family yet, we love them and serve them in the context of the church’s ordinary activities. We want them to experience what it’s like to be in God’s family, where they will experience love and healing, where they will get to know Jesus better, and where they can receive help and have opportunities to serve others.
“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone,
and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).
Outreach: Caring for the Community
Proactive outreach to the needy is a fruit of the gospel. John Piper has said, “To be a Christian is to move toward need, not comfort.” Ouch. I find that convicting because I am deeply committed to my own comfort. But what did our Savior do? He left the comfort of heaven and came to Earth because of my need. His heart was drawn to your need. If we bear His name, we ought to love like He did.
Many people have observed that Jesus places in the Good Samaritan parable some characters who highlight three attitudes toward possessions and people. The robbers said, “What’s yours is mine.” The religious authorities said, “What’s mine is mine.” But the Samaritan (exemplifying Jesus Himself) said, “What’s mine is yours.”
We cannot offer mercy to anyone unless we first see ourselves as the man in the road. The one to whom Jesus said, “What’s mine is yours — my blood, my life, my righteousness. I offer it all freely to you.” Unless we in our poverty have received mercy, we cannot offer biblical mercy to anyone around us.
Did you notice the fruit of the ordinary activities of the early church? “… Praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). The way that the body of Christ loved and cared for one another enhanced the reputation of the Christians in Jerusalem — and the reputation of Christ. People were drawn to that kind of love and community, and many of them were also drawn into God’s kingdom as new believers.
We pray together to “Our Father, who is in heaven,” which means we are brothers and sisters. We ask our Father to “give us our daily bread,” not “give me my daily bread.”
I’ve been asked, “What do we do if there aren’t many needy people in our church?” My first suggestion is to let your members know that the church wants to help. Many of our members bring friends and family to meet with our deacons during a time of crisis. This is a great compliment! When members know someone in need, they should think, “I know that the deacons at my church are eager and able to help people in situations like this. I should get them connected.”
My second suggestion is to look around your community, and ask who is absent from your congregation? In the city of Alexandria, 28% of children live in a single-parent home. I don’t know of any churches in our area with that many single parents. Why? If there is anyone who needs the support, love, and practical help of a church family, it’s a single mom and her children. Why aren’t they in our congregations? What can we do about that? Who in your community is absent from your congregation?
Our Savior’s heart was magnetically drawn to the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the downtrodden.
Do our churches have a reputation of being a haven for the needy and downtrodden? Does our congregation and community think of our churches when they are in trouble or encounter people in need? Do single moms, refugees, widows, and parents of special-needs children know that our churches are eager to welcome, help, and love them? How can we grow in this?
People Not Projects
I love this description of the work the deacons did among the poor and refugee community in Geneva when John Calvin led the
“Within the first fifty years of their existence, the Genevan deacons helped establish a laundry for the poor, attempted to get city businesses to close on Sundays, requested the health department do something about poor housing, helped found an establishment for unruly children, founded a placement service for domestic servants, recruited children for religious instruction, established meetings for boys on Sunday evenings and singing lessons for children, helped the women run classes in sewing and religion for girls, established classes to help students with homework, established lending libraries, helped run a pharmacy for women, and established an auxiliary of women charged with helping the deacons visit families.”
Notice that some of the work had administrative aspects to it. But the main objective was always to help flesh-and-blood people. Do we remember that people are the only reason to do ministry? Jesus, help us see as You do! As Paul Miller has said, “If the eye is the lamp of the soul, then the soul of Jesus is filled with people.”
In the third century, the Rome church’s chief deacon and nine others were convicted of treason by the Roman authorities. Deacon Lawrence was targeted because he was the treasurer of the Church of Rome. The Roman authorities believed the church was fabulously wealthy, so Lawrence was spared immediate execution.
The official who ordered their arrest commanded Lawrence to bring him all the treasure of the church. “Give me two or three days,” Lawrence replied, “and I will bring it here for you.”
Lawrence quickly worked to gather all the church’s resources and give it to the poor! After three days he returned.
“Where is the treasure?” demanded the Roman official. Lawrence led him to the entrance of the hall and threw open the great doors leading to the courtyard. Outside was assembled a great crowd of poor, blind, and crippled humanity. “Behold! Here is the treasure of the church,” said Lawrence. He was then taken away to be tortured and roasted alive.
No matter how nice our church building is, or how much we have in the deacons’ fund, always remember that people are the treasure of our churches.
Three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, I remember standing with David Skinner, then pastor of First Presbyterian in Biloxi, Mississippi. He was showing me the damage Katrina had done to their building, destroying their new carpet and making a stinking, muddy mess of the church’s entire first floor.
David told me that one week before Katrina hit, they had spent a long time in a meeting discussing how to get people to stop walking around the church with cups of coffee. People were spilling coffee on their brand-new carpet! The staff and deacons debated which method would be most helpful: Put up some signs, make more pulpit announcements, post guards to keep the coffee in the fellowship hall, buy coffee cups with lids.
Just days later, Hurricane Katrina brought 6-7 feet of water flooding through the church’s tall front doors, washing right through the building and out the back doors. As I stood there with David, I saw a church without any carpet at all, and mold forming on the recently painted walls. We slept with other volunteers on air mattresses on bare concrete floors. The fellowship hall was full of chainsaws, tarps, pallets of bottled water, food, and diapers.
David told me Katrina had refocused the church’s priorities. First Presbyterian Biloxi had, in the words of author Alexander Strauch, quickly got “out of the boardroom or the building-maintenance mentality and into the people-serving mentality.”
Where is your church on that journey? What steps could you take to go deeper and broader in both inreach and outreach?
Helping the poor with effective, compassionate, and transformative mercy ministry is the privileged duty given by God to our deacons and the mercy ministry teams in our churches. If your church would like to grow in this work, you’ll find lots of outstanding resources at chalmers.org. And watch for upcoming trainings on the Mission to North America (MNA) website.
Chris Sicks served for 20 years at Alexandria Presbyterian Church as a staff deacon and then as pastor of mercy. He’s now planting One Voice Fellowship, a multilingual church in northern Virginia. Chris serves MNA as mercy conference facilitator and is the author of “Tangible: Making God Known Through Deeds of Mercy and Words of Truth” (NavPress 2013).