Failure to minister to the poor reveals our distorted view of the church.
What are the key issues facing society? Environmental pollution? Sex discrimination? World hunger? Poverty? How do American clergymen respond to these problems, personally and in the church programs?
Because the issue of poverty and the poor is so predominant in social, political, and theological thought today, the CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll raised a number of questions on this specific point, as well as questions about social renewal in general. First, let us look at the data, to compare answers from the public as a whole, all clergymen, and evangelical clergymen.
Between 30 and 40 percent of the clergy believe they should help the poor, and in this regard they surpass the public. However, when it comes to giving money to religious and community organizations for this purpose, the clergy fall slightly below the public. But in terms of persuading public and private support for the poor, the clergy are more activist than the public. Further, the clergy feel much more strongly than the public that their obligation to the poor goes beyond paying taxes for welfare.
So much for what they say they should do. What do the clergy actually do? High numbers of them live up to their expectations in giving personal and institutional help, and in a greater percentage than the public. However, less than half of the clergy have actually gotten involved in “persuasion” of church, religious, and government aid-to-the-poor programs.
The poll pushed the clergy one step further regarding the poor. If they come off as having not only good intentions but also high performance as individuals, what about their churches? Pastors know very well there often is a gap between what they would like to see done and what actually happens. Their private convictions and deeds are not always activated by the body of Christians they shepherd, especially in terms of what to do about controversial social issues that spark philosophical, economic, and political differences. Therefore, when asked to list “especially successful” church programs, less than 1 percent of all clergy and less than 1 percent of evangelical clergy cited “concern for the poor.”
Commenting on clergy responses to the poll, Al Krass, United Church of Christ minister and associate editor of The Other Side magazine, said: “I’m gratified to see that no group of clergy listed in the first question had even 1 percent listed as choosing alternative answer 4. Evangelical clergy seem to take slightly more responsibility than the other clergy to do something themselves about poverty.”
But what about the very low “success rating” the clergy give to their church programs for the poor? This is worth looking into.
Several years ago Methodist theologian Howard Snyder wrote: “In short, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, demonstrated the same attitude toward the poor that God revealed in the Old Testament. Though the Savior of all men, he looked with special compassion upon the poor. He purposely took the gospel to the poor, and specifically called attention to what he was doing.
“This is, in summary, the biblical evidence. That there is biblical evidence for God’s particular concern for the poor is obvious if one takes the trouble to look for it” (The Problem of Wineskins, InterVarsity, pp. 40–41).
He later underscores the critical nature of this understanding for the church: “So the urgency to preach the gospel to the poor brings us right to the question of the church and the problem of wineskins. The gospel to the poor and the concept of the church are inseparably linked. Failure to minister to the poor testifies to more than unfulfilled responsibility; it witnesses to a distorted view of the church” (p. 51).
Apparently this urgency has not been translated from the pulpit to the pew. Well-organized, fruitful local church programs for the poor are few and far between. Apart from this lack of successful programs, there is also a gap between what the clergy and their people do individually for the poor:
Sixty-five percent of the clergy give directly to the poor and 70 percent give to religious and community organizations that help the poor. By way of comparison, 13 percent of the Catholics and 21 percent of the Protestants give directly to the poor, and 44 percent of the Catholics and 39 percent of the Protestants give to religious and community organizations. About 30 percent of evangelicals give to the poor personally and about 50 percent give to organizations that do.
Apart from the specific question about poverty and poor people raised in this poll, it may also be encouraging to note that in more general areas of social concern the poll shows 52 percent of all clergy are convinced that it is “very important” for religious organizations to “make public statements about what they feel to be the will of God in political-economic matters.” When separated out, 52 percent of evangelical clergy also have this conviction, which would seem to show some progress in similar areas of concern, because only a few years ago they generally did not want to meddle in politics or oppose the war in Vietnam. Likewise, 82 percent of all clergy (and 82 percent of all evangelical clergy) think that religious organizations should try to persuade senators and representatives to enact legislation they would like to see become law (as opposed to 41 percent of the general public).
This 82 percent figure appears to be a discrepancy when compared to the 40 percent who say they try to persuade church, religious, and community organizations to aid the poor (but it is a happy discrepancy—a sign of progress!). David Burr, pastor of Winston-Salem’s First Presbyterian Church, expresses his encouragement at this large percentage: “I am extremely surprised that so few fail to recognize the importance of religious organizations making public statements on ethical and moral issues. The church has always underestimated its power and the power of its pronouncements. Because of this the church will remain impotent where it could exert strength.”
The CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll underscores one of the enigmatic convictions of evangelical clergy, one that has to do with the relation between personal renewal and social renewal. The enigma is that evangelical clergy are nearly universal in their conviction that personal renewal generally leads to social renewal (88 percent) and that the church should concentrate its efforts more toward personal renewal than toward social renewal (82 percent). Yet there is really little hard data to indicate that personal renewal has this effect generally. Al Krass states: “In the total absence of hard evidence that personal renewal does lead to social renewal, I find it distressing that all categories of clergy should seem to believe that social renewal follows personal renewal.” Father Joseph Fichter, professor of sociology at Loyola University of New Orleans says: “What these clergy are saying is that this should be the case.”
Only 18 percent of evangelical clergymen believe that the church should concentrate its efforts toward equal amounts of both personal renewal and social renewal. Professor Donald Buteyn of San Francisco Theological Seminary comments: “We are mandated for both life changing and world changing ministry. This [lop-sided emphasis on personal renewal] reflects an unhealthy condition for the church and its leadership. History has swung to extremes in these matters, so I am not surprised at the present swing toward privatism in the area of personal renewal in the church. It is in step with the secular mood.”
So here we are with our ostensible evangelical awakening, with our billion-dollar programs of evangelism, with our lavish cathedrals, and with our slickly promoted evangelical agencies without number. We have Christian communications media resources that stagger the mind, and countless famous personalities giving evangelical testimony of their personal experience with Jesus.
And now we have this poll on evangelical clergy attitudes toward social issues. I’m not sure I thank you, Mr. Gallup. This whole thing begins to get sticky. I’m one of those evangelical clergy, a real fat cat, tall steeple, First Presbyterian pastor. And you’ve left me all but naked. I call Jesus “Lord,” and it is he who announced: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Something is incongruous here.
This poll raises the question of what evidence there is—I mean real evidence in our lives—of the new creation, of the fruits of repentance, of kingdom priorities and lifestyle. I’m not sleeping as well since I read this, thanks to you, Mr. Gallup. Somewhere out of the past, down through the centuries, come echoing some discomforting words: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn …” (Isa. 58:6–8).
And another voice: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Of course, probably hidden from view and not even touched by this poll, are the faithful pastors and evangelists, working 10 and more hours a day to support themselves, then laboring untold hours more among their poor friends in the back streets of Newark, or in a Hispanic neighborhood in Houston. They are immersed in ministry to the poor. It is their flock who are hungry and sick and in prison. These are the ones who have heard the calling of Christ, who obey his word, who know what the Incarnation is all about, and who are preaching good news to the poor. All they have to give is themselves and the gospel. They haven’t even the possibility of being paternalistic to the poor. And the Savior rejoices in them.
As for the rest of us? Successful ministries to the poor? Less than 1 percent!
Where U.S. Clergymen Stand On The Church And Social Concern
• Most think their churches should concentrate more on personal renewal than social renewal (65 percent).
Significantly higher than the national norm: evangelical, Southern Baptist and Baptist. (Note: the national norm in each case is the figure in parentheses.) Significantly lower: Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, United Church of Christ.
• About one-third think personal and social renewal should have equal concentration (32 percent).
Significantly higher than the national norm: Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, United Church of Christ.
• Most think personal renewal generally leads to social renewal (79 percent).
Significantly lower than the national norm: United Church of Christ.
• Most think religious organizations should try to influence legislation (82 percent).
Significantly lower than the national norm: Episcopal.
• Most think it is important for religious organizations to make public statements on political and economic matters (81 percent).
• Virtually all of them have no “especially successful” programs in the churches to help the poor (less than 1 percent).
• Very few say their church programs relating to social concerns in general are “especially successful” (15 percent).
• Very few think organized religion is failing in social outreach (15 percent).
• A mere handful would like to see religious periodicals address themselves more effectively to “social dimensions of faith and ministry” (6 percent).
• Most have personally and directly helped the poor (65 percent).
• Most have given to religious and community organizations to aid the poor (70 percent).
Significantly higher than the national norm: Episcopal.
• About half have tried to persuade church, religious, and government organizations to aid the poor (45 percent).
Significantly higher than the national norm: Methodist, United Church of Christ, Episcopal.
• Very few feel paying taxes is the end of their obligation to the poor (8 percent).
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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