Part two of two parts; click here to read part one

Third, they are marked by regular, face-to-face, structured contact between the volunteers and the participants. They do not rely on spontaneous interaction but set defined meeting times and articulate specific goals and deadlines. The friendship developed between the participant and the church volunteers is purposeful, directed toward a specified end.

Fourth, effective programs demand individual responsibility. They challenge participants to take small steps toward change and provide incentives for taking those steps. New Focus, a Christian nonprofit that shows churches how to transition from commodity-based ministry to relational, holistic ministry, encourages congregations to establish a weekly "life skills" training class. Individuals who have a history of repeatedly requesting financial help from the church must attend the weekly class and meet regularly with a budget counselor in order to receive further aid. They are also linked with a Compassion Circle of six to eight church volunteers who provide practical help (such as temporary babysitting, transportation, car repairs, or help with job searching) as well as prayer and emotional support. Participants and church volunteers draft a strategic plan for achieving independence from the public (and private) welfare system. As participants complete aspects of that plan, they receive groceries or household items in recognition of their progress.

Making the shift to relational ministry is difficult because it requires that we give more of ourselves and our time, as well as our money. By concentrating church resources on fewer families, though, we are able to make a long-lasting impact. Through time-intensive, individually tailored aid, we can address the root causes of persistent poverty and help people become economically self-sufficient. As participants no longer require assistance, our funds are freed up to help new families. As a deacon from a New Focus-affiliated church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, noted, this is just "better stewardship of God's money."

And there is another important benefit. As the Warrenton Baptist Church in north-central Virginia discovered, relational ministry can invigorate greater congregational participation in community outreach. When this 350-member, middle-class church ran its Deacons' Family Ministry, it provided groceries and cash aid to about 50 families each month. But only a few deacons and church members volunteered in the initiative. Pastor Doug Harris admits that no ongoing relationships with the assisted families materialized. "Follow-up," he recalls, "was basically zero." There was no ministry that addressed the families' spiritual needs, and since the same families returned again and again for assistance, the temporal help the church was providing accomplished nothing.

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Last year, Harris was approached by local officials of the Department of Social Services. They wanted to know if Warrenton Baptist would "adopt" two women and their families who wanted to get off welfare. Harris agreed—and the congregation's response was overwhelming. A committee of several women stepped forward to befriend the two families. The youth group began meeting weekly with one of the families and raised money to purchase business attire for the mother so she would look nice at job interviews. A group of senior citizens wanted to know what they could do to "help our families" and ended up sewing window treatments. Benevolence programs aimed at "the poor" rarely excite concern. But when the poor become specific families with faces and names, church members enthusiastically assume ownership of outreach efforts.

In Jeremiah 32, God tells the prophet to purchase a field in Anathoth, a community outside of Jerusalem. It is a bewildering request, for the Babylonians have already attacked Israel and laid siege to Jerusalem, and the fields of Anathoth lie behind enemy lines. Jeremiah wonders why God would ask him to make such a foolish real-estate investment. God answers by promising to redeem Israel from her oppressors; he foretells the day when feasts and weddings will sound in the fields of Anathoth and across Judea when he restores the fortunes of his wayward children. As Chris Rice, an inner-city missionary, explains, God is asking Jeremiah to invest in a neighborhood others have given up as lost. By doing so, Jeremiah makes tangible God's future promise to reclaim and restore.

God is still in the reclamation business. He is still calling his followers to "foolish" investments. Impoverished neighborhoods in our communities are also behind enemy lines; Satan has a grip on them through drugs, crime, violence, abuse, and despair. But God has not forsaken this territory, and neither should we. Moreover, he has followers in these neighborhoods—even if they may be besieged by the destructive "street culture" that surrounds them. Christians outside such troubled neighborhoods should invest in them, embracing these brothers and sisters.

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When "the poor" become specific
families with faces and names,
church members enthusiastically
assume ownership of outreach efforts.

Such investments can take at least two forms. First, suburban churches can reach out to urban congregations that are trying to improve their communities. In Richmond, Virginia, a network of suburban churches is partnering with an urban church, Victory Christian Fellowship, located in the heart of the Gilpin Court public housing complex. These churches work together in a ministry called S.T.E.P. (Strategies to Elevate People), which runs an adult education and job-training program for Gilpin residents (most of whom are on welfare). Suburban churches provide financial support, and volunteers serve on Family Share Teams that are linked with residents participating in the S.T.E.P. Academy. Victory Christian Fellowship supplies motivational speakers to the academy and offers participants pastoral counseling and discipleship programs for themselves and their children. Through the academy, high-school dropouts are receiving their GED certificates; some have even gone on to college. Others have secured new jobs and have left welfare behind.

Second, in the absence of a Christ-centered urban mission, churches outside troubled communities can establish their own presence in the neighborhood. My church is doing this in the low-income Blue Ridge Commons housing community in Charlottesville. Through our Abundant Life Family Center, a renovated three-bedroom townhome in the housing complex, we offer educational programs for children and job skills training for adults.

Another church that is following this model is Christ United Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi. This 4,000-member, white, middle-class congregation is making a difference in North Midtown, an inner-city neighborhood. A few years back, crime and violence were so rampant in North Midtown that residents would not allow their children to ride bikes outside. Elderly folks were afraid to walk to nearby shops. Christ United hooked up with Habitat for Humanity and provided financial aid and volunteers to build four new homes in the neighborhood. The church also rented an apartment in the center of North Midtown and hired an African-American pastor to serve as the director of this urban outreach. Neighborhood residents and church members work together running an after-school tutoring program, boys and girls clubs, and parenting classes. As Habitat continues to buy up abandoned properties, the crack dealers have gradually been pushed out. Pride in the neighborhood has returned; the Neighborhood Association has been resurrected, and a "beautification committee" has cleaned up the streets and yards. For the first time in many years, children are once again able to play outdoors in safety.

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These outreaches in Richmond, Charlottesville, and Jackson are incarnational. Each church has established a physical presence in the target neighborhood to demonstrate its long-term commitment to the community and its identification with the residents' sorrows.

Some church members have relocated into the neighborhoods; others visit regularly and have developed genuine friendships with locals. By focusing their resources on a single community, these churches have been able to make a noticeable impact.

Church leaders desiring to strengthen their community outreach should investigate what is already going on in their community and learn how they could assist successful, established ministries. They can also contact their local social services department to hear how they could help a needy family get off welfare. For inspiration and practical advice on how to start a new ministry, church leaders can attend the annual conference of the Christian Community Development Association. The conference brings together thousands of Christians engaged in urban ministry and offers numerous workshops.

Relational ministries like Faith and Families, New Focus, and S.T.E.P. build bridges that reinvigorate civic connectedness. Many welfare-dependent families are isolated from much of mainstream society, unable to access educational and vocational opportunities others take for granted. Middle- and upper-class families are increasingly isolated in gated, "comprehensive service" communities.

Welfare reform offers us the opportunity to bring the disadvantaged and the advantaged together. And the haves, as well as the have-nots, need this reconnection. Our culture is in danger of imploding in self-indulgence; recapturing a commitment to others beyond our small circle of family and friends may prove an essential step in avoiding the traps of hedonism, materialism, and anomie.

In short, Christians must reform church benevolence not only for the sake of the poor, but for the sake of the church itself. The absence of an incarnational, holistic, befriending ministry among the poor impoverishes our own spiritual health. As Charles Spurgeon argued:

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A church which does not exist to do good in the slums … of the city is a church that has no reason to justify its longer existence. … Not for yourself, O Church, do you exist any more than Christ existed for himself. His glory was that he laid aside His glory, and the glory of the church is when she lays aside her respectability and her dignity and counts it to be her glory to gather together the outcasts, and her highest honor to seek amid the foulest mire the priceless jewels for which Jesus shed his blood.

Amy L. Sherman is director of urban ministry at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is the author of Restorers of Hope: Reaching the Poor in Your Community with Church-based Ministries That Work (Crossway).

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