Q Many churches collect food for food banks, but it seems like a Band-Aid approach to me. Are we doing justice or becoming complicit in injustice?
A Food banks or other emergency food programs can be part of a just response to hunger but are never an adequate response. They do not address the causes of poverty or provide lasting solutions. They can even become barriers to necessary changes in social conditions and policies by reducing the visible symptoms of poverty. If hungry people lined our streets every day, governments would need to address poverty in more systemic ways.
Many agencies take steps to prevent unhealthy dependence on food banks by their clients. More troubling is the unhealthy dependence of our society on stop-gap measures. Emergency food programs have become permanent institutions in many cities. They are not an efficient or dignity-enhancing way to distribute food. But neither can we let people go hungry.
The impact of poverty and increased reliance on food banks is troubling, especially for children. Research shows that child poverty has lifelong effects and greater health and social costs later on.
A just response includes both helping those in need and addressing the causes of poverty. The first comes naturally for church people; the second is more challenging. Churches are good places for people to discuss the issue you raise. What would it take to make food banks unnecessary—or at least a last resort instead of the fastest growing part of social support systems? What else do we need to do?
Your question illustrates the tension between charity and justice. Churches are more comfortable with charity. But the Bible is clear that God wants justice, not just alms for the poor.
Kathy Vandergrift teaches public ethics to university students and advocates for the rights of children.
Q Last night our youth director (whose contract we had just terminated) poured out her heart to me, a parent. I came to see her situation from a new perspective that left me shocked and upset. She told me that several of her colleagues around the denomination have had similar experiences. Is this an epidemic?
A It’s not quite an epidemic, but it happens far too often. Here are the primary reasons I’ve observed:
- Congregations that are anxious about the faith lives of their teens and young adults expect a hired person to come in and quickly “fix” things, thereby easing their anxiety. Congregations may have unrealistic expectations about both the character and speed of youth ministry. Ministry must never be rooted in anxiety.
- When they hire a youth director, congregations do not always use the same careful, thorough discernment process they use when calling a pastor.
- Pastors and youth directors who have not been taught how to partner well may end up undermining each other instead of complementing each other.
- Far-sighted congregations pay someone to serve as a mentor to an inexperienced youth director. This rarely happens, even though it’s a relatively small investment that can pay rich dividends.
- Some people go into youth ministry with significant misunderstandings about the character of healthy youth ministry; these misunderstandings do not come to light during the hiring process because the committee subscribes to similar ones. (All hiring committees should read Mark DeVries’s book Sustainable Youth Ministry, IVP, 2008.)
Thankfully, there are many, many stories about congregations and youth workers that are flourishing.
Syd Hielema is a professor of religion and theology at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, and a member of the CRC’s Synodical Faith Formation Study Committee.
Q Our outreach team is considering serving a community meal for the homeless each week. Some think this is a great avenue for evangelism. I’m not so sure. What do you think?
A No doubt many people will be blessed to have a meal instead of going hungry. Jesus noted to the sheep in Matthew 25: “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat.” A big part of being disciples of Jesus is to show God’s love in ways that not only speak good news but embody it.
I also understand your team’s desire to see this opportunity as a vehicle for evangelism. But we must be careful here. Too often it can make providing food seem like a gimmick—simply a means to an end. In so doing, we risk compromising both the service and the gospel message. I know some who have been turned off to the church and to Jesus for just such tactics. Jesus isn’t about manipulation—requiring someone to put up with a sermon to receive a meal. He’s about the good news that God cares about our whole being, spiritual and physical.
In my own community, we have found that simply sitting down and eating with those we serve with has allowed relationships—not just one-time interactions—to happen. These relationships have extended beyond the once-a-week meal and allowed us to share the gospel in the context of friendship, not patronization.
May your service lead your community to experience the shalom of God’s kingdom.
Bryan Berghoef is pastor of Watershed Church, a Christian Reformed church plant in Traverse City, Mich.