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As I write this article, a famine is raging in East Africa that will affect the lives of more than 13 million people across three countries. Families are walking for days to seek help—arriving at temporary camps exhausted, severely dehydrated, and often having left behind loved ones who succumbed on the road.

Working for an organization that has been on the ground, watching this unfold over the past number of months, we are frustrated by how long it takes for the world to recognize and respond to such an emergency. Lives are at stake, but the funding comes too slowly and often too late.

Unless CNN is reporting on a crisis, the world doesn’t seem to care.

In our business we speak of the “CNN effect”: unless CNN is reporting on a crisis, the world doesn’t seem to care. As soon as CNN packs up and leaves, the world also moves on to the next thing.

There exists a small window of opportunity when organizations maximize their funding efforts to carry through the remainder of a crisis. Although we have known of the emerging East Africa crisis for more than six months, it is only now that the “CNN effect” is kicking in. There’s something wrong with this picture!

How is it that we live in a world that requires images reminiscent of the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s before we are willing to respond? Do we really need to see the starving kids before we believe there is a problem?

Approximately 25,000 children die needlessly each day of preventable causes. Millions more suffer the inhumanity of grinding poverty. Wars, natural disasters, and global forces bind the poor in an abusive vicious cycle of hopelessness and despair. There is no shortage of need.

Couple that with the fact that we are the most connected society ever. We are deluged with mailings asking for help, and when something happens in the world we all know it in seconds. There is no shortage of information. Have we become callous? Uncaring? Tired of responding? What truly motivates us to act?

As Christians we should be outraged by this situation. This is not what God has in mind. He calls us to protect the vulnerable, to feed the hungry, to set the prisoner free, to proclaim his kingdom. We shouldn’t need a “CNN effect” to motivate us; our motivation should come from the depths of our calling to witness to God’s love and compassion in our world. It should be a natural, willing, and joyful response to how God has blessed us.

The Hole in Our Gospel

In his book The Hole in Our Gospel, Richard Stearns argues that Christians have become far too tame and relaxed in our faith. We need a revolution that will shake us up and bring the whole gospel to life.

Would the world take notice, he asks, if “two billion Christians embrace this gospel—the whole gospel—each doing a part by placing his or her piece into the puzzle and completing God’s stunning vision of a reclaimed and redeemed world—the Kingdom of God among us?”

Someone else once said, “Sometimes I think I would like to ask why God allows poverty, suffering, and injustice to exist in our world when he could do something about it, but I don’t because I’m too afraid God would ask me the same question.” The truth is that we are asked that question daily by the ongoing presence of poverty and injustice in our world. We can and we must do something about it. But what—and how?

Dave Toycen makes the distinction between charity and generosity in his book The Power of Generosity. Charity is more calculated. Though it is a compassionate response, it is often based on duty and/or justice. It originates from a position of plenty. All the virtues are important, Toycen says, but generosity is “the lubricant that smooths our daily living in a way that affects every other moral virtue.”

Generosity is not a single act but a way of life; it is “the attitude that puts heart in our obligation to care for others.”

From an early age the Church taught me to care for the poor, to fight for justice, and to give regularly. It taught me to be a good steward of what God has blessed me with. It taught me to be charitable.

We in the Christian Reformed Church are known for being extremely charitable—just count the dollars raised by our small denomination when an earthquake hits somewhere in the world. But is our charity lubricated with the power of generosity? Has that power become an integral part of our fabric and being?

We Can Relate

Poverty at its root is relational. It has a face and a name. It happens to real people who are fellow imagebearers of God. In World Vision’s experience, the most successful means of engaging people is relational: child sponsorship. The power of sponsorship is that it allows for a personal relationship to exist that can lead to transformation on both sides. People respond more positively when they can relate to a real person and know that through that relationship lives change.

The CRC has long been a faithful supporter of international missions and development. But think of whose pictures we have hanging in our churches: our missionaries’. Not the poor.

We relate more to our mission workers than to the very people we hope to serve. What if we turned this model around and helped build relationships between our churches and the poor instead? Would a more personalized and direct approach unleash our power of generosity?

One of the conclusions of a recent study on giving was that it must be cultivated within family and community (Arthur Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism).

At World Vision we talk about “life cycle giving,” which is presenting products and opportunities to families at different stages of their life cycles. When a family has young children, simple products that build relationships and understanding are important. As children grow and develop hopes and aspirations for a bright future, it’s important to provide them opportunities for advocacy and justice. As parents become empty nesters and have more disposable time and income, we offer meaningful lifetime opportunities. And, finally, we talk to the elderly about legacy giving.

Cultivating a generous spirit is best done within the family, and it must be appropriate to the life cycle of the family.

We do practice life cycle giving in the CRC, to a certain extent. But there is opportunity for more focus and variety. Churches that practice this successfully engage whole families with unique challenges and opportunities designed for their respective stages in life. A more holistic approach of harnessing time, talent, and treasure (known as the “3 Ts”) allows individual members to be more satisfied and challenged by their engagement.

In the end, our response as Christians to world crises must be a whole-life response. We should be passionate about justice, fairness, and holistic development in everything we say and do. Our response to poverty shouldn’t be driven by emotional appeals or by the CNN effect, but by our calling to claim this world for God.

How to Unleash Your Church’s Generosity

  • Ensure direct contact between your church and the needy.
  • Teach generosity, not just charity.
  • Engage whole families in different ways depending on their stages of life.
  • Focus on the “3 Ts” of time, talent, and treasure.
  • Build accountability and reporting into the relationship.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How has news coverage of the recent famine in East Africa affected you? What motivates you to respond?
  2. Are you drawn into relationship with the people who are suffering? Why or why not?
  3. Dirk Booy says that our motivation to respond should come from “our calling to reach out and witness to God’s love and compassion for our world. It should be a natural, willing, and joyful response to how God has blessed us.” How does this vision compare with your experience and action?
  4. What’s the difference between charity and generosity?
  5. How can you cultivate a generous spirit in your family and church? How do you intend to live this out in the year ahead?

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