Are Mercy Ministries Really A Slow Death To The Soul?

This is the (uncomfortable) message of Canadian Activist Nick Saul in his new book, “The Stop. How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement.”

He’s made quite a splash in the UK recently with his contentious claims that the food bank model of help is often nothing more than “privileged people helping the underprivileged, perpetuating an us-and-them atmosphere”. The Guardian newspaper writes:

For Saul, 47, a community organiser in his home town of Toronto, the problem – he believes – is that traditional food banks don’t really help the needy. Their food “handouts” are often of dismal quality, and the “transaction” – the silent, humiliating transfer of the food parcel – does nothing to help clients’ dignity or self-esteem, get them a job, help them out of poverty or improve their health and well being. For a moment food-bank clients are not hungry – but not for long.

Well meaning volunteers aren’t the only people in his sights either. Nick also targets big business, particularly Supermarkets, who (he claims) like to jump on the bandwagon so that they can give the appearance of being a good “corporate citizen”. Indeed, Nick claims that the whole concept of food banks is largely a conscience easing exercise across the board. In his opinion:

“The only person who is not benefiting is the person who this was set up to help. Most people who have to visit food banks say it is a slow, painful death of the soul.”

As A Christian I was particularly struck by that haunting last line. So much so, that I have sat on this for a couple of weeks just to let it stew. I used to visit all sorts of homeless projects when I lived on the streets in my late teens and early 20’s. Across most cities I could basically find places that would give me breakfast, clean clothes, a shower and some food. Like pubs, I had my favourite haunts. Those of us who lived and breathed within this largely invisible subculture knew all the ‘good places’. We knew what time the doors opened, what time the ‘good stuff‘ came out and we knew what we had to say and how we had to act according to who was giving out the goodies. Churches were particularly good because the people were generally nice, they would be kind to you, they were less savvy than government agencies and all we had to do was sit through some God talk, maybe take a booklet and then we could be away for the day. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, these places were basically indirectly funding my drug habit and making it far easier for me to stay on the streets. Without motivation to find work to pay for my survival, I lost the will and inclination to be bothered to get myself out of the hole I was in. These places had, inadvertently I’m sure, become enablers for my largely selfish, sinful and destructive lifestyle.

Over time government cuts (not just a new invention) closed a lot of our established haunts and we became more reliant on the “God squad”. In the beginning the constant stream of questions were annoying but, if handled like a job centre interview, they were easily placated. They would get to say their bit, tell me about God or whatever and I would get what I wanted. Everybody was happy. They’d got to be nice to a poor person and I got to spend the money I got for their clothes, and what I’d saved buying food, to fund and fuel my descent into my almost constant, drug induced oblivion.

Nearly 20 years on, and having worked in areas of urban derivation as a minister around the world for the best part of 14 years, I would like to say that much has changed. But it hasn’t. The poor are still with us. The need for food banks and soup kitchens is perhaps greater in our country than it has been for a generation. In the evangelical Christian world there has been an explosion of interest in ‘mercy ministry‘ and ‘helping the poor’ and, in truth, much of it makes me sad. I sit in conferences and listen to well meaning young pastors and planters talking about ‘generous justice’. Time and again I am running into church leaders and/or Christians who are saying that they opened a food bank or a soup kitchen and it transformed their church. Or, even better in their ‘missional thinking’ mindset, they joined a ‘secular one’ so that they (1) can serve the poor in their city and (2) witness to unbelievers about their ‘good deeds’ at the same time. As if helping the poor is a clever evangelistic strategy to reach the hip, modern unbeliever who like to have their ‘social justice’ box ticked. Much of the chatter when this topic is discussed in these circles consists of phrases like: “It has brought people together.” “It has transformed our community.” “It has brought us into contact with the unchurched.”

The reality I fear is somewhat difference once the hype dies down. The people it usually brings together are either fringe Christians who have found something that fulfills them or those older ones with more time on their hands to volunteer. Sadly, communities are not transformed by these endeavours and, in fact, I think we ought to do some research on this in the UK within the evangelical community to test this (more of this later). Certainly the unchurched are reached. There is little doubt about that. If by that we mean they don’t regularly go to worship. But, let me suggest that many of these people may not worship with us on Sundays, but they are certainly not ‘ungospelled’. In fact, many of them have an intimate knowledge of the gospel (at least in those churches where it is being preached) and are still living within their sinful life and lifestyle patterns. Sadly, far too many churches and Christians are a hindrance to the poor and not a help to them at all. They are guilty of paternalistic outreach, often wrapped up in the guise of a successful ministry (when success is measured by 40 people turning up this week for a parcel and most of them stayed for a chat). These ministries go on, almost in perpetuity, serving largely the same constituents with many of them never really moving on from their life situations. They are trapped and we are often unknowingly guilty of keeping them trapped.

My phone often rings with pastors and other leaders asking me for help. The conversation invariably goes along these lines: “Mez. We have this man/woman here who has recently come to faith through our work with the homeless/addicts/poor (delete as applicable). the problem is we’re not sure what to do with them now. Our church is not really geared up for this kind of person. Can you help us?” This is more or less what happens, with a few variants obviously. Herein lies the fundamental issue for many churches. They simply do not have a plan outside of meeting what we deem “crisis intervention”. They have started a ministry without any real plan. Serving them food is one thing but having to deal with them on a daily basis is another. The bottom line is that most churches just haven’t thought through the long-term ramifications of their ministry to the poor. It is staggering but true that many churches just haven’t thought about what they are going to do with somebody who comes to faith through their mercy ministry. What is the discipleship strategy? Who will care for them? Who will hold them accountable? How will we move them forward in their walk with Jesus? How will we prepare them for whatever ‘work of service’ God has called them to?

The reality is that the queue every Thursday for parcels or whatever we dole out is so long in many places that we can do nothing more than hand stuff out and move on to the next person. Maybe we have people around who can stop and chat over a coffee but conversations are brief, snatched and don’t move anywhere fast. Those who really do need the food are often too embarrassed to stick around for long and those who know how the game is played usually stay and take up as much time as possible. Soon, a routine comes into effect and, over time, as we tire of the same old stories, we just hand out the food. Some even think they have struck gold if they get familiar with the ‘regulars’ when in actuality there is nothing sadder in the world than seeing a regular at a soup kitchen. It is a travesty.

Very often, people are not being moved on. They are not being really helped. They are not, horror of horrors, being challenged to help themselves, largely out of a middle class guilt complex (which often underpins much volunteering in this sector). But church leaders, we need a plan. We need a plan bigger than just crisis management every week. We need a plan to share the gospel, see people come to faith, be discipled and then trained. How many of us have that strategy built into our mercy ministries? How many people do you know that have gone from soup kitchen to pastor? Or to any meaningful employment? The honest answer is not many. Those of you with a few happy tales are few and far between. It certainly does not justify the millions being spent on these enterprises by churches up and down the country. We need some sort of moratorium and discussion on this in the evangelical church. The FIEC needs to produce a paper. It needs to pay for some research and produce some guidelines for churches. This kind of ministry is salvageable under King Jesus. But we have to be brutally honest and not hide behind defensive platitudes.

I don’t have all the answers but I do think we ought to seriously visit this topic as Bible believing Christians without having knee jerk reactions. I am not calling for an end to mercy ministries. I am calling for them to be made better. I am calling for them to be more reciprocal, less one sided and thought of more as a stepping stone on the road to serious Christian discipleship within the local church. My contention is that generous justice and mercy ministry is not enough on its own. It doesn’t go far enough. I was reached by a mercy ministry to the streets. That was 20 years ago. We need to move on. We need to help people in my position move on. We need to ask whether what we are doing is really helping people move forward or merely servicing ourselves and our programmes.

We all want ministries that bring spiritual life to souls walking the cruel pathway to eternal death. Maybe a helping hand is our first point of engagement. But for too many churches it also seems to be our last.