Need is all around us. In towns like mine, you don’t have to look very far to see needy people who want you to help them with stuff. Our community is full of it, our church is replete with it and it is obviously and evidently all around us.
When there are such deep and complex needs all around, the temptation is to want to fix them all. Someone is without food, no problem, let’s give them something to eat. Someone has no money for the gas meter, no worries, let’s top up a card for them. Someone needs access to this, that or the other – no trouble – we’ll sort it out for them and make sure they’re looked after. It seems the obvious thing to do.
The problems with this should be obvious even as I am saying it. None of us are equipped to meet all those needs ourselves. I neither have the resources nor the hours in the day to deal with even one of those on its own in my town, let alone all of them. The other major problem with this is that we end up getting people to depend on us. We end up creating dependency as people come to us to get their problems fixed rather than learning how to resolve issues themselves.
As Mez McConnell has rightly said a number of times, we should never do for people what they can do for themselves. It may seem like a good idea, or make us feel good, but in the end if we do for people what they can do themselves we aren’t really helping them. We are creating a culture of dependency likely to keep them exactly where they are. There are ways to help, but doing for people what they can do for themselves is not one of them.
In our context, we frequently meet asylum seekers who want support. Generally speaking, it is our practice to point them in the direction of different agencies who can help them. We could go chasing it all for them and present them with a complete package, but they ultimately need to learn how to navigate the system. If they don’t know how to do that, we’re happy to tell them what they need to do and where to go and do it. But we don’t tend to do it for them. We are yet to meet a single case where the things that need to happen don’t happen because of this.
Does that mean it is wrong to dole out free food to people who need it? Not necessarily. But we need to think through carefully what we’re doing. If we’re just throwing out free goodies so that money which should be spent on food is actually funding other less profitable habits (let the reader understand), then we haven’t really helped. But if we are helping somebody because they’ve been forced to choose between the rent, the gas meter, school uniform for their kids and food for the family, and the money they’ve got just isn’t going to cover it that month, there might be a case for handing out a free food parcel that week. It isn’t quite as simple as ‘don’t give out free food’ but nor are these things as straightforward as ‘let’s start a food bank and just hand it out’. We need to ask, is our help actually helping. Sometimes the same act that genuinely helps one person might hurt the very next that comes along.
The point here is that we are not the saviours of our churches. We are not the saviours of our communities. It might seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes the best thing to do for people is to point them in the right direction and then do nothing. That might sound callous and cold-hearted, but it isn’t. If they can fix the problem themselves, we should let them fix the problem themselves. They might not think they can, but if we point them in the right direction and show them it is possible, we stop them relying on the church as dependents and give them agency.
Why does this matter? A while ago, we did a podcast on the question of people using the church like a service provider. You can listen to that here. It is very common for the church to be viewed as just another agency there to meet my felt needs and ever-increasing list of demands that I view as my right to have met. I have lost count of the number of times people come into the church and expect us to do things for them and how affronted some are when we tell them how to sort them and to get on with it themselves. There can be a sense that we turn up to church to get what we feel we need and only stay while the church is doing it for us.
The problem, of course, is that if Jesus isn’t keeping you in the church, you’ll be off the moment what you’re really after dries up. If we’ve won them with providing services for them, we’ll have to keep them with providing services for them. If that’s how we keep people, we end up with our own vested interest in making sure that they continue to need those services. If we help them such that they don’t need the services we provide any more, then they’ll leave. So, we find people coming in expecting services, we provide them and know we must keep doing so to keep them and then worry if we stop they’ll leave, making it helpful for us to keep them in need. All the while, we don’t help people move on from problems but perpetuate them and we don’t do very much for their deepest need, which isn’t to be provided with free stuff from us, but to hear the gospel and trust in Christ.
Again, this isn’t as straightforward as then just not doing things for people and telling them to get on with it. You might do something for somebody once, showing them how to do it, and then next time tell them they must now do it themselves because they know how. You might decide that people have all they need to know and just need pointing toward where they need to go. Different circumstances and situations will call for slightly different approaches. But what is clear is that if you constantly do everything for people you are increasing the likelihood of perpetuating their problems and not solving them.
The only culture of dependency we should be looking to create is one centred on Jesus. He died for our sin because that is something we cannot do for ourselves. He gives us his Holy Spirit to cause us to walk in the good works he has prepared for us to do because we can’t do them by ourselves. We should rightly be dependent on them. But we shouldn’t be looking to make people dependent on us. That is a weight we cannot bear and won’t help anyone in the long run. Instead, we should be looking to point people to where they can get help. That is first to Jesus and his gospel and second to whatever agencies might be able to work with them to address their physical needs. Can the church be a part of supplying those needs? Of course it can. It may even be right to do them. But we have to think carefully about the help that we give remembering that it is Jesus on whom folk need to depend, not us.