When I heard that a tornado in Oklahoma City killed over 50 people, many of whom were elementary students, I shuddered with sorrow. How can a person hear that children died and entire neighborhoods were wiped out and not be affected?
So I stopped and prayed. I thanked the Lord for my own family’s safety, and I prayed for those first-responders and teachers who were trying to rescue people. I prayed for the churches in the area, and asked that God would give them wisdom in how they respond. I asked that the pastors would have the ability to comfort, the elders would lead, and that God would use this for good by drawing people to himself.
And then I thought, how can I help? What can I do to help those in need, especially the believers who were affected? I read this passage:
“Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:33-34).
And then this one: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17).
But I don’t own a rescue dog, and I don’t even live in Oklahoma. How can I possibly apply those verses in times of tragedy? It is practically the American Way to donate to the Red Cross or other aide organizations. But is that what Jesus had in mind?
In the New Testament, when there were physical or practical needs in the church, they were met through the church. When there were poor in the congregation, the elders organized a system to care for their needs (Acts 6:1-7; 1 Tim 5;9). Believers obeyed Jesus’ command and sold their excess goods to care for one another, but they didn’t give the money to outside groups; they gave it to the church, through the church.
The early church met the physical needs of other believers by giving their money to their church (they literally laid it at the Apostle’s feet), and then they allowed the elders to identify the must urgent needs to meet. And when there was famine or desperate poverty in distant lands, the strategy stayed the same. Believers pooled their money and gave it to their churches, who in turn passed it along to churches in need (Rom 15:25-26; 1 Cor 16:1-3).
The wisdom of this approach is obvious. How could a church in Galatia possibly know the most effective way to minister in Jerusalem? How could they really discern between those truly in need, and those whom charity would only further enable? Obviously they couldn’t possibly be expected to know those things. But the elders of the church in Jerusalem would, so Paul wanted to collect the money and give it to the church, who would then give it to the poor.
The same is true today. Take the tragedy in Oklahoma yesterday. Do you want to help? That is good, and a sign of godliness. But how can you know who is in need? If you give to a secular organization, you are trusting your money to a group that obviously does not share your goal of reconciling the world to God through preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. How do you know which homeowners have insurance, and which don’t? How do you know who is in desperate need? How do you possibly know who to give your money to?
The answer is simple. The procedure Paul described in Romans 15 and 1 Corinthians 16 is still effective. Here is how I suggest this should look:
- Churches should have a designated fund set up for disaster relief. Then when a disaster happens, they already have the procedure in place to receive money from their congregants to help meet the needs of those affected. That way people follow Paul’s example and give directly to their own church as a way of ministering to those around the globe.
- Churches should then send the money that was collected to like-minded churches in the affected area, for the purpose of meeting the material needs of their congregations. That puts the burden of discernment on the local elders, who are the ones best placed to know how to use the money. It is always a good principle to give your money to the godliest people who are closet to the need, and this accomplishes just that.
- If you don’t know of a like-minded church in the area (or if your church is not receiving money for something like this), consider giving funds to a group like The Children’s Hunger Fund. They are one of the world’s largest Christians charities, and they distribute their resources through a network of like-minded churches. This network is already established globally, and the churches who are part of it have been trained on how to respond in times of crisis. CHF has as one of its main principles that the resources they give out go to churches, and that the local churches then take the lead on how to use/distribute them. I have worked with them first-hand, and have seen the integrity they use in handling $5 gifts as well as $20,000 donations. I’ve seen them respond to fires in Los Angeles, the earthquake in Haiti, and typhoons in the Philippines. They have a legacy of maximizing their resources to strengthen affected churches, while furthering the advancement of the gospel.
Regardless of where you give your money, the goal should be the same: believers in parts of the world where there is excess should use their material blessings to alleviate physical suffering of believers while furthering the missionary efforts of the church. The only way I can think of doing that is to follow the pattern set up by Paul, and get the resources into the hands of the churches in need.