Good Deeds or Dead Works?
It’s often been said that good is the enemy of best. One area in which this truth becomes evident is with charities. A great number of organizations claim to have hearts to feed hungry people in the United States and abroad. Some of these groups actively solicit the assistance of churches. Are all feeding charities viable ministries? Is there ever a good cause not to support one of them?
To answer these questions, it’s important to recognize that the Church is commanded to fulfill the Great Commission–not to feed the world, as some would suggest. The Westminster Confession states, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Therefore, it would seem best to donate one’s time and money to ministries that offer the Bread of Life and food, rather than bread or rice alone–those that glorify God instead of man. A charity that does not evangelize is not a ministry.
Any charitable organization, including those that identify themselves as ministries, has the same capacity to do harm as to do good. As with President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” enacted in the 1960s, the enormous cost and human damage caused by misdirected good intentions is often hidden for decades, and the resulting devastation can extend far beyond the simple loss of financial investment.
Feeding America, Inc. has engaged in an aggressive public relations and advertising campaign, but it is not a ministry. It is only a secular food distribution network. Its limited focus does not make Feeding America or its state affiliates bad. Whether the organization’s intentions are pure or tainted will be revealed in time. However, Christians who choose to fund its efforts should recognize it as a secular charity and know that its goals may conflict with those of a bona fide ministry. In addition, ties between Feeding America and liberal politicians, celebrities and governments may make this and similar organizations unacceptable to Christians, especially since it does not offer a long-term strategy to reduce the need for its services.
One of the programs Feeding America promotes is called “Blessings in a Backpack.” Many “backpack ministries” have been created and supported by mainline churches. Their stated goal is to reduce hunger among school-aged children. But is there a devil in the details?
The first backpack feeding program in the United States seems to have begun in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1995, when a school nurse sought help from a local food bank in getting food to poor children that she identified as needy. Today, there are thousands of backpack ministries throughout the United States. Many are run by churches, with or without the assistance of Feeding America.
Backpacks are filled with groceries, distributed in public schools and sent home with children. The basic idea is admirable. But what often occurs in many American cities and towns is that teachers and school administrators are those who are determining who is needy and eligible for free food according to specious criteria.
Because these efforts operate within public schools, presentations of the gospel are usually prohibited. What’s worse, the parents of children chosen to receive the backpacks are often not consulted, nor is a needs test applied. If a public school teacher or administrator determines that a child is hungry, the child becomes a candidate to receive one backpack filled with food per week. In many areas, the children fail to return the backpacks to be refilled. Because of this, some churches and schools have begun distributing groceries to children in paper bags. There is little accountability or follow-up to determine if aid is no longer needed, and this can create dependence.
Feeding America is fond of identifying its clients as “food insecure,” a descriptor invented to serve its purposes. The problem with efforts like Feeding America and backpack programs relates to approach and effectiveness. Hunger in America is usually a symptom of an underlying problem in the home such as unemployment, drug abuse or alcoholism, and not a pathology in itself. Backpack feeding programs do not address the essential problems, and thus are of limited effectiveness in meeting their own stated goal.
Another noble-sounding effort is Stop Hunger NOW! This group seeks to feed people in Africa and developing countries around the world. Stop Hunger NOW has spread into many mainline church denominations and encourages youth to solicit funds for its shipping and purchasing costs. The members of various churches assemble packages containing rice, beans and dried vegetables for distribution in bags so that the contents can be cooked together. Water and heat are all that is required to reconstitute the meals. But Stop Hunger NOW has glaring problems for the primary mission of the Church.
Because Stop Hunger NOW distributes its food packages in partnership with the secular and governmental agencies, it has submitted itself to the Humanitarian Imperative which makes evangelism efforts nearly impossible. In addition, Stop Hunger NOW cannot identify where its donations are going. In African nations, food packages might aid starving people in a tiny village suffering from years of drought, or they may be delivered to a hostile military regime to feed soldiers or a Muslim terrorist group like Boco Haram, Mujahidin or Hezbollah. Details such as this are not inconsequential.
Scripture teaches us to be wise as serpents, yet gentle as doves. Wisdom demands that we use our resources where they will do the most good. In the United States, the Salvation Army, Gleaning for the World and Samaritan’s Purse are genuine gospel ministries. There are many others that also address the most important needs in the lives of broken people. They are not difficult to find, but they do not have huge advertising budgets like Feeding America, Inc., the Red Cross or United Way.
Governments never make effective charities, and ministry partnerships with them corrupt the best efforts of caring people. This is because the goals of Christian and secular organizations are in direct opposition to one another. The most important need in the life of any person and the one with an eternal benefit, is to know the God who created each of us for His own good pleasure. Anyone can meet the need of an empty stomach. Only Christ Jesus can meet the need of an empty soul, and only the Church can offer Him to a world filled with broken people.
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