Brandon Hatmaker
Stop Serving the Poor
by Brandon Hatmaker on March 22nd, 2012

The number of socially concerned Christians is on the rise. Likewise, so is the number of socially concerned Churches. This, in itself, is a good thing. But, can I be honest for a moment? We’ve got a fatal flaw that, if left unchecked, will undo any of the good we’re trying to do:

We pretty much make everything about us.

We’ve been charged with the biblical mandate to learn to do right (Isaiah 1:17), to love mercy (Micah 6:8), and to seek justice (Pretty much the whole Bible). And many of us are trying. Including me.
  • I’m still learning how to “do right”.
  • I’m still learning to increasingly “love mercy”.
  • I’m still learning what it means to biblically “seek justice”.
And while I’ve seen indicators of our nature to “steal the fame” from the beginning, I’ve realized that it only has the potential to grow stronger the deeper you get. I’m thankful that as we try, we’re given the biblical permission to “Learn to do right”. This assumes one reality: God already knows we don’t know how.

Here's something I'm learning...

There’s a pattern among those we serve. I’ve observed it in pretty much every service environment, but its most profound among the homeless. And it tells us something about ourselves. Let me explain by sharing their questions:

Where does your church meet?

What time are your services?

Is there a bus stop nearby?

They ask these questions, even those who never plan on coming.

Here’s what I’ve realized. The homeless have very little if anything to offer us. They know that, and although there are those who “play the game” there are many who are genuinely thankful for what we do. The only thing they have to offer back is what they think we want: The possibility that they’ll come to our church.

Why would they think that? Why can’t they just accept a hot cheeseburger or new pair of shoes without thinking we have an agenda? Why are they lining up looking at us weird waiting for us to hand them outreach tracts? Why are they talking in “King James” version and quoting bible verses to us all day?

Everyone knows this except us: We're self-centered and too often act with a self-serving agenda. This is why so many non-profits, schools, and city officials are afraid to partner with us. I wish I could say it wasn’t true, but we’re just as conditioned as the one’s we serve. Whether it’s the homeless or the working poor across the interstate, there are reasons we do what we do. And and honest look might reveal it’s not the reason we think or the Gospel proclaims.

We think if we could just get everyone to church we could fix them. It would validate our service. They could be like us. And we could do noble things for God. Get them to church and we wouldn’t have to walk with them hand-in-hand. We wouldn’t have to be friends. We wouldn’t have to open ourselves up and make personal sacrifices (By the way, we tend to treat our neighbors the same).

We think that since they’re now quoting scripture that we are obviously impacting their faith journey. And we feel good about ourselves. And we think God likes us more (we’re an insecure bunch). And they know it. So they gush over us… and give us what we want… and we go home feeling all warm and fuzzy.

Don’t think less of the homeless… It’s not a malicious or deceptive act to give us what we really want. We’re playing the game too.

I’d consider it more a success if I spent an hour with a homeless guy and he never mentioned church, what he does wrong, or what he doesn’t do right. I know, sounds weird. But, I’d rather him talk about his story, his family, what happened that landed him on the streets. That would be an indicator to me that he’s not performing for me. And that maybe, just maybe, I really cared about his story. And that just possibly, my God might care as well.

This might be a good time for a side note: I still think it’s worth it, right, helpful, and productive to serve the way we’re serving and to continuously seek out new and more effective ways to engage need.

I also have an agenda. But I think it’s a good one. I want everyone who is a part of our faith community to be face-to-face with people who are in need. I don’t want to run away from the tension it creates in us. As a pastor I’m making disciples. And I want everyone to be among the broken, marginalized, abandoned, homeless, and lonely because that’s where we’ll find Jesus (Matthew 25).

But we need to do so and lead others to do so with a prayerful posture. Seeking the Spirit. Evaluating our motives. Searching our hearts and minds. And come without agenda other than to be faithful to Gospel and Kingdom.

This is a really hard thing to do. It’s embedded so deeply both in our church culture and our sinful nature. And it reveals a fatal flaw that saturates much of what we do. Every area of our faith can be impacted by it. And I pray we take note.

We need to stop serving the poor just because it makes us feel good. We need to stop serving the poor because we like bragging about it. We need to stop serving the poor because it’s the hip thing to do right now. We need to stop serving the poor because we’re hoping God will be pleased with us. All those reasons are about us. They steal God’s glory and they will be exposed for what they are.

We need to learn to serve the poor for bigger reasons. We need to serve because we’re made new and find our identity in Christ. Because we understand mercy and have fallen in love with the concept of offering all we have to people who don’t deserve it (like us). Because we are seeking justice for those who cannot find it alone (like us). Because we believe the Gospel. Because we take serious the ministry of reconciliation. Because there is a plan of redemption, and because God invites us to be a part of that story.

Posted in not categorized    Tagged with gospel, Justice, Mercy, Homeless, Restore Weekend


Nathan - March 22nd, 2012 at 11:18 AM
We must stop serving the poor (to borrow your language) because what I have typically discovered in any social justice ministry the tendency is to make us feel better about ourselves and to merely assist those whom we are attempting to serve. What happens is we (those who serve, and I am speaking on a general basis) tend to serve so we can feel better about how much we have, how much we consume, and we feel like if we give some of that away we have done a good think. What we fail to do is realize that serving someone is not about giving them food, clothing, a ride, or a new pair of shoes. Its about hearing their stories seeing them as truly human. We will truly be able to serve the poor, or the disenfranchised of society when we stop asking the question what can I do for you? And start attempting to see people as truly human and our equals becasue in reality they are.
Brandon Hatmaker - March 22nd, 2012 at 4:15 PM
Good thoughts Nathan. The good news is that we are given permission.. in fact commanded... to LEARN to do right. I've seen many people serve initially for wrong motives but then something sparks that leads to more significant serving. That is certainly my hope. So we shouldn't stop serving all together... even if we don't fully get it... the important thing is that we're aware of the danger/risk and we guard against it staying superficial long term. The initial service in itself should not be the end. That said, I'm thankful we serve a God who can certainly redeem our weakest efforts.
Adrian W. - March 22nd, 2012 at 11:24 AM
So much truth here. I recently wrote a post about Social Exchange Theory and its implications for our faith. My final conclusion was that we cannot escape the fact that even our good deeds are an extension of our selfishness.

I like, though, that you took it a step further here and shifted our focus. Instead of giving in to the fact that we're serving for a "good feeling" (or whatever the agenda may be), we need to go above and beyond and serve because we have be rescued and genuinely desire to rescue others.
Nathan - March 22nd, 2012 at 11:35 AM
I wonder are we serving to rescue, and if we are, are we claiming that the life we have is the better life? Are we seeking to rescue people into the "American Life"? I would argue that if we are seeking to rescue people into what we have determined is the right way of living then we are seeking a top down transformation. I don't think that we need to be looking for transformation or that transformation is the intent of serving because if it is then we approach the action of serving once again with an agenda of rescue. It seems to me that the only true way forward is to accept whom ever we are engaged with just as they are as a human being.
Brandon Hatmaker - March 22nd, 2012 at 4:09 PM
I think you're both right. First, we certainly should not seek to just rescue others... I'm not sure that's exactly what Adrian is saying... but that we could be agents of hope. The hope that Jesus rescues. Second, I agree on not trying to "transform" others... we'd be better off thinking about and hoping that we're transformed along the way. I've said it before and I echo it now, "Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he told us to serve the poor".

Good thoughts! THanks for posting. BH
Nicole - March 22nd, 2012 at 2:07 PM
My husband and I have worked with the homeless for over 4 years and are still learning how to do it right. We recently found ourselves in a situation to help a couple (who we have known on the street for over a year) and their 2month old baby off the streets of Houston. I have battled the motives of my heart, the guilt for not doing more, the questions from church members who don't get it. It has been a learning process and we have made many mistakes. We didn't bring them here to "bring them up to our standard". However, there are some who think that is the purpose. We felt the Lord pressing in on us...and we had to act. There is so much transformation, in our eyes, that "needs" to happen. But then I have to stop and think...who is this about? Not me! We have been obedient to do our small part. We are still listening to the Holy Spirit one day at a time to know what, if anything, we are to do next.

We didn't do this to be heros, honestly I didn't even want to do this! Some may call it rescuing, some may think we are "honorable"...I know my heart and that is not true!! All that to say, because we got to know John and Patricia on the street and formed a relationship with them...we know LOTS of their stories, we were led to help in a deeper way when they were crying out of desperation for help. May the Lord receive all the glory!
Brandon Hatmaker - March 22nd, 2012 at 4:11 PM
Thanks for your story Nicole. Bottom line, we serve to please God alone and as an expression of worship (mixed with a little gratitude and perspective). Through it... God just does stuff. Some is unexplainable. Both in us and others.
Jen - March 26th, 2012 at 12:27 PM
Nicole, my husband and I have taken in people twice because we both felt God's presence and an urgency to take action. The first ended wonderfully and the second is still unfolding, this time with the help of many others. I recognize your conflicting feelings as well. I don't tell anyone outside my family and church. My boss thinks I'm nuts for the first time and doesn't know about it this time. My question is, why aren't more people taking these steps? What is holding us back? Is it like the writer says, that we would be doing it for the wrong reasons? I agree it is wrong to hand someone a sandwich and think we have accomplished something wonderful when what they need is a dry place to sleep. Sometimes all we have is the sandwich, but working together we should be able to offer more. How many churches out there take food to the homeless, but don't offer them to come in and take a shower or wash their clothes. How often do they "hang out" with their homeless friends? Give them hugs when the see them on the street? Talk earnestly among themselves about ways to combat the situation of homelessness and act on those ideas? In Little Rock there is a group, Rock of Hope, that is working to buy and renovate abandoned homes and get homeless folks in them, get them jobs or on disability if that is what they need. We have three houses running and are about to buy a fourth. It started with one guy who was serving meals who started to ask the same questions posed here. After a warming shelter he decided he couldn't bear to see his friends back in the cold. I think that is the key. They were, and are, his friends, not strangers.
Nicole - March 27th, 2012 at 5:29 PM
Thanks Jen for the acknowledgement! Comforting to know you aren't alone. Just a quick update: After 3 months of being off the street, John has a full time job with a lawn service!!!! Praise the Lord! Keep taking the steps no matter big or small...
Dave Burge - March 29th, 2012 at 11:24 AM
Great word!!! I believe we are living in a time where God is sifting the Church, to find out who is going to be the Church and who is going to play church. I'm in a great church in Vancouver, WA that takes in the homeless and helps them get back on their feet. There are several families that host them until housing can be secured. It is the Church doing what the Church has been called to do. May God bless your work and give you harvesters for your field, because you are sowing great seed.
Brandon Hatmaker - March 29th, 2012 at 2:36 PM
Thanks Dave! Such a good thing to see the PEOPLE OF THE CHURCH take people in... walk with them... and help them transition. Such a needed thing... we need to stop relying on our structures more and start BEING the church ourselves. Awesomeness. BH
Dawn Hendricks - April 11th, 2012 at 12:54 PM
Love the convo here around being missional! I am a full time college student and I'm working on a presentation that asks and attempts to answer the question: Who is serving the poor in a more impacting way today? Is it still the church, or have non-profits and other high profile/philanthropic orgs actually gone farther.

Not to diminish the singular stories in any way, because as a believer, those testimonies are what keep me going, but has the church as a whole lost its way here? Open and appreciate any of your thoughts on the matter.
Dawn Hendricks - April 24th, 2012 at 4:34 PM
Well, I will be presenting a short discussion on the church and the poor tomorrow in class. I will let you know how it goes.
Brandon Hatmaker, I don't know you or why out of all the dozens of sights I have been looking at that yours is the one I landed on and will be using to spark some in class conversation, but it is. I like the way you present people as people, from the poor to those who are willing to help the poor. Thanks for keeping it real.
Jen - May 17th, 2012 at 7:54 AM
“In a contagious world, we learn to keep our distance. If we get too close to those who are suffering we might get infected with their pain. It may not be convenient or comfortable. But only when you get close enough to catch their hurt will they be close enough to catch your love.” – John Ortberg Just started '7' experiment with a group of friends and this morning read Jesus words in Matthew 12:7 and your blog post hit me hard. In 'Celebration of Discipline', Foster says, it has to start with seeking God's kingdom first (Mt. 6:33) then everything else will fall in its proper order. The challenge in our sinful fallen world is truly to seek His Kingdom above all else, as you so perfectly stated in your blog post.
Ashley - October 29th, 2012 at 11:33 AM
This is strong, good and true. Thank u for who u are!
james - October 30th, 2012 at 10:10 PM
Face the truth: you want to help these people because you believe, in your most pious of moments, that they are Christ; that you have done it 'unto the least of these' and so 'have done it unto 'me', Jesus.
This is not human love, humanitarianism, human-ness. This is factionalism. The fact is, you have not served them as fellow humans, you have served them because you think they somehow are mystical representatives of YOUR religion, YOUR doctrinal commitment, YOUR Christ.
If Christian ethics ever move to thinking about 'humans' instead of just thinking of humans as potential 'Jesus's' then the rest of the world can begin to trust and honor their efforts.
Chris Baxter - June 21st, 2014 at 3:09 PM
James, that is an analyst view of scriptural statements, and is not what most practice.
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