Years ago there was a group of churches, all of whom had food ministries to the poor of one sort or another, and we were discussing how to do our ministries better. The question came up: how can we minister to the poor who come to us? They aren’t looking to the church to be delivered from sin or death, necessarily, but they would like us to help fill their bellies and the bellies of their children. How do we make the leap from meeting physical needs to meeting spiritual ones?
We bounced about different ideas, but nothing practical or reasonable came about. Usually it is administrative staff or those who have a heart for meeting physical needs that are caring for the poor, and these aren’t the folks who are gifted with the ability to counsel. They could give people a piece of paper, inviting them to church, but as we have seen in a previous article, that doesn’t usually meet the needs of the poor. The staff person could refer a person to a pastor or prayer partner, but frankly, the poor person probably won’t contact anyone. When a person is faced with a severe crisis, most of the time they don’t take the time to contact strictly spiritual counselors.
As is often the case, when dealing with ministry questions we can turn to Jesus for the answers. Funny how that works out, huh?
What did Jesus do with every poor person that he met up with? He may have given them some teaching, or words of wisdom. He might feed them or help them in some other way. But every single one he prayed for. He would pray for healing, pray for deliverance, pray for resurrection, even. And prayer is the easiest, most powerful act we can do for anyone.
I note that for myself it is often easier to give someone a can of food or a phone number than it is to remember to pray for the one in need. I’m a pastor, I’m supposed to remember these things. But as a member of a materialistic society, it is easier to think of “real” things than spiritual ones. Of course, God is more real and can offer better help than our local social services or government. And we don’t have to fill out a form or show our ID to get God’s help. All we have to do is ask.
And if we have difficulty remembering this, how much more our poor friends who are faced with back rent, utilities, children to feed or a hole in their tent. They think that the quickest, more direct solution to their problem is to ask for the money or physical thing they need. Prayer seems like a distraction.
What we can do is not try to convince them that prayer is important. Rather, we just invite them to pray. We don’t need to change their belief, we need to show them that we care enough to bring their needs to the Lord of the universe. If we invite them to pray, spending time in prayer is their choice. I am so surprised at how many people come back to me after I pray with them but did nothing else, and mention how much the prayer helped them. I hear ‘thank yous’ for prayer much more than for blankets.
Here is the basic ministry every follower of Jesus can (and should) offer a needy person:
We should ask, as Jesus did, “What do you need?” And more often than not, they will tell their story. We don’t have to correct their presuppositions or pity them. All we have to do is listen and understand. Having someone really understand your problems is the first step of healing.
If we just ask if they are willing to have us pray, 99 percent of all people will be willing to have us pray. And 90 percent will be happy to have us do it. To pray for them means we heard, we agree they have a need and, more than that, it communicates that we think God will meet their need. But the most important thing is that prayer opens the opportunity for God to directly minister to them and to build up their faith. If we pray, and the prayer is answered, then they will thank God and give Him credit. If we don’t pray, God may act, but He will not be glorified.
Help with what we can
We must take James’ warning to heed: If we bless the person in need, but do nothing to help their immediate need, we are faith without works: our spiritual life is dead. So after the prayer we see what we can do to meet the person’s need with what we have. We should not allow a person to hang up the phone or leave our facility without giving them some real help.