Lesson 20: Modern Charity

Create a Facebook FundraiserLast week, I examined the basic Christian message or Gospel that proceeds from the statement “God is love.” Perhaps trying to be too clever, I suggested everything else is commentary. My intention was simply to make clear that this message is always changing as it is applied to the particulars of the situation being addressed. Love is a virtue, not a law. One of its most important qualities is the ability to adjust to circumstances.

This is apparent if you trace how charity has changed throughout our history. When the early church could sustain the solidarity of a small community, everything was shared according need. As she grew in numbers and responsibility for the larger community, the Church adopted more ordered charitable practices. In the Middle Ages, these included drawing up lists of people regarded as needy but also deserving. When urban poverty became a huge problem during the Industrial Revolution, the government got involved. And then in the 19th century, wealthy philanthropists moved from giving to the poor to providing resources, such as libraries, schools, and cultural events, they could use to make themselves productive.

Charity in our present technological society introduces another issue. Many charities are now big businesses. As soon as this was mentioned, participants in my face-to-face classes took off with vigor. They complained of being annoyed by constant phone calls from paid telemarketers and robots. Most, if not all of them, had threatened to stop giving to no avail. The calls still came.

They recognized these charities were operating with cost-effective tactics like any other modern business. Using paid rather than volunteer callers and frequent contacts, even if they annoy, are marketing tools that raise more money than former methods.

The participants easily acknowledged this bright side. These cost-effective techniques provide large sums to do marvelous things in the battle to eradicate global hunger and devastating diseases. They had more trouble identifying the dark sides beyond noting that the big money brought fraud and that rewarding donors with gifts and public recognition were practices Jesus criticized.

We should also discern this is another way that modern technology creates problems along with its rewards. Breaking loving actions into parts managed by paid specialists loses the personal relationship that characterizes Christian love. The Christian story defines love by Jesus’ compassion. To write a check enabling someone else to work with the needy bypasses the vulnerability of suffering with and for another person.

This loss of personal relationships has created a fractured society just as damaging as material poverty. Studies show the average American now claims to have 2 close friends. That is down from 4 reported twenty years ago. Even sadder, one out of every four says they have no close confidants. These figures indicate not only the loneliness resulting from having no community with which to share sufferings and celebrate victories but also the brokenness that prevents working together for the common good.

Local churches are one of the very few places where people from all sections of society gather. To proclaim and practice love there involves opening oneself up to an ongoing relationship that demands faithfulness. Because of this, we should resist imposing business models on our churches that make them fundraising institutions rather than communities fostering compassionate personal relationships. When Jesus directs our love to the neighbor, he certainly seems to indicate the importance of caring for those nearby.

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