I think the most important principle is you can’t effectively help needy people you don’t know. Now, there are exceptions. You might say, “I know the people who work with them, and I financially support their ministry.” But the principle still stands that someone has to actually know the people being ministered to.
We’ll never have a heart for people we don’t see and spend time with. If we don’t know anyone who’s poor—if we don’t go out in our communities to meet people, strike up conversations, and get to know them—we can’t see what we can do for them. We need to take the initiative of volunteering at a soup kitchen, doing downtown ministry, or participating in some other outreach to those in need.
We can also encourage our churches to support these ministries, and then start volunteering ourselves. Churches often get involved in a ministry when some members are invested in giving of their time and developing relationships.
Nanci and I have experience that in our home church, Good Shepherd Community Church. One of our members walked away from his very profitable medical practice and set up what’s called The Good News Clinic in one of the poorest areas of our community. Churches support them. People volunteer, including physicians and nurses, as well as trained therapists and people with counseling skills because the clinic’s patients need more than physical care—they need emotional and mental care too, and most importantly they need to hear the Good News of Christ.
But you’ve got to get out there and actually connect. Certainly, missions trips to poor parts of the world are important, though they don’t involve the poor in our own community. But there are truly poor people around us. We need to meet these people and see what’s being done for them, instead of writing them all off as drug addicts and people who are just trying to bleed the system. Many of these people have very complex stories that involve abuse, hurt, and pain, and some of them are veterans. You just don’t know until you get close enough to meet them and minister to them, as God’s Word calls us to do.
For some of us it’s a question of walking down the block and getting to know the poor. For others it’s driving twenty miles to find a homeless person. Perhaps I must take regular trips away from the cozy suburbs to the inner city. Whole churches have become involved in projects of helping the poor. Some youth groups take regular trips to Mexico. Others put on camps and evangelistic Bible clubs for inner-city children. Churches can go to the ghettos, the jails, the hospitals, and rest homes—wherever there is need.
God links our efforts for the poor directly to our relationship with Him. May he one day say of us what he said of King Josiah: “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” (Jeremiah 22:16).