Welfare and the Spirit of Poverty

I've always tended to be a bit of a social democrat in my political views. I've believed that we need to help the poor and be compassionate to the people at the bottom of the ladder.

I still think that there are situations where society needs to give people a helping hand. I think the Biblical injunction to care for the "widows, the orphans and the aliens in your midst" is still important.

But I'm starting to think that Government-sponsored welfare is a trap that keeps many people in poverty instead of releasing them to reach their full potential.

Today I started listening to a set of teaching CDs by various people on the theme of "Building wealth." At first it seemed like the standard prosperity gospel, and I was definitely sceptical. I don't believe that God wants everybody rich. But then the speaker, John Kelly, said something that got my attention: "This is not about you getting rich and being able to buy expensive cars. It's not about you at all. It is about you being able to fulfil the plans and destiny that God has for your life, so that you can bring glory to Him."

He told a couple of stories which I will try to relate.

In the first one, he says he met a man who claimed to be an evangelist. He had been to Bible college but was feeling discouraged because he didn't have the finances to support his ministry. Kelly said, "I can take you to somebody who can help you", and drove him down to the local Toyota dealer. As they walked onto the yard, people would call out "Hello Apostle Kelly", and give him cheery waves. As they entered the building they announced his presence, and asked Henry Smith to meet him. So they sit down in the office and John explains that he has this evangelist who needs financial help. Henry says to him "Would $2500 a month be OK?" The evangelist has tears in his eyes and thanks him. As they leave the office, Henry says "Turn up tomorrow at 9 am for training." The evangelist is confused and John says "Don't you get it? All of those people who greeted us so warmly are evangelists in training. Henry supports their ministry with finance and training- if you can't sell a car which you can see you will never learn to sell the gospel which people can't see."

In another story he says that he once said in a seminar in church "It is impossible not to be able to make money in this country (USA)". He said a man came to him and said "I can't make money. I'm a recovering drug addict. I've been in jail and now I'm in a half-way house and nobody will give me a job." John responds "Praise the Lord! You're an entrepreneur! You're going to start a business." So he takes him and a couple of buckets down a couple of blocks to an intersection where there are traffic lights. "Right this is the business. When a car stops at the lights you clean their windscreen. This is Business 101- you have a service which you give them for money." The man catches on and pretty soon within a couple of months, he is employing another man from the half-way house to help him. Then he has a problem- so many coins that he can't safely look after them at the half-way house. So John teaches him about banking and tells him how to rent an apartment. Then he tells him to go to all the shops and offer to clean their windows for half price. A few years later the unemployable man has his own business employing others, running a fleet of trucks throughout Pittsburgh cleaning windows all over the city.

John concludes with the thought that we all have a gift inside us, a mission even. We need to find the place we belong, the job that is made for us.

Our experience has been that for many years we were dependent to an extent on Family Payments. We were not drawing much of a salary from the church (in fact for over a year we didn't draw any salary as such, although we received "in kind" help through having our car expenses, utility bills etc. paid). At the end of last year the Government changed the rules and told Margaret that she had to register as a job seeker, even though she was working as a pastor full time. She came to the conclusion that this was amounting to a curse because the government was declaring that her work as a pastor was not a real job. She resigned from Family Payments in January and we haven't looked back. God has been good- the people in our church have been very generous in their giving and we now have a reasonable financial position.

It is almost as if receiving a benefit from the Government makes it impossible to be blessed by God form other sources. If that's the case, then churches and Christians really need to work out how to remove the dependency on welfare that is so widespread in many communities.

I have no problem with emergency and short-term help for people in desperate needs. Support for the elderly and the handicapped, for people who are very ill and for young people studying are all valuable forms of support. Long term unemployment benefits, and support for people in remote places where there are no jobs, and in fact no economy apart from the welfare economy, are not as good.

How do we help people in need, in a way that helps them stop being needy? When I was at theological college I did Field Education in a very poor part of Sydney where there were third and fourth generations of people who had never held a job- I have problems with that kind of generational dependency.

I'm still trying to work all of this stuff out, but I think there is a definite calling there for Christians at least to work out their dependency on Governments, and work harder at trusting God for their provision rather than the State.

Gosh I think I'm turning into a red-neck!