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The Christian response to hunger and poverty

By Ken Horn

Editor’s note: Today (November 22) is World Hunger Day, the Assemblies of God’s concerted response to the plight of malnourished and starving families around the world. Evangel readers are encouraged to prayerfully consider how they can support this effort personally or through their local church. As the following article makes clear, caring for those in need is a direct outgrowth of personal and communal revival.

Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?" (James 2:15,16, NIV).

The Scriptures speak clearly in this and numerous other places that believers are to do their best to meet the needs of those who are without the bare necessities of life. The history of Christianity is indeed a history of benevolence. Though the church, especially in the United States, has gone through periods of time when it apparently had little concern for the needy, visitations of God in historic revivals have served to turn the community of faith back to this "second great commandment."

Two independent studies conducted more than 50 years apart sought to determine the kindest city in America. In 1940, a survey of 43 major American cities found that Rochester, N.Y., ranked first in altruism. Between 1990 and 1992, a study based at California State University, Fresno, again targeted Rochester as the U.S. city where the most helpful people live.1 To what could this remarkable, ongoing distinction be credited?

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In 1831, what many feel was the greatest revival in U.S. history took place — in Rochester. A revival primarily among the well-to-do, the move of God spawned what came to be known as "the Great Eight benevolent societies" and dozens of others. The impact of that revival is felt in Rochester and the surrounding area to the present day.

A keystone of the movement known as the Second Great Awakening, the Rochester revival was led by Charles G. Finney, the most significant evangelist of the period. For six months the revival burned, closing taverns and houses of ill repute, and introducing multitudes to a genuine relationship with Christ. The converted were largely among the affluent — doctors, lawyers, bankers, judges and businessmen. Finney turned the resources of the new converts toward benevolent causes, both official and unofficial; the city even became a stop on the Underground Railroad, the system that served as an escape route for slaves prior to the Civil War. One study of the period states, "The most important factor of this wave of revival was not the number of conversions it achieved, but the emphasis it placed on the reformation of society by the Spirit of Christ, operating through the newly regenerate."2

Though Finney’s role — like the revival itself — has largely been forgotten by most Rochester residents, its influence has clearly been passed down for generations. The correlation of the nation’s greatest revival and most benevolent city is no accident.

The "Prayer Meeting Revival" — called by some the Third Great Awakening — that shook the U.S. in 1857-58, reached the British Isles in 1859. Of this revival, George E. Morgan wrote in 1908, "The visitation of the Spirit first taught afresh the lesson of the New Birth; then, living faith was translated into good works, multiplying on every hand and producing world-wide results. A host of zealous converts carried the message of Divine love and practical sympathy into the darkest abodes of human woe."3 According to Sir John Kirk, the revival "reached out to body and soul."4 Converts cleaned up slums, founded hospitals, exposed the plight of those in sweat shops, improved the lot of prisoners and founded scores of other philanthropic organizations.

D.L. Moody, the most notable and successful revivalist of the latter half of the 19th century, himself touched by the Prayer Meeting Revival as a young man, was responsible for multitudes of benevolent causes that came to life following his crusades in the United States and Great Britain.

Two major distinctives of revivals are that they reach out, and they reach down. Jesus set forth His own mission in Nazareth when He read from Isaiah in the synagogue: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed" (Luke 4:18). The Christian’s lifelong goal of becoming more like Jesus demands that we follow in that mission. (See 2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:5.) In emulating Him, we are to "consider others better than [ourselves]" and "look not only to [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3,4).

Periodically the church lapses into a social apathy, which has given rise to the dictum, "They are so heavenly minded, they are of no earthly good." Reactions to this have frequently driven an artificial wedge between ministry to body and spirit.

In the early part of the 20th century, a Baptist minister named Walter Rauschenbusch reacted to the seeming lack of evangelical commitment to ministry to the needy. Rauschenbusch, who was born in Rochester, and was thus impacted by that city’s rich history of evangelical benevolence, became known as "the Father of the Social Gospel in America." The Social Gospel eventually became a divisive term designating a movement that worked to improve the social order without emphasizing spiritual need. It and evangelical Christianity became diametrically opposed. Evangelicals feared extensive social work would eventually eclipse the gospel in their denominations as it had in many mainline denominations.

This backlash to the Social Gospel caused many evangelical churches to focus more on the spiritual aspects of the gospel, depending on cleaned-up souls to clean up society automatically. Still, evangelicals and Pentecostals have been no strangers to meeting the needs of man. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, for example, Pentecostal pastor/evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson fed thousands at her church regularly for a period of years.

Any logic that would attempt to divide physical and spiritual ministry is flawed. Even a casual review of the life of Christ reveals His active concern for the physical needs of people. In fact, this is of such importance to our Lord that He compared ministry to the poor to ministry to himself: "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Matthew 25:35,36). When the perplexed righteous ask when they did these things, He replies, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40).

Some point to Christ’s use of the term "brothers" here as evidence that Christians are only supposed to care for needy believers. This is a serious error. After Jesus identified the most important commandment as, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30), He said the second most important is, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31). "There is no commandment greater than these," He said. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus made it clear that a "neighbor" is anyone in need. Proverbs 19:17 emphasizes this principle: "He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done."

The biblical basis for the Christian’s ministry to the poor is summarized best in the verse that Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross in the United States, counted her favorite: "In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12). These are direct words of Jesus; we call it the Golden Rule and it is at the heart of the Christian life.

The church of Jesus Christ must be concerned both for the physical and the spiritual needs of mankind. We cannot ignore the world’s hunger. William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army, were first and foremost fervent revivalists. Their early motto was "soap, soup and salvation." Good works and the gospel must go together. It is difficult for starving people to hear the sermons of those who care little or nothing about their physical plight. A genuine revival will cause the church to reach down to people in physical need. It’s what Jesus would do.

Ken Horn is managing editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. E-mail your comments to

1 "Our Kindest City" by John S. Tompkins. Reader’s Digest, July 1994, pp. 53-56.

2 From Sea to Shining Sea by Peter Marshall and David Manuel (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), p. 315.

3 Mighty Days of Revival by George E. Morgan (London: Morgan & Scott Ltd., 1908), p. 141.

4 Ibid., p. 144.

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