I have not read Tim Keller’s new book Generous Justice yet, so I’m guessing that he addresses the question of helping the poor in greater detail than in his article, “The Gospel and the Poor.” In any case, I have found his article to be really helpful, and I want to highlight what he calls “levels of wholistic ministry” (to the poor). The three levels:
This is direct aid to meet physical/material/social needs. Common relief ministries are temporary shelter for the homeless, food and clothing services for people in dire need, medical services, crisis counseling, and so on. A more active form of relief is “advocacy,” in which people in need are given active assistance to get legal aid, help them find housing, and find other kinds of aid. Relief programs alone can create patterns of dependency.
This is what is needed is to bring a person or community to self-sufficiency. In the OT, when a slave’s debt was erased and he was released, God directed that his former master send him out with grain, tools, and resources for a new, self-sufficient economic life (Deut 15:13–14). “Development” for an individual includes education, job creation, and training. But development for a neighborhood or community means reinvesting social and financial capital into a social system–housing development and home ownership, other capital investments, and so on.
Social reform moves beyond relief of immediate needs and dependency and seeks to change social conditions and structures that aggravate or cause that dependency. Job tells us that he not only clothed the naked, but he “broke the fangs of the wicked and made them drop their victims” (Job 29:17). The prophets denounced unfair wages (Jer 22:13), corrupt business practices (Amos 8:2, 6), legal systems weighted in favor of the rich and influential (Lev 19:15; Deut 24:17), and a system of lending capital that gouges the person of modest means (Exod 22:25–27; Lev 19:35–37; 25:37). Daniel calls a pagan government to account for its lack of mercy to the poor (Dan 4:27). This means that Christians should also work for a particular community to get better police protection, more just and fair banking practices, zoning practices, and better laws.
Keller goes on to make a very important distinction in the areas where the church should and should not be responsible. He argues that the church should be involved in relief but not seeing development and social reform as part of the mission of the church. Instead, organizations or associations of Christians should carry out this work. I think this careful distinction is important to consider, especially in areas where development and reform is so badly needed, such as in Haiti. But simply because they are not the mission of the church does not mean that Christians should not be involved in development and social reform(!). They should help the poor in this manner, understanding however that this mission is carried out on an individual level primarily and in a corporate level through entities other than the local church.