“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32a, NRSV).
Over the past few years our church has been wrestling with the question “What does faithful ministry to the poor look like?” As a result of our outreach efforts in the community, we now welcome the poor into our building, worship, and fellowship on a regular basis. A significant amount of our church’s attention is given to meeting the tangible needs of the poor through various works of mercy. All of this has compelled us to think carefully about what faithful ministry to the poor entails.
I have read Luke’s description of the early church having “one heart and soul” many times. However, I only recently realized the implication of this verse for ministry to the poor. We know that the early church welcomed and cared for the poor. Indeed, in Luke’s account, we hear that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34, NRSV)—not because the believers didn’t include the poor but because they shared their possessions so generously. Usually when we read this text we get caught up in debates about the exact nature of the sharing. Yet these debates cause us to overlook the striking claim in verse 32 that the church, which consisted of rich and poor, had “one heart and soul.”
In using this phrase, Luke was probably alluding to the Greek philosophical tradition of friendship. Aristotle stated that friends have “one soul between them.” By applying that phrase to believers, Luke conveyed that the early church in Jerusalem was a community of friends. This meant that rich and poor experienced in the church something they could not experience anywhere else in Roman society—friendship with each other. Augustine observed that this friendship could only be due to the work of the Holy Spirit in the church. The Holy Spirit instills in believers the love that binds disparate people together.
Luke’s observation about the early church having one heart and soul can help us answer the question of what faithful ministry to the poor looks like. To start with, it looks like friendship. One of the most valuable things we can give to the poor—and receive from the poor—is friendship.
Yet the church’s ministries to the poor often do more to create distance than friendship between people. For example, the way we serve the poor can create clear lines between givers and receivers that can reinforce a sense of shame in the poor. Or, our charitable efforts can be so oriented toward addressing material needs that we forget the relational needs, which are closely related to spiritual needs. And sometimes our ministries to the poor do not allow for any genuine interaction between people. There is a stark difference between standing behind a counter to serve someone a meal and sitting at a table to break bread with someone.
When it comes to ministry to the poor, part of the church’s distinct calling is friendship.
When it comes to ministry to the poor, part of the church’s distinct calling is friendship. The Holy Spirit grants us the love that can overcome boundaries of class and create a community of true friendship. This calling to friendship is by no means easy to live out. It requires that we give more than material resources to the poor. It requires that we give ourselves to the poor, and giving ourselves includes our time and attention. Moreover, the call to friendship requires us to recognize that the poor have much to give us as well and that our lives will be enriched immensely through relationship with them.
There are two practices that can help us begin to live out this call to friendship. The first is eating together. It is significant that—two chapters before Luke describes the early church as being one heart and soul—he notes that the believers “broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (2:46, NRSV). Friendship is cultivated around the table. There is something equalizing and unifying about breaking bread with others. Ministries that bring people together around the table reduce distance and create solidarity. Moreover, churches that are intentional about sharing meals together—especially in homes, and with people who do not all share the same background—will move toward greater friendship.
The second practice is serving together. Much like the table, serving alongside others removes barriers and unifies people. Often, however, we do a great disservice both to the poor and to our churches by not giving the poor an opportunity to serve. Everyone has something to contribute. When we value the perspectives of the poor in our ministries, affirm their strengths and gifts, and create spaces for them to contribute, we dignify them and develop a culture of friendship. Serving together abolishes the us-and-them mentality that often plagues our ministries.
In Roman society, where divisions between people of different backgrounds were deep, the early church provided a different model for living life together. The Holy Spirit’s presence in the church enabled a love that could overcome the deepest divisions and create a community of friendship where rich and poor had one heart and soul. Today, as we think about ministry to the poor, we must heed this basic call to friendship. Becoming friends with the poor will transform all of us and help the church be an alternative witness in a world that is deeply divided.