There is a temptation in business (especially non-profits) to succumb to “mission creep.” An organization will gradually broaden its scope and objectives and forget its original commitments. First a group is baking chocolate chip cookies for the poor. Then they outsource the baking and start thinking about distribution. Next they start servicing ovens and building kitchens. Finally they are protesting global tariffs on chocolate. It gets hard to find anyone who still bakes cookies.
Churches are guilty of this. We get caught up doing good things that aren’t the main thing. The question for the church would be: what is the main thing and what additional commitments have been added over time? The answer might surprise us.
One of the earliest commitments of followers of God is the care of orphans. Over fifty scriptures call for protection and support for orphans, including provisions in both Israel’s law and prophets. The theme gets carried over into the New Testament where James distills religion into instructions to “care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
Sometimes when churches raise awareness and funds for the fatherless, it is presented as a nice charity, but not central to what it means to be the church. I’ve known of churches who do nothing for orphans and still insist that they are doing God’s will and being the church. I’d disagree, but such thinking has a history. In the mid-1900s there was a controversy among Churches of Christ about who should receive funds from the church and who should not. Somehow they decided that it was biblical to pay preachers but unbiblical to support orphans. Of course, it was many decades after the writing of the Book of James that local churches ever hired full-time preachers. It wasn’t just the preachers that found themselves in the budget. Church buildings got the green light as well, while orphanages watched their power get shut off. Again, the ink on James had been dry for centuries before ground was broken on a dedicated church building. Somehow churches found funds to pay for clergy and construction, but weren’t sure if the Father approved of funding for the fatherless.
Aside from some ugly moments and some unfortunate theology, the church’s record on the care of orphans is actually quite strong. One of the most distinctive features of the early Christian communities was their radical care for the vulnerable. Early Christians loved children and provided for them from conception to cradle. In antiquity there were three ways to abuse a child: abort them, expose them, or ignore them. Christians stepped up to make sure none of those would happen. First, they advocated for the unborn by opposing abortion. Second they opposed exposure, a common practice in antiquity where a newborn was left to die. Finally, early Christians cared for orphans.
When the Emperor Constantine wanted to help orphans, he allocated funds to the church because they had a proven track record of serving the fatherless. In 362, the Roman emperor Julian urged that his own administration would match the generosity toward the poor that he saw among Christians. He claims, “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well.”
While some recent Christians have unfortunately painted the care of orphans as being adjacent to the church’s true calling or a nice charity program, it is so much more. It’s important to distinguish a doctrine from a tradition. Things like singing songs from a hymnal, building a church building, or inviting people to respond at the end of the sermon are traditions. Caring for orphans is a doctrine. When churches serve orphans they are not participating in mission creep, but instead in mission restoration. It is not an abandonment of our true calling; it’s a rediscovery of it.
Last Sunday was Belong Sunday (formerly Orphan Sunday), which White Station has celebrated for many years. Each year we partner with the Memphis Family Connection Center and the Department of Children’s Services to fill Red Tubs for foster families. People are asked to fill one tub with approximately $125 worth of wish list items for a child, in addition to writing a check for $125 to Memphis Family Connection Center for counseling and other services for families in need. I was a bit nervous this year, since we (like all churches) are a bit down in numbers. My fears were misplaced. White Station stepped up, surpassing our goal of 70 tubs and sponsoring 79 tubs so far! Every tub went home with someone on Sunday and a waiting list was created. This has never happened before. We had commitments from children and those in their 90s. Singles, marrieds, high-income, and low-income have stepped up for the fatherless. We saw commitments from people who’ve been with White Station for decades and others who’ve joined in the past few months.
The best part of being a minister is getting a front-row seat for the work of God in people’s lives. In this case, the work of God flowed straight from the heart of God. So many church programs tempt us to creep away from our mission in the world. It’s such a beautiful thing to watch a church who refuses to get distracted and remembers its mission.
(If you would still like to sponsor a tub or if you are interested in being a part of White Station’s year-round Foster Care Ministry, email Anna Barber at and let her know).