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The Church & Extreme Poverty

The Church & Extreme Poverty

"Make Poverty History!" "End Poverty Now!"

Sounds a lot like “Save the Planet,” “Save the Rainforest,” “Save the Whales” and “Free Tibet.” Those who believe in such slogans are naïve idealists with little nuanced understanding of the real issues. Right?

Maybe you believe ending poverty is possible in theory, but you doubt it can be accomplished in reality. After all, the statistics are overwhelming. But extreme poverty worldwide has been cut in half, reduced from 52 percent to 26 percent. That’s a 26 percent drop, and we have 26 percent to go. We’ve been handed a baton by the previous generation—do you think we can win the race?

It will require intelligence, wisdom, perseverance and resources. I hear someone insisting, “It will require a miracle from God.” Who gave us all the resources and wisdom in the first place? Maybe He’s waiting for us to do what He has repeatedly told us to do.

We need to understand the engines that drove us from 52 to 26 percent, and we need to decide if those same engines are adequate to finish the task. Because the next 26 percent will be more difficult than the last. But there should be no question of whether it is possible. It is absolutely possible.

The question is not, “Can we end poverty?” The question is, “How can we end poverty?”

The Unrivaled Capacity of the Church

For the first time in human history, we have the realistic possibility of ending extreme global poverty—and it presents an incredible opportunity for the Church of Jesus Christ.

Many Christians are trapped by low expectations for the future. Not just for the future of poverty but for the future in general. Thankfully, the old idea that the world is supposed to get worse is losing dominion. Maybe, just maybe, the world can get better. Maybe we will do our part to make it happen.

The Church is the only organization with hundreds of millions of members and the capacity to mobilize hundreds of millions of volunteers. I’m not just talking about the good people serving in soup kitchens—I’m talking about performing the ultimate act of caring for the poor: ending extreme poverty.

The Church is unrivaled in its capacity. If you want to respond to the massive challenges of global poverty, then the Church is the organization with the legs to get it done. Here are a few reasons why:

• The “service delivery points” of local churches greatly outnumber branches of government, as does human capacity.

• In some African countries up to 70 percent of their health care is delivered by private Christian organizations, and those services are of superior quality to government-run hospitals and clinics.  

• The Church was present in Rwanda before the genocide, through it and it is still there today.

• In 2006, a Gallup poll found Africans were most likely to trust their churches and least likely to trust their governments.

• The Church was there before the AIDS pandemic, through it and you can count on the Church being there when it is finally brought to its end.

The Root of Poverty

But these are just strategic reasons why the Church plays a critical role in ending poverty. You might think I’m arguing that the Church’s strategic assets are its strength, but they are secondary. The ultimate reason why the Church is critical to the work of ending poverty is the promise of Jesus.

The root of poverty is the insidious and fatalistic lie that whispers: “You can’t. You don’t matter, and it isn’t going to get any better.” What institution carries the truth that defeats that lie? Who proclaims the message that “with God you can”? Who declares, “You do matter, and it can get better because God really does love us”? Who offers the only foundation of durable hope? It’s the Church.

Jesus could have started a business for social good, but instead He established the Church and promised “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, KJV). The Church, expressed in local disciple-making communities, is commissioned by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit to advance the Kingdom on earth. And that includes the eradication of the evil of extreme poverty.

No other organization was founded by Christ or promises victory against the forces of hell.

The Role of Ministry

American churches on average spend 96 percent of their offerings to pay for the facilities, staffing and production costs of the weekly experiences. Of the 4 percent that does go beyond the church walls, only a small fraction goes to anti-poverty work. And that could be because people generally give far less than 1 percent of their personal income to anti-poverty work. Twenty percent of all American Christians don’t give at all. Total giving among Christians, including church offerings and all tax-deductible contributions to any cause or organization, is 2.9 percent. Nonreligious Americans give 0.7 percent.

We’ve got a lot of work to do to encourage the support of Christian holistic ministry for the poor. Such work must begin with you—the leader. Here are five ways to begin inspiring and leading your church to become part of a unified global Christian effort to end extreme poverty in this lifetime.

Read Isaiah 58. Then consider leading your congregation to pledge to live what it says, including a commitment to prayer and fasting, which will help align your hearts toward God’s for the poor.

Shout. Isaiah’s challenge is to “shout it aloud, do not hold back.” Speak on helping the poor at least once every two months at your church; invite experts in this field to speak or give evening seminars on a regular basis.

Unite. Create opportunities for members of your church to rally around specific projects, like partnering with a church or orphanage in another country. Stay committed for the long haul by sending volunteers, donating money, writing letters and inviting people from there to visit your church (and offering to pay for it). 

Give. Make it easy for people to donate to charities you support on your website. Include information on them, why you support them and a way to donate. You can also give by praying for the project, the people doing the work and those in the community.

Celebrate. Make serving and giving a regular happening at your church, like a bimonthly serving day where people volunteer with local organizations you support. Regularly applaud volunteers and organizations making a difference in your area.

The biggest obstacle facing the Church today is not a lack of resources, faith or participation—it’s a battle with our own low expectations.

What if the whole Gospel to the whole world came through the elimination of poverty? Let’s adjust our expectations accordingly.

May we work with perseverance and resolve as we seek to lift the poor—all 1.4 billion of them—out of extreme poverty.

And may we not be satisfied until that new reality has come.

This article is adapted from one that appeared in Neue magazine.

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