Meeting Physical Needs
I’m not sure that the church’s main focus and goal is to alleviate poverty. The church is the one institution that will preach and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, so in a sense I don’t want the church to become distracted with meeting physical needs in a vacuum or by itself.
We must define poverty properly because if you accurately capture what it means to be poor then I think that clarifies whether or not the church is the answer.
I tend to think of poverty as not having enough money or access to healthcare. That’s certainly a significant part of it. But when poor people actually talk about what it is like to be poor they use words like shame, hopelessness, isolation, and those kinds of things.
When you understand that, then you begin to see how the church is actually the answer to that sort of real, deep poverty because it is the gospel that reconciles us to God and takes away our shame, bringing us out of isolation and into community.
Just having access to air conditioning doesn’t solve their deeper problems. They need the gospel.
The Gospel Meets Deeper Needs
And so, in that sense, the church is God’s answer to real genuine poverty. For example, we have worked with people in a local homeless shelter in our church and many of those folks have laptop computers, phones, three meals a day, air conditioned spaces, things like that.
By my standards I wouldn’t want to trade places with them, right? I think of them as poor. But by sort of global standard, they’re living at a sort of quality of life far above what most people in the world actually live in. But they’re poor and are actually experiencing alienation and other things, right? Just having access to air conditioning doesn’t solve their deeper problems. They need the gospel.
More Than Resources
I remember talking to one man when we were distributing food and handing out flyers for one of our Spanish language church plants. I don’t speak Spanish but I was with a man who could translate as I spoke with him.
As we began to talk, he told us that he hadn’t eaten for about two and a half days. He made it clear that he actually wasn’t really all that bothered by it because he was pretty used to it from back home.
In fact, the reason why he hadn’t eaten was because he had sent all of his money back home, but he was actually quite joyful. This was as good as he had ever really had it in his life. Interactions like this one have helped me realize that my understanding of poverty is a little bit too tied to having access to resources.
When we make that mistake, I think that we get confused about how the church is meant to alleviate poverty. We do provide food for hungry people—because how can we say that we love our brother if we’re not going to provide for them? But in the same sense, we understand that if we all we do is provide food, then we haven’t really given them the greatest resource that God has given us to address the real poverty of our souls.
- The Church’s Central Role in the Coming of the Kingdom of God (Greg Gilbert, Kevin DeYoung)
- Don't Be a Rich Fool (Jared C. Wilson)
- Money Is Not Your Master (Philip Graham Ryken)