Small towns in the United States are in decline. Most of the population and economic growth in the country has been located near urban centers. If you are called to pastor in a small town, you are likely going to have to deal with poverty.
National politics paints caricatures of poverty that don’t match up to the people you really encounter. One side depicts people in poverty as unfortunate victims of an economic system that has unjustly left them behind. The other side pegs this “victim mentality” and laziness as the primary causes of poverty.
Meanwhile, most ministries to the poor do some form of the same thing, which is to give away resources to those who express need. Most of us reason that it is never wrong to give a hungry person something to eat, so we hope that God will use this act of kindness to help the situation.
The Bible addresses poverty in all its complexity, addressing all the causes of poverty and guiding us in our response. If we are going to be effective in truly helping those in need and reaching them with the “good news for the poor,” we need to recognize the different causes of poverty and respond compassionately and appropriately to each circumstance.
The Bible makes it clear that some people are poor because of a bad work ethic. The “sluggard” of Proverbs is an almost comical figure who is too lazy to even bring his hand from his dish to his mouth (Proverbs 19:24). The Scripture makes it clear: “Lazy hands make a man poor” (Proverbs 10:4). So how do we respond to a lazy person?
One piece of advice is not to enable his listless ways. Paul gives the directive, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10), meaning that someone who refuses to work should not receive aid from the congregation. If he is allowed to be hungry, it will eventually drive him to work (Proverbs 16:26). Scripture also tells us that a sluggard is paralyzed by fear (Proverbs 22:13). For this reason, a person struggling to establish a work ethic needs mentoring, a relationship built to “command and urge” someone “in the Lord Jesus” (Thessalonians 3:12) toward better ways.
Many people are willing to work but have no stamina for it, have never learned any diligence, or are immobilized by fear. A mentoring (coaching) relationship can address these issues.
“A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away” (Proverbs 13:23). The poor have always been vulnerable in every society, and ours is no exception. Those with money and power have a vested interest in doing what is necessary to keep what they have, and they are often in position to exploit those in lower strata of society.
Many people are mired in tangled messes of debt primarily because someone took advantage of their desperation, inexperience, or lack of education. People in generational poverty often lack the connections to navigate and take advantage of opportunities that others take for granted. These people need advocacy.
Advocacy doesn’t need to be political activism (though that is one form). The most effective form of advocacy is to walk beside people, helping them to make necessary connections to available opportunities, speaking and negotiating with lenders and utility companies, and even helping them get legal aid when necessary.
Some poverty is a result of a catastrophic event: a flood, a fire, a sudden death or costly medical emergency, or a job loss. Addiction can sometimes fall into this category. The objective in these situations is to assure that this time of need is temporary and that they will return to self-sufficiency as soon as possible.
Poverty from calamity calls for relief and rehabilitation. Relief is defined by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett in When Helping Hurts as immediate material aid to meet an urgent and temporary need. Rehabilitation is the process to aid someone through the process of building back up to self-sufficiency. The problem is that this type of aid is the most common way organizations address poverty, but it is only effective in narrow sets of circumstances. Too often, it is a temporary solution to an enduring, deep-rooted problem, resulting in no long-term benefit for those receiving aid and causing disillusionment for those offering aid.
Relief ministries should mostly be treated as an initial contact point that serves as a gateway into building a mentoring or advocacy relationship that will address the true problem more effectively.
4. Spiritual Brokenness
Behind most of these causes of poverty–often overwhelming them–is a crushing spirit of hopelessness and worthlessness. People become lazy, because they do not believe any amount of work will improve their situation. They fall prey to injustice, because they do not have a sense of their own agency and worth. The gospel speaks to these issues of the spirit.
Jesus said that the gospel is good news for the poor. Why? Because the gospel declares that God sees them, values them, and loves them. They are not forgotten.
Jesus is making all things new, including all of our assets and our finances. In Christ, God is reconciling all things to himself, healing our relationships with one another, with ourselves, and with creation. Those in poverty are made new in Christ.
This brief template is based on my own experience and on the work of Fikkert and Corbett. I hope it helps give direction to you as you think about how to help those in poverty in your community.
What obstacles have you faced in working with the poor? What has been successful? Share your comments here.