When Jesus said that amongst us we will always have the poor (Mt. 26:11) I often wonder whether His disciples deeply understood how timeless that statement of truth would be. Today more than ever we are bombarded with visual representations of the enormous poverty-gap within the world.
The goal of this position paper is to examine the various causes that contribute to poverty. As we progress through our study we will also consider what practical steps the Church can take to answer the poverty crisis.
It is important from the onset to establish that if we look at the passage of scripture where Jesus states that we will always be confronted with poverty in different forms, let us not misunderstand that alleviating poverty is by no means a way of eradicating poverty.
The Church will always carry the mandate to alleviate poverty, but not until the return of our Lord will we see poverty removed from society as a whole. This, however, should not deter us to fulfil our mandate as salt and light (Mt. 5:13).
Root causes of poverty
What causes poverty?
Although one may be born into an impoverished situation, that situation itself would have a starting point as such. Our goal is to try to find these very points of origin to fully understand the plight of the poor.
In the first section, we will look at the root causes of poverty examining specific factors each within their respective context. These factors include Anthropological, Political and Religious.
One of the most problematic situations facing the entire world currently is the dilemma of overpopulation. It is also one of the leading contributors to poverty.
Kunhiyop (2004:131) argues that especially in Africa the population is growing at a rate which is greater than the means to address the needs of the growing population; he goes on to say that “the average woman south of the Sahara will have 6.3 births in her life, while her counterpart in North Africa averages 4.5 births. American women average 2.1 births.”
When an individual is born they need various things to grow into adulthood. Food and shelter are some of the most basic needs, that along with healthcare which quite frankly is not a right as it should be, rather adequate healthcare has become a luxury in many parts of the world. As the individual grows more needs arise which places strain on an already collapsing system.
One of these aforementioned needs that costs money, money which many families simply do not have, is the need and basic right to basic education.
Thiongo (2019) explains that early missionaries made basic education part and parcel of their ministry to communities that they engaged. Kunhiyop (2004:131) also cites “illiteracy” as one of the factors that contribute to poverty.
The issue is perpetual and deeply intertwined, overpopulation is highly problematic in developing countries in comparison to countries considered to be first world countries. These developing countries also suffer from an inability to adequately educate the youth as they mature, the process then repeats as the uneducated proceed to merely continue on the destructive cycle as opposed to breaking the wheel.
Corruption stands at the heart of the battle against poverty (Kunhiyop 2004:131). Corruption in its nature filters into multiple avenues that negatively impact the daily lives of individuals who should be served by elected officials.
One of the more common forms which corruption takes is the deliberate mismanagement of funds to enrich select individuals instead of addressing the holistic needs of the multitudes. It is not necessarily the case that a nation and its government are impoverished by nature. Rather the issue is that funds have been looted by previous or present ruling regimes that leave the collective with little or nothing directed towards the intended purpose these funds were to be used for.
Corruption also leads to other problematic factors such as civil unrest and war. Division amongst people groups is often created for the sole purpose of serving the immediate needs of a corrupt government or even their opposition which fly under the banner of liberation. Kunhiyop (2004:132) expands on this, “Rebels intentionally block supplies to the rest of the country. They usually want food for themselves and they use it as well to gain political support from displaced local people.”
To have what people need to survive is a powerful weapon and desperate individuals will do anything for the most basic of human needs. One of the most effective ways to divert attention from the failings of a corrupt government is to create a seemingly bigger problem amongst the people of the respective nations. It is when people are at war with one another where the government that practices corruption has a free-for-all on the resources of the nation which they govern. There simply is no more accountability.
Heinrich Titus states that poverty is the “consequence of sin” (2009:101). Kunhiyop (2004:134) supports this statement by bringing back the origin of poverty to the sin of Adam. Thiongo (2019) also supports this view. A consensus exists that poverty stems from the story of Adam in Genesis; making it a product of the fall of man.
Everswick (2010) cites that this could be the unfortunate reason why sectors of the Christian faith feel that the main concern of the Christian faith should be spreading the good news and not addressing poverty as such.
Everswick (2010) also makes another very valid point when we consider the cause of poverty from a religious perspective; in countries where the Church is directly entangled in governmental assistance or working in conjunction with that particular government, the Church could find themselves in a difficult situation where addressing poverty cannot be done in the name of Christ, rather due to the rights of multiple religions, the government may direct these resources in their name and to selected individual groups. This too is an obvious reason why the Church would in these circumstances choose to not engage in assisting the poor, leaving that job in the hands of government alone.
In simpler terms, the context within which a church may find itself in making it difficult for the Church to operate as the Church as mandated by God. In these instances, many churches would rather focus on what they deem spiritual matters and not physical concerns.
Every situation of poverty indeed has an origin story. A point from which we can better understand why it is that a specific people group would find themselves in their challenging circumstances.
In the next section we look at what the local church can do to alleviate these circumstances effectively, not merely in word, but deed also.
The local church: responding to the poverty crisis
Can the local church address the poverty crisis?
The church is not asked but tasked to make a real and practical difference in combating poverty.
In this section, we will look at the Biblical perspective on poverty as well as various practical approaches the Church can take to alleviate the poverty crisis around them.
A Biblical perceptive
Kunhiyop (2004:139) cites several passages of scripture to demonstrate the early Church’s active involvement in tending to the needs of the poor. One of the most powerful passages that place a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the modern Church is the following:
“44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common.
45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Acts 2:44-45 ESV
These individuals made a willing choice to take that which they had and redistribute it to one another so that none would experience any lack. This was radical then, and in today’s society where the emphasis is greatly placed on individual success and abundance, this would be even more radical. It is hard to imagine any of today’s billionaires freely given up that which they have worked for and sharing their wealth in a manner where it no longer belonged solely to them, but a collective of people group or society.
This was not a spontaneous senseless act, it was a test of heart in very much the same way Jesus did in the following passage of scripture addressing a young man who was seeking the Kingdom of God:
“21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” Mark 10:21-22 ESV
Moving towards practically addressing the needs of the poor today, do not be misled into thinking God is a socialist. Jesus didn’t ask this man to give away his possessions because they were wicked to have. We cannot help the poor if we are completely and utterly impoverished. It was a matter of addressing that which was sitting on the throne of his heart, his possessions.
A systematic approach to practical results
As we start our systematic and practical approach to how the Church can alleviate poverty let us consider the following, “The Gospel is the salvation of the human condition in its totality (spirit, soul and body)” (Titus 2009:101).
The most powerful and practical ways Kunyihop (2004:145) states that Christians, the Church should go about helping the poor is that we must maintain an everpresent conscious reality that we are called to be “salt and light” in the world.
When Christians influence authentically and God-inspired in every sphere or platform on which they have been given the results would be prolific, to say the least. Considering the current amount of faith-professing heads of state around the world, for example, President Donald J. Trump of the United States of America, one of if not the most powerful and influential countries in the world, what would be the practical results of a God-submitted term in office?
Although many countries have separated the Church and state from one another, the influence of the Church can be practised by individuals who represent the Christian faith.
Addressing the immediate needs of the community in which a church has been planted there are also many ways in which that church can influence their community being “salt and light”. They need only follow the example of Jesus (Act. 10:38). One random act of kindness at a time changes an entire community.
Some various projects and events could be organised to address the needs of the poor. Fundraising for specific needs such as food and clothing etc. The most practical and powerful remains the practice of instinctively, without mass organisation, tending to the immediate needs of the poor when it is within your power to do so.
If you see someone who is hungry and you are able, give them food. If you see someone in need of clothing and you are able, clothe them. If you know a family cannot afford to pay for their children to attend school and you are able, assist them. John Wesley said the following:
“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
From a personal perspective, I recall in Vereeniging, South Africa, when I was associate pastor of Chrisma Fellowship, we saw the need in the community for schooling within the early childhood development phase, the church proceeded to open a non-profit school and take in, educate, feed and often clothe severely disadvantaged children. The school still serves this function, several years after I have departed from the church.
It was not a simple process to register the school and implement the necessary procedures to have it function successfully, but identifying and taking steps to address the immediate need was. The problem of the Church globally is overcomplicating simple things. If there is a need and you can address it, then it is the Church’s mandate, duty and privilege to do so.
The most powerful message to motivate the Church as we endeavour to practically address the needs of the poor is found in Matthew 25:34-40. Whatever we have done for the most vulnerable Christ considers it an act unto Himself.
It is clear that the Church not only has the means to make a difference but also that the mandate to do so is of such importance, the Church can ill afford not to participate practically in doing so.
Let us, therefore, embrace this mandate and action the steps given to see the change so desperately needed in our communities and around the world.
Having come to the end of our position paper I believe we can ascertain that there are definite causes that will contribute to poverty given the context that individuals find themselves in.
It should also be a healthy takeaway that although we have these root causes, the Church also has a mandate and a plan to alleviate the poverty crisis. The question should never be whether or not the Church should involve itself in poverty alleviating, rather the Church should actively look at creative ways in which it can address the issue of poverty.
Finally, the Church should realise that although poverty cannot be completely solved, it should never deter the Church from being involved in assisting individuals and communities that are clearly in need.
If God has planted a church in a certain community, that church should deeply consider how they may leave a footprint within that community, especially in the area of tending to the needs of the poor.
Everswick J 2010. The Church’s response to poverty. https://www.cedarville.edu/ accessed 7 July 2020.
Kunhiyop SW 2004. African Christian Ethics. Baraka Press: Kaduna
Thiongo SK 2019. The role of the Church in poverty eradication in Kenya: A focus of Africa inland Church Kijabe region. https://place.asburyseminary.edu/ accessed 8 July 2020.
Titus H 2009. Practical evangelism: good news to the poor. Shofar Publishing: South Africa