Politicians, civil leaders and concerned citizens continuously debate the causes and potential cures for the extreme poverty that has trapped many people-groups in a vicious cycle of impoverished lifestyle choices. Theologian Wayne Grudem and economist Barry Asmus have partnered to present a sustainable solution to poverty at the national level. In their in-depth tome, The Poverty of Nations, they state the governmental policies and cultural norms of a nation will enable, or hinder, the economic empowerment of the individual. Grudem and Asmus’ poverty solution is specifically linked to the ability of a nation, and thereby its people, to increase their own finances through continual production of “more goods and services per person each year” (45). All ministry leaders should consider the viability of any missional or charity financial relief intended to be offered in light of this goal: will it help the people, organization, or nation produces more goods and services? Grudem and Asmus assert that anything short of this, except for short-term emergency relief, will ultimately keep the nation and its people in long-term poverty.
Grudem and Asmus combine a discussion of economic theories, proven through a comprehensive historical account, with Biblical principles ranging from the worthiness of mankind made in the image of God to stewardship of resources to moral choices in a variety of contexts. Grudem and Asmus also provide a description of 17 government functions or qualities, protecting and promoting 21 freedoms that enable a nation to overcome poverty and promote economic development as demonstrated throughout history. It is their rationale that without these protections and liberties, individuals will either be hindered or discouraged from producing more goods and services, which create personal wealth that will advantage the nation.
However, all the policies and initiatives will not erase poverty, as the issue of poverty elimination begins with a changing of values. Into this crucial role churches and ministries must take leadership, promoting spiritual life change alongside the financial empowering of a people group. Grudem and Asmus believe that a free market will discourage and punish wrong behavior and reward virtuous behavior in the longterm (188). However, something more is needed to promote the needed change as corrupt government leaders and policies have continuously entrapped their nations in poverty, leaving the common-family to experience the “punishment” of the free market. Therefore, a leader must have a change in values to “use government power for the benefit of the people as a whole rather than for themselves, their families and their friends” (223). These changes will not come easy as the cultural beliefs and traditions that are hindering economic development have “history” behind them; yet it is the history of England and Botswana (313-315) that provides evidence that the spiritual development of a people-group can change the economic policies, leading to economic development out of poverty.
This is a call to ministry leaders, especially emerging leaders in our institutions of Christian higher education such as Biola University, to “contribute by teaching Christian cultural values in ways that promote better moral standards within a nation also contribute to helping a nation’s economy” (316). Research shows that religious beliefs, and therefore cultural values and practices, do make a difference in the economic development of a nation (320), therefore Christian spiritual activity should be a part of all social justice mission work. Our ministry training should not be shy to incorporate spiritual dynamics into the charitable responses to the issue of poverty, as Grudem and Asmus conclude, their rational solution with acknowledgement that only a change from the “inside-out” of values will result in governmental and other policy changes that produces economic development, lifting a nation out of poverty (309).
So can poverty be erased around the world? Grudem and Asmus state only if we are willing to change our methods, citing past “failed” aid-based approaches to poverty elimination have historically kept a nation in a dependent mode or unempowered to self-created financial gains. Grudem and Asmus assert for aid to benefit a nation it must directly “promote … increases in the goods and services that the nation produces” (49). This suggests that the aid needed is either to create the conditions for personal entrepreneurship or the removal of the restrictions of innovation and change. This would be in opposition to the “aid payments made directly to governments either through government-to-government transfers or through agencies such as the world bank” (67). These latter aid-methods tend to lead to corruption or dependency that traps nations in poverty cycles.
What can one person or one church do in the face of governmental policies that seem to counter or hinder the good being sought? Grudem and Asmus present few practical steps an individual person or ministry can take; one suggestion is to “invest in for profit businesses in poor nations, especially nations that are beginning to move in a free market direction with more effective rule of law” (185). While others have called for the development of micro-finance systems with small loans to individuals as a charitable response, the authors advocate for larger loans of $25,000 to $1 million to help launch new businesses (185). While these amounts may be too much for an individual donation, this may be the narrow focus of a church’s support to a specific region. This could be a powerful force for change when the financial capital is paired with volunteers who deploy their vocational skills to train people in poverty to produce more goods and services. One last suggestion worth noting is the charitable support of education initiatives, both secular and seminarian, in poor countries that promote free markets to equip the people to be involved in governmental policy change and indigenous Christian activity for the spiritual life change that will influence all the other factors of economic development. This is the important place that Biola University and other institutions of Christian higher education play in the fight to erase poverty: to train, not just ministry leaders, but also civic leaders and business leaders who will become moral leaders in their communities.