This post is part three in a four-part series. Read the introduction post here.
In my previous post, I placed material poverty within a broader theological framework of sin and salvation, which identifies the fundamental problem of poverty as loss of relationship.
As a pastor of a small church, I have often puzzled over appropriate means for using our limited material and personnel resources in effective ways. We can only do so much with the resources we have. Where should we focus our efforts? We have been tempted to pit the spiritual against the material, and insist that our mandate must focus on evangelism and discipleship rather than economic development.
I won’t rehearse theological reasons in favor of Christian involvement in economic development here, although that is an important discussion. Instead, in this post, I want to show that the church helps alleviate poverty simply by being the church.
Churches standardly adopt a model of mission that includes worship, work and witness, that is, worship, discipleship/equipping/edification, and evangelism and outreach. Together, these three facets comprise the purpose of the church. Poverty alleviation regularly falls under the third category: in order to reach people with the gospel, the thought goes, we must meet their material needs.
Social scientific research suggests that the first and second categories of church mission also contribute to dealing with the complex problem of poverty. Since we are holistic beings, the standard missional activities of churches already have an impact on the material well-being of those in our communities.
In 2003, the Commission on Children at Risk published “Hardwired to Connect,” in which they argued that the principle causes of a crisis in the mental and emotional well-being of young people in the United States are failures of connection: connection to other people and connection to moral and spiritual meaning. Since, as they argue, human beings are physically designed for connection with others and with meaning, lack of connection results in a wide variety of mental and physical health problems. These in turn result in school absenteeism, crime, poverty, etc. In short, lack of connection causes young people to be at risk. Societal response to the crisis, in the form of government programs, for example, requires money – a lot of money.
The authors of the report also propose a solution: authoritative communities. Authoritative communities are “groups of people who are committed to one another over time and who model and pass on at least part of what it means to be a good person and live a good life.” Authoritative communities build relationships and they build character. Among the examples of authoritative communities identified in the report are churches, institutions adept at relational, inter-generational connection and moral development. Churches help people understand their purpose and find meaning in their lives.
When we link the stated role of authoritative communities with the first and second of the three facets of church mission mentioned above, we see that churches are uniquely situated and motivated to address what the commission identified as a principal cause of misery for young Americans. In other words, simply by doing what is central to their mission, churches are already addressing problems connected to material poverty.
By no means does this imply that churches should not be involved in more direct means of economic development and poverty alleviation. Systems are also broken by sin, not just individuals. Many of the systems addressing social needs in the US have tended to impede relational reconciliation rather than aid it. While churches can become a haven of relational renewal, all of us must live in a broader world that is frequently hostile to that process.
Having identified the ways in which the mission of the church impacts social and economic realities, we may be more intentional within the church to develop connections to people and to meaning. As discussed in my previous post, loss of relationship is central to the problem of poverty. The church is a significant means by which God restores relationship.
In my next post, I’ll discuss healthy relational inter-dependency in poverty alleviation efforts.
- The word “authoritative” here has extensive background. In brief, it is meant to signal the combination of high relational warmth with high structure, as would be characteristic of a good parent.
- The Commission on Children at Risk, “Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities,” in Authoritative Communities: The Scientific Case for Nurturing the Whole Child. Edited by Kathleen Kovner Kline. Springer, 2008, p. 9.