Reprinted from the Chalmers Center.
Ministry focused on addressing poverty is fundamentally about promoting change. It’s about helping people and communities move to a better situation than their present one.
Effective poverty alleviation requires us to know where we are trying to go and how we can get there. In other words, we need a “story of change” – or as it is often referred to in the social services sector, a “theory of change” – that fits with reality. At its core, a story of change is your ministry’s answer to two fundamental questions:
- What is the goal of life?
- How can that goal be achieved?
Take a moment and reflect on these two questions. It is possible that you’ve never consciously answered these questions before, but you have answers to them nonetheless. Most of us have internalized our surrounding culture’s story of change without even thinking about it, conditioning us to automatically and subconsciously think, feel, and act the ways that we do as a matter of habit.
Consequently, even though it’s often unspoken, our story of change dramatically impacts every aspect of our lives, including the way we design our poverty alleviation ministries. If we want to help without hurting, we’ve got to get our story straight.
When it comes to the story we are living into through our ministries, we need to recognize that our perspective matters. We might think that as Christians we automatically have the best angle to see and respond to the world around us, but often our understanding is shaped more by our cultural stories than the gospel message revealed in scripture.
Too often, the church in the majority culture of the U.S. and other wealthy countries has mixed the gospel of Jesus with an ideal of never-ending economic growth and material goods – a sort of “baptized American dream” that that we refer to in our book Becoming Whole as “Evangelical Gnosticism.” Without really recognizing it, we tend to separate the spiritual and material realms to produce a story of change in which the goal of life is to trust Jesus and get our souls to heaven for eternity while we pursue the American Dream of material prosperity here and now.
This is an oversimplification (seriously, read the book for the bigger picture!), but it’s a pattern with serious implications for our poverty alleviation ministries. If we’re steeped in “Evangelical Gnosticism,” our attempts to address material poverty will bring this perspective to the ministries we design.
The tragic irony is that the unstated assumption at the foundation of most of our poverty alleviation efforts is that the goal is to make people in material poverty into people just like us. We try to turn Uganda into the United States and America’s impoverished communities into its affluent suburbs—even though study after study shows that middle- to upper-income Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with our own lives!
Specific Questions of Ministry
A “baptized American dream” vision of ministry can’t fully restore broken communities to flourishing because it’s misdiagnosing the problem. Anyone who’s spent time lovingly walking alongside people in poverty can tell you the frustrations that flow out of chasing the wrong goal together with the individuals and families they serve. When churches and ministries recognize this struggle, they often reach out to Chalmers with very specific questions about their context. “How do we deal with this situation? How do we confront this issue? How do we reach this community?”
The reality is that there is no simple solution or one-size-fits-all fix to a complex issue like poverty. Effective poverty alleviation ministry requires that we recognize that we all have broken relationships with God, self, others, and creation, and that true poverty alleviation leads to the restoration of these relationships through Christ’s power. In addition, we must also understand the root causes of poverty so that we’re able to see more clearly how to design ministries that don’t simply deal with outcomes but ignore the roots.
From Specific Questions to Principles
Because of this complexity, Chalmers doesn’t have all the answers to all the challenges that churches or ministries like yours are facing. So much of what you may be dealing with in your work is so specific – your context is unique to you and to the people with whom you are working – that you’re much more of an expert on your ministry than we are!
We’ve realized that what people really need is something like an “operating system.” People do ministry well when they have a deep understanding of God’s story, His goals for the world and how He goes about achieving them, and then a strong sense of how their particular ministry fits into God’s big story.
In our book, A Field Guide to Becoming Whole, we share 20 different principles for designing sustainable, effective poverty alleviation ministries that help without hurting. This might sound like a lot, and it is! But hopefully, as we unpack these briefly on the blog over the next few weeks, you’ll start to see how they can give you a framework for ministry that fits with God’s story of reconciling all things to Himself in Christ (Col. 1:20). More than that, we think you’ll start to catch a vision about how to apply these principles in your ministry. Stay tuned!
Adapted from A Field Guide to Becoming Whole.