Poverty and Our Misguided (Good) Intentions

January is poverty awareness month. Here are 4 thoughts on this complicated topic.

How does a church planter help a homeless person who walks through the doors of their church looking for a place to sleep?

What do you say and do when a family member calls asking you to pay their gas bill again this month?

Naturally, the Spirit prompts compassionate responses in Christians. But not all benevolence is effective or even justified. Misdiagnosing the cause of a person’s poverty often leads well-intentioned Christians to work toward misguided goals.

Many Christians zealously want to help but may cause more harm when their efforts have nothing to do with the root cause of a person’s poverty. Poverty is often a confusing conversation. So, thinking through solutions to poverty requires Christians to diagnose the problem or risk reinforcing or enabling the root issues of a person’s poverty.

 Brian Fikkert, author of When Helping Hurts, defines poverty as, “the inability to fully experience image bearing.” Fikkert’s definition is vitally important because poverty is not just an economic problem alone.

When we think about poverty, our minds typically gravitate to lacking material possessions. Yet, poverty is much broader. Any instance of the human experience that is not aligned with Scripture is a form of poverty. A person may be impoverished economically or have an impoverished marriage, or an impoverished relationship with the Lord. Whether it is economic, relational or spiritual, poverty comes in many forms.

 After expanding the definition of poverty, we should think through four considerations that will greatly change our perspective and the nature of a church’s ministry to the poor.

1. We are all “poor.”

 The core message of the gospel has great equalizing implications because the common human experience is defined by poverty. No one is fully healthy and exactly what God envisions for his image bearers.

The gospel of Christ offers forgiveness, hope and restoration where there is poverty now. My poverty may look different than a person experiencing economic poverty, but we are both less than what God wants for our lives.

Rather than treating the poor in a paternalistic way, implying that you “have it all together,” take care to address them according to the gospel: there is nothing good in you that deserves confidence apart from God’s grace.

2. Set aside money to help those in desperate situations.

Churches and individual families need to have money set aside to help the poor who are in desperate circumstances. Offering relief to a person’s physical suffering creates an opportunity to enter a fruitful relationship. Be prepared to bless the economically impoverished, sharing the love of Christ with people who are harassed by difficult life circumstances.

3. Don’t just give and go. Build authentic relationships.

There is a time and a place to give material possessions to those in need. In addition to this, the key to helping someone step out of poverty into health is gospel-driven relationships. I cannot diagnose the root-level cause of someone’s poverty apart from truly knowing that individual.

People are far more than what they lack. If I want to minister to the poor, I must be willing to go beyond material handouts to know that person’s name, hopes, dreams, as well as their life circumstances that’s creating the particular form of poverty they’re facing.

4. Meet needs without duplicating services by partnering with existing ministries.

A great tragedy in American Christianity is that we duplicate existing ministries, nonprofits and services in our communities.

Rather than devoting a great deal of money to starting a food pantry, why not partner with an existing food pantry to feed a family that came to your church asking for help.

Our desire, as believers, is to help develop people within the ongoing relationships of a community of faith and their relationship with Jesus. We are called to restore dignity to people whose lives have been stripped — either by personal choices or the sins of others against them — of meaning and worth due to them as God’s image bearers.

How are you helping impoverished people move towards spiritual, economic and relational health? How are you developing them rather than simply putting band-aids on their surface wounds?

As you consider ways you and your church can help people struggling with poverty, Send Relief can provide materials and assistance. Send Relief is the Southern Baptist compassion ministry that meets physical and spiritual needs around the world and connects the local church with opportunities to serve, give and pray.

Download our ministry guide to help identify the needs of your community and combat poverty.

Published January 11, 2022