Themes / Bible & economy

The Church as a response to poverty

Dave Fagg

Manna Matters December 2019

In  previous articles (Oct 2016, May 2018, Nov 2018), I’ve laid out the shape of poverty in Long Gully, why it persists and what we Christians need to repent of in order to respond to poverty biblically. This last article sketches out a Christian response to the kind of poverty I’ve recounted, reclaiming the centrality of the local church for responding to poverty and to the poor.

There is no solution

Let’s start by clearing some of the ground. I say the church needs to  “respond to poverty” rather than “solve poverty” for a specific reason. There is no solution to poverty found in biblical faith. That lies on the other side of the promised new creation. The bible is full of calls to resist injustice against the poor, remember the poor and treat the poor fairly. It is clear that God envisions a world free from poverty, but it is also clear that such a world is not in our power to achieve.

This might seem a counsel of despair. But it is not. As young adults, Kylie and I travelled the world for 10 months, living with Christian organisations who were dedicated to working with those on the margins in the USA and South Africa. It was our first port of call that provided the biggest lesson. Since 1970, the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community has run a soup kitchen, prayed daily, published a newspaper and gone to jail regularly for their consistent protests against war and injustice visited upon the poor. After 6 weeks of living with this passionate group, we went out for dinner with Jeff and Catherine, the founders of the community. We asked them, “What’s your aim? What change do you want to see?” They answered, “We aren’t aiming for anything to change.” We were a little confused. After all, what was the point of all this service and activism if not to change something? We pressed them with the question again. Same answer. They chuckled a little and explained that their aim was to do what the church is called to do: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. They teased us gently, “You Protestants; you always need a before-and-after photo. We just do what we are called to do. Whether anything changes is not up to us.”

Their perspective is a welcome corrective to the temptation for Christians when faced with poverty to try to solve it. This is an understandable temptation. The bible rails against those who treat the poor unjustly and the poor are manifestly at the centre of Jesus’ ministry on earth. If you combine this with our residual sense that the church still possesses some power in society, then a predictable outcome is that Christians will want to solve the problems that face us. And yet, the New Testament does not expect the eradication of poverty. Instead, it narrates the formation of communities in which there are no “rich” or “poor”, and where everyone has enough, and which consecrate the practices of generosity and hospitality against the drive to acquire and consume. It is this local expression of the church that I want to hold out as the central way for Christians to respond to the poor.

However, for any Christian confronted by the brute reality of poverty, the church has often seemed a stumbling block. We just can’t imagine our congregation welcoming those who are poor. Or the church seems too wrapped up in its own problems to look beyond its walls, or too invested in an unjust system to even desire social justice. In response, such disillusionment usually leads to either (1) joining or starting a Christian organisation that will solve poverty through direct action or policy activism, or (2) gaining employment in a secular industry that works with those in poverty. Though both are laudable paths as far as they go, neither sums up a Christian response. Forming an organisation to respond to poverty tends to lead to the bureaucratisation of compassion: this creates distance between the poor and the professionals and distances the average Christian from the poor by allowing them to outsource their compassion via donations to the organisation. The existence of a poverty-related industry disconnects Christian compassion from its rightful expression as a practice of Christian community and often leads to a sense of disconnection from the church on the part of the employee.

Of course, sometimes an organisation needs to be formed in order to focus on a particular aspect of poverty and it is often a matter of vocation that individual Christians should be involved in organisations working to respond to poverty. The church must encourage and equip them to be the light of Christ in their work. But a fully Christian response to poverty must synchronise with the heart of what the church is: a community of ordinary people following Jesus together. Congregations of Christians are thus signs of the reign of God, however badly we live that calling out. We point to a reality that we hope for, but only glimpse in the here and now. What would the local church need to do, and what would we need to remember, in order to be such signs of the reign of God in relation to those who are poor? 

What should the church do? 

Before we launch in, it’s important to note two things. First, when I say, “the church should do such and such”, I am not meaning to say that these things need to happen in the gathered times of worship of the church congregation (although they may). Instead, I mean that the activity is enabled, supported and carried out by the community of people which is “the church”. Second, although I will explain four practices fairly concisely, this should not be taken to mean that they are easy to do.

1. Make friends with the poor

This is as straightforward as it sounds, though it is difficult. Make friends with the poor. We usually make friends with people near to us in culture, class or interest. Making friends with the poor requires us to deliberately spend time with people with whom we seem to have little in common. It is tempting to see ourselves as superior to the poor in intelligence, achievement, worth and morality, yet such a self-perception is fundamentally contrary to Jesus’ way and to the bible’s brutal honesty about the human heart. Friendship forces us to see the truth of our common humanity with the poor.

Some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples were a declaration of friendship. It is central to the relationship between Jesus and us, his people, to the kind of relationship that is meant to exist between Christians and to the way we interact with others, especially the poor. Friendship recognises the image of God in all who are poor, forgotten, separated. Friendship cannot be sustained by well-funded organisations, or accurate research or excellent policy, despite the necessity of these things. It needs a community of people that believes such friendship is worth the risks and difficulties. What kind of community can sustain this? The church is the place where friendship between rich and poor can take place because of our friendship with Jesus. 

2. Stay faithful to hard places

The faithful presence of a Christian community in a poorer neighbourhood is a gift. Places of economic insecurity often suffer from transience, lack of trust in neighbours and welfare organisations that are committed to the area only last while the funding does. Thankfully, the church in the West is beginning to rediscover the nature of the “parish”. Karina Kreminski says:

Once the church begins to think about itself primarily in isolation and designs its mission, programs, and structures for its own survival and self-glory, it loses its primary call to be a light in this world and an expression of the mission of God for the redemption of the world. Neighbourhoods are places where we can live out this mission in pursuit of beauty, justice, mercy and truth. In fact, radical things happen when we make a shift from asking “God, what are you up to in my church?” to “God, what are you up to in my neighbourhood?”

In the face of transience and short-term funding, church congregations can enable their members to be committed residents in their neighbourhood. This has all kinds of “knock-on” effects. The young child you met at the local primary school becomes the young person at the bus stop, becomes the parent themself. Your long-term relationship with them is a crucial plank in their development as people and as a witness to what friendship with Jesus looks like. Efforts to make a poorer neighbourhood kinder, healthier, or fairer are given huge impetus with the presence of committed and long-term residents who give time, energy and money to their place.

3. Generous lives

When confronted with the reality of poverty, it is tempting to clam up. Many of those who live in poverty are extraordinarily generous people; they bring up grandchildren, run community groups and will support many of the church’s ventures. However, many of those in poverty will seem (to us) grasping, ungrateful, difficult and unwilling to help themselves. I know that my gut reaction is to close up to these people: to refuse my time, energy and resources. There are good reasons for doing so sometimes; we need to take care of ourselves and treating people as the recipients of our largesse is unhealthy for both them and us.

However, the challenge remains for us, the friends of Jesus, to live generous lives in which the resources that we possess are regularly given to those who need it beyond our comfort zone. John Chrysostom had this bracing reminder to those of us who have more than we need:

If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.

In addition, it is not only our material and financial resources we are called to share, but also our family life, our time and our energy. In doing so, we involve those on the margins in the ever-extending and loving community of the church - this is a witness to them of the love of God and an essential dynamic in our own growth as disciples.

4. Community amongst each other

I could have put this first as a condition of the other three practices, because without it our response to poverty becomes individualistic, prone to an unhelpful sense of “heroism” and, finally, unsustainable. However, attempting to build community first, and then make friends with the poor and so on, will likely result in church congregations becoming inwardly-focused. Community often results from, as well as enables, the practices I’ve suggested above. Some writers on mission have called this “communitas” (Alan Hirsch and others): a close form of social solidarity that results when a group of people embarks on a risky venture together.

Local churches need to foster and practise community amongst each other, and encourage the formation of communitas that results from doing something adventurous together. Often, church members only see each other at a Sunday service. Without a strong sense of dependency on each other, and a sense of common purpose, our churches become pre-occupied with their internal processes, gatherings, and buildings. All of these things must be given their due attention, of course, but this attention must be proportionate to the tasks of making friends with the poor, being faithful residents and living generous lives.