I’ve been reading Walking with the Poor, by Bryant L. Myers. The book looks at principles and practices of transformational development.
The book explores poverty, causes of poverty, and calls the church to action in engaging broken systems that cause poverty.
He lays forth a strong case that poverty is a
“deficit, entanglement, lack of access to social power, powerlessness, and the lack of freedom to grow” (Myers 81).
Poverty is a complicated issue that involves all areas of life — physical, personal, social, cultural, and spiritual.
I live and work in a country where poverty is more visible than the suburban America where I lived before.
- I walk home from church and a single mother with children is asking me for money or food.
- I walk to church, I see a unkempt homeless man with a distorted and twisted foot sleeping on cardboard next to the barbershop.
- Walking home from class, I see people picking through the trash to recycle what can be salvaged.
- The building maintenance man lives on an annual salary of $6K a year, working 48 hours a week.
The gospel is relevant to people such as these.
But what difference does evangelism make in their life? Can it lift them out of their poverty?
This is the question that Myers seeks to get at in this book.
For example, he presents a simple chart about solutions to the cause of poverty (p.81).
|View of Cause||Proposed response|
|Poor are sinners||Evangelism|
|Poor are sinned against||Social Action, justice|
|Poor lack knowledge||Education|
|Poor lack things||Relief / social welfare|
|Culture of the poor is flawed||Become like us / ours is better|
|Social system makes them poor||Change the system|
Certainly poverty has many causes and many possible cures.
I’m simply wondering about the role of evangelism in transforming a culture, transforming a system. Certainly the gospel can transform an individual, but can that transformation seek to change the systems of poverty?
Order your copy of Walking with the Poor, by Bryant L. Myers.
Other books we are currently reading:
- Questioning Evangelism, Randy Newman
- They like Jesus, but not the Church by Dan Kimball
- Confessions of a Reformissional Rev by Mark Driscoll
- Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey, Rick Richardson
- Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism (Real Life Evangelism Series) by Martha Reese
- Discipling the Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures
- unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters
Let me ask you this?
What role can evangelism play in reducing poverty? That’s a big question, but perhaps one we can discuss here.
Obviously one cannot judge a book by a cover or even by the review of another. To take the solutions chart out of context is also likely unfair, but it does give a good discussion starting point. There are some of these statements in the chart that I strongly agree with such as “Evangelism as the response to sinners (poor or otherwise)”. And other things on the chart that I strongly disagree with such as “Culture of the poor is flawed: response is to become like us as ours is better.”
To me evangelism is an individual approach where the trinity meets a person’s spiritual needs and offers salvation and reconciliation. Poverty is also individual but we seem to think of it mainly in a group setting. Poverty in our eyes is a disability, but the Bible relates that we often misjudge who has disabilites or even what purpose they may have in God’s view.
It is a big step to conclude that evangelism could or even should “lift all out of poverty.”
Each of us acts in a spiritual individuality as informed and directed by the Holy Spirit. We live in community as a people and have responsibilities within that setting. Our call is to love. Love is action and we discover the “whole truth” of being individuals and being community. We should look for and act upon opportunities to reduce social injustice, but we mainly need to attack the issue by compassionate evangelism that says God cares for everyone.
Thanks Bill for the comment.
The chart I lifted out was part of his discussion on some responses to poverty based on the need.
It’s not his conclusions. I’ve not yet reached the conclusion of the book, so there will be some further reflections here. . . .
Evangelism in a wholistic format has the opportunity to change communities over time. The gospel brings hope, grace, mercy, compassion and opens the eyes of the oppressed to the community of believers who should welcome them and naturally be concerned about their welfare.
Likewise, it is never enough to tell the poor to “be saved” and walk away from their physical needs as Christians. Scripture teaches that we should be known by our love and our actions toward each other. Does that mean that there will always be a tile floor and a chicken in each pot for the developing world Christians? No… but it is amazing to hear how social justice, education, economic developement and evangelism dovetailed through the community of faith in Jesus name and the result are communities and families are transformed: “tile by tile” and “chicken by chicken” and “soul by soul”. Check out this website http://www.nehemiahcenter.net/ for a collaboration of ministries in Nicaragua that are transforming communities.
My immediate reaction is that if “evangelism” implies people being saved, the question boils down to “does salvation reduce/eliminate poverty”. You really need to look at both the individual and societal level. Typically evangelism (certainly salvation) is an individual thing but it may have societal implications. On the individual level, while we would like to think that because God is against poverty (though I can’t immediately think of a place in the Bible that states that directly – and “poverty” might need to be more strictly defined) when someone is saved they will be empowered to somehow work their way out of it. I don’t think this is automatically so. Yes it may happen in certain instances, but not only are Christians subject to a broken and fallen system (the societal piece, which I will get to), but for whatever reason God may have elected that individual to remain in that condition, despite all their prayers and efforts. Basically they are meant to be that way and no less spiritual as a result (probably more so in fact). Now what happens when whole groups of people are saved? Will they impact their culture? I certainly hope so. Will they eliminate poverty (especially if some happen to be in influential positions), I rather doubt it. Bad as poverty is, it is not the worst evil that mankind is subject to, and to focus on it sufficiently to wipe it out would entail a certain singlemindedness that really should be reserved for following God and may well end up introducing or strengthening other evils. I would think that as Christians we should make choices that work to reduce poverty when possible/reasonable, but that is not our chief end.
I find it important to distinguish between poor and poverty. For me at least poverty indicates a mindset or attitude that is verified by the person’s(s’)surroundings. It is a sort of chicken and egg thing, not sure which perpetuates the other–probably both. Poor on the other hand can include people with various attitudes other than that of the hopelessness of poverty. What evangelism (through loving relationships)can do is lift the poverty out of a person’s heart and fill it with the presence and love of God. Thus there has to be a concentration upon the individual. But at the same time, the institutions (perhaps those sponsoring the evangelism) can work toward the systemic issues and wield public pressure for changes. This is rarely done. Churches tend either to be evangelical OR socially conscious. Balance is needed. I don’t know if the author moves toward something like that or not. Systemic change cannot last without attitude change among both the individuals among the powerless and the individuals of the powerful. Individual change will have difficulty maintaining change unless there is hope in the system changing. Thus both the power wielding and the poverty stricken need to be loved into encounter with Jesus.
I think that the biblical writers would have been puzzled by our questions about whether or not the gospel can transform more than the individual. Our western culture has, in many ways, reduced the gospel to an individualistic kind of salvation, only concerned with the eternal destination of one’s soul after bodily death. Does it go to heaven or hell?
The Bible’s view of things is much bigger. The gospel is much more whole and communal and for the world. It’s news about what God has done and is doing and will do to redeem and restore and recreate not just me, but the entire creation!
Jesus was concerned with physical and social healing, as he was concerned with spiritual healing. The Bible reminds us that those who would follow Jesus are sent by Jesus in the power of his Spirit to continue his mission—a mission that was for individual people (how could it not be?) but about so much more. We don’t exhaust the scope of the good news when we tell people that they can receive an eternity with God by inviting Jesus’ into their hearts.
If, by evangelism, we mean gospel communication, then it seems to me that working to end poverty can actually be a crucial aspect of evangelizing, insofar as our work bears witness to God’s in-breaking reign. In other words, when the church works to love the poor and seeks their social wellbeing, we bear witness to the fullness of the gospel.
Chris, thanks for posting on this topic and this book. Also, thanks for a very helpful website. When I read Myers’s book, I was very challenged by his idea of “marred identity,” that is, the way in which the god-complexes of the poor and non-poor alike keep them from seeing their place in God’s Great Story.