By Joseph Wamutitu
Joseph has developed orphanages in Kenya helps Kenyan message bearers to be sent to the unreached.
The issue of alleviating the suffering of the poor has many connotations. The Church approaches this issue from different perspectives.
Where as there are those who believe such a thing can only happen at the return of Christ (or the rapture for that matter) there are those who believe that the church has a God given obligation to alleviate the suffering of the poor.
This article takes the latter view and addresses poverty alleviation from the perspective of the Great Commission, God’s concern for the poor, and the holism and relevance of the Gospel as well as giving some practical ways of alleviating poverty.
The Great Commission
During one of my recent trips to Kenya a question was posed to me by a young man as to whether our church was not drifting from its original vision of world evangelism.
The young man was originally drawn to our Church by bill board which read: “CMF (Christian Missions Fellowship) Nairobi Missions Center; Go ye therefore…(Matthew 28:19).” He was concerned that the church was investing more time and resources in “other ministries” like taking care of orphans and helping the poor.
The issue with the young man was his understanding of the Great Commission. Some evangelists and missionaries have what I would refer to as a “narrow view” of the Great Commission and only approach it from the “Go ye therefore” perspective.
A deeper look at the scriptures however shows that Jesus did not only tell the disciples to go but also to disciple nations “teaching them to observe all things” Matt. 28:19-20 KJV). The “making of disciples of the nations” while teaching them to “obey all commands” (NLT) demands a holistic approach to missions which deals with poverty and its consequences.
The Manila Manifesto (1989), a follow up of the International Congress on World Evangelization held in Lausanne (1974) statement on social responsibility has to be taken serious:
“Our continuing commitment to social action is not a confusion of the kingdom of God with a Christianized society. It is rather, a recognition that the biblical Gospel has inescapable social implications…” (Coote et al. 1980:237).
Social action should not be limited to political involvement as in advocating for justice and providing relief to the poor. It should serve the greater purpose of poverty alleviation through economic empowerment.
God’s Concern for the Poor
The fact that God is concerned with the plight of the poor and the needy is obvious from the scriptures. Although God’s ultimate desire is a world where there are no poor (Deut. 15:4), the poor will never cease from the land (Deut. 15:11).
It is God who “raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy out of the ash heap” (1 Sam. 2: 8). Jesus’ response to the messengers who were sent by John the Baptist while in prison shows Jesus’ heart for the poor; “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” (Matt. 11:5)
In Matthew 19:21 Jesus asked the rich young ruler to sell all what he had and give it to the poor a clear indication that He cared for the poor. In his PhD dissertation, Philip Kairu Thuo (2007) associates the growth of the early Church not only to taking care of the poor but also to poverty alleviation:
In the book of Acts Chapter 2 and Chapter 4, Luke describes what happened to the Early Church when the believers took care of the poor and also provided for the needy people in their group.
There was a significant church growth as “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47, NRSV). The second thing that happened is that material poverty was being alleviated as in this group of the Early Church there “was not a needy person among them, for …proceeds…[were] distributed to each as any had need” (Acts4;34-35; NRSV).
Although this article does not promote or favor “socialism” which is implied by the scriptures referenced above, the spirit and the end results of the life style of the Early church are desirable and to be emulated.
Holistic and Relevant Gospel
A look at Jesus’ life and ministry shows clearly that His gospel was not only holistic but also relevant. He cleansed lepers, healed the sick, calmed the sea, and delivered the demon-possessed. (8 Matthew) Jesus’ ministry was about meeting specific needs and offering relevant solutions.
When he met the demonic for example, Jesus did not give them food or clothe them first. On the other hand when the people were hungry in the desert (Matt. 14:14-21), he did not “cast out the demons of starvation and hunger.”
Instead, he challenged the disciples to feed them. Similarly, when we encounter the poor, we cannot afford to “cast out the demons of poverty” or assume poverty is not an issue. It is our responsibility to engage with the problem and offer a relevant solution.
The Gospel is good news. Jesus introduced and summarized his mission on earth through the words of Luke 4:18. To the sinner, the good news is that Christ became an offering for sin so that “we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:21).
To the sick, the good news is that “By His stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). To the poor, the good news is that there is liberty to the oppressed and that it is God who gives us the power to get wealth (Deut.8:18). I propose that God desires to partner with His servant to help the poor get wealth.
The first practical step in alleviating poverty is holistic teaching of God’s Word. Once people’s theology of God, themselves, others, creation and work is right the rest will be easy.
As God’s messengers this is first assignment. With this foundation, poverty alleviation programs will serve the Great Commission mission and will not be seen as a deviation or distraction.
The Word of God is not only holistic and relevant but is also transformational and empowering. Whether on short term missions or long term missions, God has entrusted us with the greatest resource to change individuals, families, communities and nations.
Although those of us involved with short term missions do not have much time to disciple people through God’s Word and see transformation of their hearts, minds and lifestyles, we have the same command with those in long term missions.
The Word of God is therefore the greatest weapon that we have and the pulpit the greatest platform for alleviating the sufferings of poor.
Teaching the holistic gospel which alleviates the suffering of the poor includes changing the mindset through sound teachings on God, self, others and creation. It also includes teaching on topical issues like poverty, economics, business and hard work.
Unfortunately, the Church, on its “revival mode” preaches more about heaven and very little on honesty, integrity, business ethic etc. Worse still, self-styled preachers have taken advantage of the poor by promising prosperity after “sowing seeds” without teaching practical steps of getting there.
It is high time that the poor heard from the pulpit what the scriptures have to say about “Savings,” “Investments,” “Job creation,” and “payments of debts.” Sound teaching on stewardship and Christian giving also plays a big role in alleviating poverty and its impact on the poor.
The giving of tithes and offerings gives the poor an opportunity to give back to God and to become partners with God in what He is doing in the world. The greatest disservice that one can do to the poor is to deny them this opportunity.
Unfortunately, this was done during the missionary era but does not have to be repeated. When the poor give they feel needed (Cuthbert 1995). Their self-worth is raised and the dependency mentality is broken. The pride of making a difference in the lives of others makes the poor see themselves differently.
Kingdom Business and Tentmaking
Cross-cultural workers and Christian leaders committed to alleviate the sufferings of the poor must think “outside the box” (Lai 2005). Having a right theology of work and sound teaching on stewardship without practical solutions is not sufficient especially in countries where job opportunities are limited and the employment rate is high.
This requires practical solutions which addresses the dichotomy between secular and the sacred, the lay and the clergy and the spiritual versus the physical.
Paul Stevens (2000) has done an excellent job on this topic. So has Bryant Myers (1999). Care must be taken however to avoid a shallow theology of work, which seems to glorify secular work and undermine full-time call to ministry.
Ken Eldred anticipates that “kingdom business, will be a primary tool that revolutionizes missions in the twenty-first century by providing an economically self-sustaining vehicle that will enable an increasing number of missionary Christians to be welcome in any country” (2005:46).
Kingdom business, microenterprise development and tentmaking are some practical ways of alleviating poverty and financing missions. Another economic model that is being fronted out there is microfranchising.
The effectiveness of the above economic models for poverty alleviation depends on a well informed theology of business activity, private ownership of property, and profit making.
Although students’ missionary movements may not be directly involved with these programs, they need to be aware of their potential role in poverty alleviation. The preaching of the good news involves “walking with the poor” in their struggle against poverty.
A final note is that most of these economic models are very western and have to be applied with caution and sensitivity in the developing countries. As a general rule, the economic models should be culturally relevant, empowering, ethical and sustainable over time.
Empowerment involves involving the local people in the decision making and letting them own the programs and the solutions. To avoid distraction from the core mission, balance between ministry and economic activities is equally important.
God is concerned about the poor and every bona fide Christian has a God given responsibility to partner with God in alleviating poverty. The divine call is not just for a selected few but to all called to minster the Gospel.
With proper teachings about work, giving and economic activities, individuals, families and communities, no matter how poor, can be empowered to deal with poverty and its consequences.
Through network and partnerships those called and gifted in business activities are given the opportunity to be a blessing to body of Christ whiles those who are called to teach and disciple dedicate themselves to the same. This is the power of networking.