What Can Your Church Do to Help the Poor in the U.S.?

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by Dr. Brian Fikkert of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development

It is hard to believe, but the percentage of the U.S. population that lives below the poverty level of income is the same today as it was 35 years ago. Despite three and a half decades of economic growth and amazing advances in science and technology, the wealthiest and most powerful nation in human history has made virtually no progress in reducing the incidence of poverty within its own borders. In fact, the U.S. has the highest poverty rate of any industrialized nation in the world.

While there is widespread disagreement as to whether government programs have helped or hurt the situation, most observers now recognize that the despair and sense of meaninglessness that so often characterize America's poor cannot be solved via welfare checks alone. Like all of us, the poor need the hope of the gospel of the kingdom, a hope that in Christ there is healing for our deepest hurts. And the task of proclaiming this gospel in word and in deed has been committed to the church – to your church.

But what can your church really do to help? Truly loving the poor involves not handouts but ministries that restore the poor to being what God created them to be: productive human beings who are able to support themselves through their own work. That sounds difficult, and it is. Your church has limited time, money, and expertise. Are there really things that you can do to minister effectively to the spiritual and physical needs of the poor? The answer is a resounding "yes!" This article will give you some practical ideas on how to move ahead.

1. Develop/Nurture Mercy Ministry Vision: Probably the most difficult step is simply getting started. Pastors often tell us that they struggle to impart a vision for holistic ministry to their congregations.

2. Develop a Church Assessment and a Community Assessment: Pastors are unsure how to mobilize their members to reach their communities. Pastors are also sometimes unsure what the greatest community needs actually are. So along with developing and nurturing a mercy ministry vision, a congregation has to conduct both a church assessment and a community assessment to integrate the holistic vision into the life of the church, call and equip the members of the congregation to action, and acquire a deep knowledge of the community and its needs.

Fortunately, there are now resources available to help you get over these hurdles. In CHURCHES THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE: REACHING YOUR COMMUNITY WITH GOOD NEWS AND GOOD WORKS (Baker Books 2002), Ronald Sider, Heidi Rolland-Unruh and Philip Olson describe the results of a recent study of holistic congregations in the United States and introduce some outstanding tools that have emerged from this research. While there is no easy recipe for success, there are principles and tools that can help your congregation to develop a greater holistic vision and to assess both it and the surrounding community in order to develop an appropriate ministry.

Following this church and community assessment, your congregation will need to decide if helping the poor via economic development  i.e. helping the poor to support themselves through their own work is the proper focus for your ministry. It might not be! For example, if your congregation is full of medical professionals and there are significant health needs in your community, then perhaps the appropriate ministry focus for your congregation should be a holistic, healthcare ministry of some sort.

3. Is God Calling Your Church to Economic Development? If you conclude that addressing the economic needs of the poor fits your church's capacity and community's needs, you will then need to decide exactly how to intervene. There are a number of different economic development options that your church might want to consider.

The first two items in the list below, Jobs Readiness & Placement and Microenterprise Development, are approaches that help the poor to generate more income.

  • Jobs Readiness & Placement programs equip the poor to obtain and keep good jobs.
  • Microenterprise development programs attempt to help the poor to increase their incomes by assisting them with the necessary training and financing to start their own businesses. Although the Chalmers Center continues to believe that this is a viable approach internationally, we are no longer recommending this approach for most churches and Christian organizations in the United States. Research is finding that microenterprise programs in the U.S. move only one percent of their clients from welfare to self-employment. Furthermore, most of the clients of microenterprise programs are not the poorest, having higher levels of education, assets, skills, experience, and support networks than other low-income people do. When one considers the relative complexity of running microenterprise programs compared to the other interventions, it seems that the costs outweigh the benefits of this approach in most situations.

The next approach recognizes the fact that it is one thing to earn an income, but it is quite another thing to use that income wisely.

  • Financial Literacy: Like many of us, the poor have trouble with budgeting, but often they also suffer from limited understanding of financial matters and have limited access to banks and other financial institutions. Biblically-based, financial literacy programs can be used to overcome these obstacles. Virtually any congregation has the capacity to engage in this highly effective, relational ministry, and the spiritual and economic impacts can be enormous.

The final two interventions featured, Individual Development Accounts and Housing, enable the poor to turn their income into wealth. Income is the flow of revenue that we receive for our work, while wealth is the stock of assets that we build up as we save and invest for the future. Historically, public policy in America has focused on trying to increase the incomes of the poor and has paid little attention to their need for asset accumulation. However, recent research has shown that increasing the net worth of the poor is very important for enabling them to weather the shocks that often come their way (e.g. loss of a job, health crisis, etc.) and for helping them to build a better future.

  • Individual Development Accounts can empower the poor to acquire wealth by matching their savings with additional money for pre-approved, asset purchases.
  • Housing: helping the poor purchase their own homes – an asset that provides shelter, stability and often rapid appreciation – is another economic development intervention that enables the poor to turn their income into wealth.

The Chalmers Center believes that most churches and Christian organizations have the capacity to implement the various ministries described here, and we believe these ministries if designed properly can effectively address the spiritual and economic needs of the poor. However, we do not wish to imply that these ministries are easy to implement. Considerable prayer, planning, and perseverance are required. May God bless your church as you seek His guidance for your next steps in ministry.

Dr. Brian Fikkert is Professor of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College and Director of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development. The Chalmers Center is a training and research organization that equips development workers, missionaries, and laypeople to promote self-sufficiency among the poor in U.S. and International contexts. Visit www.chalmers.org to learn more about the resources offered by the Chalmers Center.

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