USA (MNN) — Ending global poverty is something everybody can get on board with. But a new study shows that including spiritual messages in poverty outreach is not a priority — even for American Christians.
The study was recently completed by the Barna Group and commissioned by Compassion International, titled “The Good News About Global Poverty: What Americans Believe About the World’s Poor — and What Churches Can Do to Help.”
One of the study’s more positive findings was that extreme poverty has been on a strong decline for decades.
Gary Edmonds, President and CEO of Food for the Hungry (FH), explains, “Back in about 1990, it was estimated that close to two billion people globally lived in a situation of extreme poverty. But since 1990, it’s estimated that 1.1 billion have actually risen out of extreme poverty.
“That is an encouraging statement, that God is responding, the strategies, the plans, the work that we and many, many others are doing is actually having a positive impact. So I’m encouraged by that!”
People around the world who live on less than $1.90 a day are considered extremely impoverished. While it is heartening to hear that fewer people are in this state today than in recent decades, there was also bad news in the report.
Ministering to the Body, Abandoning the Soul
“One of the interesting things that I saw from the Barna study is that it said for Americans, even including American Christians, that the lowest factor that they considered that was relevant to reducing extreme poverty was the spiritual factor. That astounded me,” says Edmonds.
“Here we are, we are a people who have been given freedom — freedom to worship, freedom to believe, freedom to practice our own faith, especially those of us who are followers of Jesus and would hold the Bible up as the Word of God. And yet, many of these people don’t necessarily see a correlation between faith and faith practices relative to reducing extreme poverty in the world. I think they more often see it as doling out or handing out goods, material things.”
Part of this may be in response to abusive ministry tactics people have witnessed. When organizations use religion as a bribe before giving out aid, spiritual commitments made in this context are empty at best and severely damaged at worst.
However, swinging the pendulum to the other extreme and serving only the body without any ministry to the soul leaves people in extreme spiritual poverty.
In FH’s ministry, Edmonds says they embrace a holistic approach.
“We want to see all forms of human poverty ended worldwide. So when we say extreme poverty at that point, we look at it from a physical [and] economical perspective, but we look at it as well…from a spiritual perspective. We want extreme poverty to be ended spiritually, socially — we want relationships healthy — educationally, [and] intellectually as well.”
What Does Balanced Ministry Look Like?
“So what do we do?” asks Edmonds. “We enter into communities. We build relationships with communities that are in extreme poverty…. As we enter into those communities, we will do an assessment with the local community. We want them to own their own change or transformation.”
Not everyone FH serves will end up giving their lives to Christ. And that’s okay. Spiritual commitments are not a requirement for someone to benefit from the ministry.
As Edmonds puts it, their ministry’s goal is to go into impoverished communities and represent Emmanuel — “God with us.” FH staff are open to spiritual conversations and ultimately there to meet needs in the name of Jesus.
“So we will come alongside them, we will teach them, we will train them, we will help them to actually begin to respond to their own priorities. It might be clean water, it might be a living wage, it might be with education, health concerns, [and] we’ve helped a lot of them start churches.”
Secular Organizations are Taking Notice
This approach is unique in comparison to secular organizations that are unable to meet spiritual needs. Edmonds says FH’s effectiveness in reducing poverty has caught the attention of big-name groups like World Bank and political leaders.
“We have been recognized on a global basis — even by governments — that the biggest thing we do in bringing about a change to contexts of extreme poverty is we change the beliefs and behaviors…of the local people.
“As the beliefs of the local people change, as they live in hope, as they have a trust in God and they want to have a life that is moral and ethical according to God’s Word, to God’s truth, that actually helps them to rise dramatically out of extreme poverty!
“We have had these groups actually come to us and say, ‘We see you’re a leading change agent and that as you go in and as you work with these people, hope rises in the lives of these people. Therefore, we are asking you to advise us on how can we engage better with faith-based, Christian organizations. You seem to have a key understanding to this reduction of extreme poverty.’”
We Have More To Do
While the dramatic reduction of extreme poverty is an encouraging sign, there is still a lot of work to do. The Church is a major force in this movement, but there are many more who could get involved.
“The people of God need to realize we have an awful lot to bring as the people of God in helping to reduce extreme poverty. I would love for pastors and those who would teach to actually grasp and help the members of their congregation to understand this,” says Edmonds.
“We’ve got major things to be able to offer our world in the reduction of poverty, and that includes bringing the tenants and the principles of our faith.”
Fighting global poverty in all its forms isn’t hard. It just takes some intentionality to find those ministries that are responding to physical needs and also sharing spiritual hope in Jesus Christ.
Once you’ve done that, an obvious way to get involved is to support your chosen ministry! Click here to learn more about Food for the Hungry.
“It’s like sending a missionary at that point. Your donations allow groups like us, Food for the Hungry, to literally have people who live in states often of destitute. So you’re sending people to live amongst these impoverished people.”
And finally, Edmonds says, “The last thing I would tell you to do is advocate for it! Get yourself educated, learn, read this study for example out of Barna, and engage and advocate with others. Let us unite in this effort to fight and reduce poverty.
“Might we be eager to respond to the plight of the poor in the world because I believe that is a part of God’s will and that’s a part of God’s heart.”
(Header photo courtesy of Food for the Hungry)