The reality of poverty in our ministries
Sophie looked at my wife, Michele, with her big brown eyes and smiled widely. Maybe it was the pink sweaters they both wore, or some other unspoken understanding, but they had somehow made a connection.
We were in South Africa on a short-term family mission trip. I was preaching that day in a tiny village church with no running water, cement floors and a fire just outside where our lunch was cooking. My wife and sons taught the kids. And Sophie latched on to Michele, rarely straying more than a few feet away the entire morning. Sophie is a beautiful, bright, vibrant young lady. And she lives in poverty.
As we walked through the muddy streets of the village on our way to the pastor’s house after church, we passed by house after house that would barely qualify as a lean-to in the United States. Most of them were crude cement structures with corrugated metal roofs, and they all looked like they could collapse at any moment. People stood out front to smile and wave at the Americans. Children ran around us excitedly, giggling and daring to try and speak with us. Sophie walked arm-in-arm with Michele down those streets and told us of her home in a nearby village. The pastor later informed us that her village was even more poverty-stricken, and that Sophie’s home was even more crudely built.
Sophie lives in poverty. Yet she was joyful, confident and unashamed. These characteristics struck me as odd. If I lived in poverty, the last thing I would do is reach out to a foreigner and want them to see where I lived. But Sophie helped me understand something about poverty that I had never really considered: it’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s not something to be pitied. It’s not something any of us—those in poverty or those exposed to poverty—should run from.
Poverty is simply a reality. It’s real in South Africa. It’s real in other countries and continents. And yes, it’s real in the United States. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, 22 percent of American children live in poverty. Overall, over 15 percent of the U. S. population lives in poverty as of 2010, up from about 11 percent in 2000. What does this mean? It means that there’s a very, very good chance that families, and children specifically, in your ministry live in poverty.
As I remember our experience with Sophie and work to understand the reality of poverty in my own world, I’m reminded of the many things Jesus said about the poor—things that I think we in the United States often read over without much thought. But take a moment and think about these statements Jesus made.
- “And turning His gaze toward His disciples, He began to say, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Luke 6:20-21)
- “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’” (Matthew 25:34-36)
- “Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.’” (Mark 10:21-22)
- “And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.’” (Mark 12:41-44)
- “And He also went on to say to the one who had invited Him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’” (Luke 14:12-14)
These are just a few of many statements from scripture in regards to those who are poor, and they lead to several simple conclusions.
- Those who are poor are no less important than those who are not poor. Our bank accounts have nothing to do with God’s perspective of us.
- Those who are poor seem to have fewer obstacles to authentic spiritual relationship than those who are not poor.
- Those who are blessed materially have an obligation to offer assistance to those who are poor.
Jesus makes it pretty straightforward in His teaching. Essentially, Jesus tells us that those who are poor deserve respect and assistance from those who are not. The poor in this world will be blessed in the next, as will those who serve them.
Pretty simple ideas. But often those of us leading in Western-world churches do not translate that into action. The first step toward action is to understand the reality of poverty all around us. It’s almost certain that there are families in your church who live in a state of poverty. It is one hundred percent certain that there are families in your community who do. We, as church leaders, sometimes need a reality check that our ministries aren’t just about the environments inside the church walls (as important as they are). It’s not just about the quality of our teaching, or the numbers that show up at the weekend services.
Our ministries are also about real life. We should be about the things that Jesus was about—thinking about and caring for people the way He instructed us to think and care about people.
Here are a few simple, practical ideas for your ministry to do just that.
Keep bags of food and everyday items (toiletries, for example) available at the church.
We don’t need to make people “projects” for our ministry. We should simply be ready to meet needs when we see them. Be aware during conversations, especially with kids, that might highlight a hardship that they or their family might be facing. As you have conversations that reveal that a dad is out of work, or there has been a significant event in the family, make a mental note that this family might soon be in a position that requires a helping hand. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them in love, as often they will be slow to reach out for assistance, embarrassed at their circumstances.
Create an assistance fund to be available for families in need.
This is a great way to engage kids in your ministry without embarrassing those who receive the assistance. Kids can give to the fund, which creates a great opportunity to teach what Jesus taught, and the funds can be used to help those in need. This option is especially good for one-time needs, such as when a family’s car breaks down (perhaps Dad or Mom’s only way to get to work) and they need help with the expense of getting it fixed. Of course, be sure to have guidelines on how the funds will be used and follow them.
Take advantage of opportunities to serve locally.
Wonderful opportunities exist all around us to simply serve those in need. And, again, these opportunities are a great way to engage kids and families in your church in service (which we know is one of the best ways to cement a child’s faith in his heart). Don’t let these service opportunities happen just during the holidays—pursue them year-round—perhaps even at your VBS.
Engage children and families in supporting those in need around the world. Sponsor a child or give to a mission’s initiative that meets real needs (such as digging wells that will provide clean water or building a medical clinic overseas). This can help create awareness of the issue of poverty around the world. At the same time, it engages families in a very practical way to help meet those needs.
Explore opportunities for families to serve around the world.
Serving on two short-term trips in South Africa has been the single greatest faith experience for my sons. Being exposed to the reality of poverty overseas created a desire in them to serve those in need at home. Pursuing these opportunities will change the perspective of families forever, and it’s probably not as difficult as you might think.
Poverty is a reality around the world and in our own back yard. Being aware of this reality is the first step toward taking action. Adopting the attitude of Jesus provides the perspective to know how to act. And being creative, starting small, and being committed gives our actions impact. I challenge you to consider how you can respond to poverty in your ministry!
Greg Baird is founder of KidMin360, a ministry that partners with churches to impact eternity by helping them create healthy children’s and family ministries. Learn more about Greg and KidMin360 at KidMin360.com.
Use VBS to teach kids about poverty
- On the large screen, Skype in a missionary who can tell about the poverty where they serve.
- Provide brochures, catalogs, photos and websites for the kids to explore. As they do, encourage them to write on a big white board in a prominent place their ideas of how they could help. Take this list and see how you could make some of these happen in the next year.
- Instead of an offering, the kids will bring in small toys that will be used to fill shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child.
- Explain what the local food pantry does. Then, challenge your kids to bring enough cans of food to line along a designated baseboard. As the week goes along, watch how the baseboard disappears with food that will feed the hungry.
Facts on Global Poverty
- At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.
- The number of children in the world: 2 billion. The number in poverty: 1 billion (every second child).
- 640 million children live without adequate shelter.
- 400 million children have no access to safe water.
- 270 million children have no access to health services.
- According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty.
Source: World Bank Development Indicators, 2008