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Reaching the poor

1 July 2010 | by Dewi Hughes

Reaching the poor

I am becoming increasingly convinced that it’s been one of the devil’s cleverest tricks to create the impression in the minds of some evangelicals – especially of the more reformed hue – that ‘evangelism’ and ‘care for the poor’ are somehow in opposition. I have read articles and heard statements that create the impression it’s dangerous and un-evangelical to focus too much on caring for the poor because it could undermine evangelism. It is said evangelism is the priority for Christians and churches so we must not be distracted from this primary task by getting too involved with social action. This approach has, I believe, seriously damaged the evangelistic effectiveness of reformed individuals and churches. To undermine evangelism in the name of evangelism is a trick worthy of the great deceiver!

Towards the end of the 1990s I had the privilege of working with a group of Tearfund’s development experts on drafting Operating Principles for the organisation. In part it said:

We want rich and poor to have the hope of a home in [the] new creation where there is no more death… or pain and where God is present with his people. Therefore reconciliation with God through submission to Jesus Christ is the greatest need of… all people. We are therefore committed to the proclamation of the gospel. And we challenge people to prioritise the future through commitment in the present to the gospel and the poor, so that they invest in ‘treasure in heaven’ rather than ‘treasure on earth’…

The New Testament gives little explicit teaching on either evangelistic or developmental methods. Instead it calls upon the church to be a caring, inclusive and distinctive community of reconciliation reaching out in love to the world. When we see the church in this way there is no opposition between evangelism and social action…

In all that we do we are totally dependent on God. There is a spiritual reality to development which a secular worldview often ignores. We are engaged in a spiritual conflict. Therefore prayer is essential for Christian development. The only way to keep going and see significant change is through the gracious power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Good works

In Tearfund we found one of the major blockages preventing churches having an impact for good – in every sense – on their societies, was a strong fortress mentality. Some churches saw themselves as besieged minorities under threat from the world. The main focus was on recruiting soldiers that would be prepared to go out into the hostile world to persuade sinners they were in grave danger and to come and join the fortress. This attitude reflected an unbalanced view of what the church is – the glorious body of Christ. So we focused initially on Bible teaching on the nature and purpose of the church. Passages like Matthew 5:14-16 and 9:35-38 show that followers of Jesus together are meant to be a blessing to their societies – to be salt and light and harvesters of the harassed and helpless. The task of the church is not to get people into our fortress. The world is to see our good works which means living the life more abundant found in Jesus, so that others will glorify the Father.

The church that is convinced its calling is to bless its society holistically will find a way to do it – especially if that church believes in the sovereignty of God. At Tearfund we encourage churches to understand their societies by creating a simple map of their area and marking where amenities are found, where young people gather, where drug pushers operate, etc. or conduct a questionnaire to find out what the community believe is good and bad about its area. The aim is to engage with people in tackling together what the community sees as the major problems it faces. This is something we do often overseas, but rarely in our own communities.

I saw something of the impact of this process in the Masai country, Kenya. Led by small evangelical Anglican churches, established as a result of many years’ mission work, communities have come together producing fruit in two areas. Firstly, churches experienced a more rapid period of growth among the Masai than has ever been known. The number of churches almost doubled and all congregations were growing rapidly by Masai standards. Secondly, I saw a whole school, a headmaster’s house, cisterns, a dipping facility for cows, protected vegetable plots and even a church building that had been built by communities without any money from the West. Everywhere I went there were signs that the quality of life of this traditionally nomadic people who live in very harsh conditions was improving.

God at work

Christian love that seeks the good of others without reservation does sometimes breed hatred and persecution but it also makes many well disposed to the gospel. This seemed clearly to be the case among the Masai and it is more dramatically so in many villages in Cambodia. Tulo Raistrick, Tearfund’s Church and Development Advisor, tells this story:

Trapeang Keh, a very poor village in rural Cambodia, appeared an unpromising environment for church-led community transformation. The land was hard, and the water wells were dry most of the year. Men went to the cities for months at a time to earn money, but often came back broken and sick. Many villagers were in debt to powerful money-lenders. Like most Cambodian villages, there was little trust or co-operation between people, the legacy of the horrendous Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge regime during the 1970s. And the church itself consisted of only four members, who were persecuted and marginalised.

However, things began to change three years ago. Two Christian community facilitators from FAITH project spent time with the local Christians, visiting for two days every fortnight, staying overnight in the village. This surprised most of the villagers – visitors who ever came to their village seemed only too quick to escape the primitive living conditions. Each visit, both Christian facilitators would spend time doing Bible studies, helping the Christians see how God wanted them to be agents of transformation in their community and building their confidence in the fact that they could be used by God in this way.

The local Christians began to realise that if they helped the village work together things could change. They invited the community to a meeting, but the villagers were very sceptical, unsure they could trust these Christians. So the Christians visited every person to their home, one by one. Gradually they began to win people’s trust, then when they called a community meeting, almost everyone came. Over the next few meetings the villagers began to realise why they were poor and that they could do something about it!

The community began to work together, addressing some of the problems. They dug more and better wells and improved the irrigation. They started vegetable gardens, and now grow crops all year round. There is less social disruption as the men no longer need to leave for the cities so stay with their families. There is less wife-beating, and more sharing of the tasks that were always left to women. There is less quarrelling and fighting, and alcoholism in the village. They are more united, and decision-making within the village is fairer and more inclusive.

And, significantly, attitudes to church have changed too. The Christians have grown in confidence to care for their neighbours and share their faith. There is less persecution. People respect the Christians as they have shown themselves willing to help others. And the church has grown. All but two of the village households now attend the church! It is a story of remarkable, holistic transformation.

Transformed lives

For villagers in a Buddhist community to be regularly attending an evangelical church where God’s word is proclaimed is a real sign of God’s grace at work in their lives. And it happened because the Christians around them were willing to think and act holistically. The idea that you could minister to your neighbours’ material needs, and not tell them the good news about Jesus Christ is preposterous. But it is equally absurd to think we can tell our neighbours about the love of Jesus which transforms lives for the better, and not show them how our transformed life is able to reach out in love to them. People in Cambodia and in the Masai have heard the gospel, and seen the impact the gospel has on individuals and a community. Is the same true of our own neighbourhoods?

Dewi Hughes is Tearfund’s Theological Advisor.