Every day, we can see new reasons why it’s so urgent for pastors to connect discipleship to work and economics. As I write this column, The New York Times has just published an article criticizing evangelicals for overemphasizing transnational adoption as a response to global poverty. Admittedly, the author strains to blow some problems out of proportion; the invocations of baby-selling and kidnapping are long on lurid suggestion and short on documentation. On the other hand, who can disagree with the main point – that transnational adoption, whatever its other virtues may be, is not a long-term solution to poverty?
If evangelical Christians seek to live as disciples by helping the poor flourish, we need to do better. The world already has plenty of people who mean well, and huge programs that do a lot to relieve short-term needs. What we lack are carefully thought-out, realistic, and sustainable approaches that help the poor everywhere escape from dependency by developing their God-given potential to grow and flourish economically. That’s a tall order! But we are the people specially set apart for this task. If we don’t do it, we cannot complain if others don’t either.
In this month’s newsletter, Jay Moon of Asbury Theological Seminary shares a story from his own experience that illustrates the powerful contrast between dependency and entrepreneurship as approaches to helping the poor. Jay’s story reminds me of Bob Lupton’s description of how his interactions with the poor changed when he transformed his food bank into an inexpensive restaurant, his clothes ministry into a discount clothing store, and his Christmas giveaway into a low-cost toy store. Before the change, “clients” had to be controlled and treated with suspicion so they didn’t take more food, clothing, or toys than their allotted share. After the change, “customers” had to be served and treated with gratitude so they would come back. As Lupton put it, “There is dignity in the process of exchange.”
This basic insight about human nature and the spiritual blessings of work needs to be cultivated on an individual level. But it also needs to be embodied in larger cultural institutions such as companies and economic systems. When both of those things happen, whole communities of people grow and flourish. Elsewhere in this month’s newsletter, Bruce Baker of Seattle Pacific University calls for a theology of the Holy Spirit that accounts for this dimension of economic institutions.
We continue to be grateful for the positive response we’re getting from the new vision document of the Economic Wisdom Project, “A Christian Vision for Flourishing Communities.” In addition to introducing these ideas to students, several ON seminaries are intentionally cultivating faculty conversations around the EWP. Please continue to let us know how students and peers are responding to the ideas and themes of the EWP, and what we can do next to help you stimulate conversations and insights in this critical area.
As the EWP reminds us, connecting our faith to the economy matters for a variety of reasons. However, the imperative to help those who are most in need is both the most obvious and most urgent for Christians. We are called to love the poor in action, not in cheap talk – try comparing I John 3:18 and James 2:14-17. It’s not enough to mean well. It’s our job to prepare our minds, but to prepare them for action (I Peter 1:13). We need to develop the wisdom to take appropriate action at the personal, institutional, and cultural levels so that everyone everywhere has the opportunity to flourish. Thanks, as always, for all that you do to prepare the Lord’s ministers for the exciting opportunities God is opening up in our time!