There’s nothing the church needs to rethink as urgently as poverty. Taking action for the flourishing of the poor is central to our solidarity with Jesus, yet too often the church is divided and ineffective in this area. Captive to ideological conflict, materialistic in our understanding and approach, and eager for quick fixes, we are not doing what we could to show the spiritual power of Jesus to a world stricken by poverty.
Many of our seminaries aspire to become leaders in the rethinking of poverty that is already going on in the church today. As stewards of the theological knowledge tradition and as educators of future leaders in the church, seminaries are uniquely qualified to contribute to this challenging but exciting opportunity. We owe our God and our impoverished brothers and sisters something better than what the church has yet achieved, and the Oikonomia Network acknowledges the responsibility of theological education in this regard.
In this moving and memorable talk, Christopher Brooks of Moody Theological Seminary shares his experience as a pastor on the front lines of urban poverty in Detroit. He masterfully shows the interconnectedness of discipleship to Christ and partnership with the poor, arguing that “any program for poverty alleviation or economic flourishing that is not centered upon discipleship is a failed enterprise before it even begins.”
He outlines what he calls a “CDC” approach to rethinking urban poverty:
- Contextualization: Instead of importing “big box solutions,” build “customized and localized”
- Data driven: Measure “what works for them,” not “what feels good to us”
- Collaboration: “Willingness to partner in biblical and effective ways” with business, government, and others
Brooks memorably describes what it was like to drive through Death Valley, to illustrate the spirit of fear that comes to dominate poor communities where the gospel is not bringing hope. Then he remarks: “Scripture such as Isaiah 43:19 remind us of the promise of God, that he loves those who live in the desert. He promises that he will cause rivers to flow even in desert conditions. We’re called to bring an oasis to those who live in the desert.”
Below is a brief outline of the talk, with a few sample excerpts. We hope you will find this a useful tool to help your students see opportunities for building new and more effective approaches to poverty, proving that (as Brooks puts it) “you shouldn’t have to change ZIP codes for the Gospel to work for you!”
What if I told you that Christians need to be at the center of this conversation with a redemptive voice? And that a starting point for us should be to rally around the thought that poverty isn’t permanent. . . . Sadly, this is the way some Christians treat the poor; as if they have some unfixable condition. Every day we’re seeing poor communities transformed through the power of the Gospel. Through acts of effective compassion and enterprising individual initiative, we’re seeing the poor literally rise out of poverty on a daily basis.
Fear and Hope in the Urban Desert
At its core, poverty is a feeling. That feeling is really hard to describe. . . . [Recounting a drive through Death Valley:] I will never forget the haunting images of cars that were broken down on the side of the road because their owners didn’t quite prepare for what life would be like in Death Valley. The only thought that kept running through my mind on that day is, “I’ve got to get me and my family out of here, or we might just die in the desert.” These feelings of fear and vulnerability, and feeling overwhelmed is exactly what the poor feel on a daily basis. They live in a desert and they know it. . . . The good news is that the Bible has a rich desert theology. Scripture such as Isaiah 43:19 remind us of the promise of God, that he loves those who live in the desert. He promises that he will cause rivers to flow even in desert conditions. We’re called to bring an oasis to those who live in the desert.
Two Causes of Poverty
On the one hand, scripture is very clear that poverty is caused by institutional injustice. This is expressed through bad public behavior, through governments and corporations that exploit and oppress the poor. Secondly, the Bible tells us that poverty is caused through bad personal lifestyle decisions, or what we would call individual iniquity. We have to take both very seriously. I would argue that any effective ministry to the poor has to take the time to discover what is the primary causal factor for this individual person that I’m working with? . . . In order to do that, you have to have relationship proximity, or closeness to the poor. I submit to you that any program for poverty alleviation or economic flourishing that is not centered upon discipleship is a failed enterprise before it even begins.
Two Obstacles the Church Faces in Fighting Poverty
One, the sacred/secular divide. I would argue that the greatest gap in the church is surprisingly not the racial gap, or the generational gap, or even the income gap, but it’s the gap between Sunday and Monday. Sadly, many Christians have not been able to bridge the enormous gulf between work and worship. . . . The second, and maybe even greater, challenge is the hyper-polarization between strategies on how to effectively help the poor. On the one hand, you have those who take a more parental approach, an extreme liberal approach, of big-government massive relief programs as the only effective way of helping the poor. On the other hand, you have those who take an extreme libertarian view, an anti-government, pull yourself up by your bootstraps approach to helping the poor. In between our extreme polarization, the poor are being lost, and dying, and suffering emotional and physical exhaustion on a daily basis.
Stories of Success with a “CDC” Approach
This is what we’ve been working on in this beautiful mission field called Detroit for the past 15 years, a more balanced approach that helps the church to realize that we were never called by God to operate in isolation in the desert. Helping the poor requires us to collaborate effectively with civic organizations, and social agencies, and even the business community. . . . How has this worked in Detroit? I’m glad you asked! There are three stories that I’d like to tell you.