Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, recently identified and illustrated a mindset shift that is needed in the way US churches approach poverty. Below are some highlights; to read the article click here.
Stearns begins differently than most who talk about poverty among Christians. Instead of badgering the church in America for being stingy, he commends them for their generosity.
American Christians are astounding in their generosity. Tens of thousands of churches pour resources into feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and building houses and orphanages. Hundreds of thousands trek to Africa, Asia, and Latin America each year on short-term mission trips desiring to offer their help.
The problem is that as Americans we too often have an engineer’s mindset. We turn problems into projects. We quickly analyze what cause of any problem is, develop solutions that would likely work in our context, and then move on to solve the next problem. We miss complexities of culture. We don’t see the unintended consequences of our actions. If we are not careful we may assume that there is a simple solution to any problem and all will soon be well with a little American ingenuity or by introducing an expensive piece of equipment. Stern continues:
We easily underestimate the intricate complexity of the puzzle of poverty—culturally, politically, socially and economically, even in a small community. The American church had intended to do good, but their initiatives had damaging and unintended consequences. Effectively addressing poverty requires cultural understanding, technical expertise, and a great deal of perseverance.
Stearns’ four principles for a new approach
1. Poverty goes beyond material things.
We have to realize that it is only because of our own materialistic tendencies that we think that primary solution to poverty is to give stuff. Handouts may temporarily relieve some suffering, but do little to deal with the root causes of poverty. Poverty is more often a lack of relationships and community than lack of possessions. Churches should prioritize activities and partnerships that require community, relationship, and the Gospel.
2. Sustainable solutions require community ownership.
Solutions that are impersonal and foreign-led do little to develop community ownership, initiative, and responsibility. Without developing community ownership any solution to poverty begins to rapidly deteriorate when the foreigners leave. Churches should do the hard work of getting to know community leadership and serving to increase their capacity. This can’t be done on a ten-day trip. Instead of dreaming about solving the problems of poverty in Africa, how about your own community?
3. We may need to bring in the experts.
Complex problems need much experience and training to solve. Willingness to “go” is an inadequate standard for the difficulty of the task of tackling poverty in another culture. Churches that want to help outside of their own context should either work with experts or go through the process of becoming experts. Recognize that in some ways you are already an expert in your own community.
4. Change doesn’t happen overnight.
If the problem can be solved quickly and easily it probably already would have been solved. Churches should recognize that their effectiveness on fighting poverty only comes with long-term investment. Short-term projects often have little impact.
Take a look that the full article. You will benefit by adding Stearns’ insights to your personal or church’s approach to poverty.