At this point, 2020 has become a cliché—a year of collective trauma and upheaval likely to be remembered by many of us as one of the hardest years of our lives. So many projects have been put on hold, so many dreams dashed, so much heartache suffered.
The burning question now is not so much whether we can ever get back to “normal,” but rather “What do we do next? How can we begin moving again?”
From our perspective as a ministry that equips local churches to address the roots of material poverty, let’s ask a more specific question: What should churches (and the poverty alleviation ministries they support through funding, staff, and volunteers) be doing now to serve the materially poor in their neighborhoods and around the world—especially those on whom the economic effects of this devastating year have fallen the hardest?
Resting in the Hope of Christ
It may seem odd to start answering a question of what to do with “rest.” Shouldn’t we be moving forward in the work God has called us to, with the magnitude of the needs before us? Before we charge into ministry, we need to recognize that it is His work. Unless we stop and meditate on the fact that poverty alleviation is fundamentally a miracle performed by the triune God, we are likely to get tied up in knots working out strategies and tactics that address symptoms of material poverty rather than its root causes.
This God, who made heaven and earth and everything in them wants to be our God. He made us to be in perfect fellowship with Him (Gen. 1-2). Even though mankind sinned and broke our relationship with God, He has made known to us in His word that his plan from eternity past has been to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross (Col. 1:13-20). He is, right now, even in the midst of this year and all its troubles “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
Our God is in the business of resurrection, bringing life and hope to people by the power of His spirit when there is no earthly hope to be found. This is the glorious mystery of the gospel, and the story that the church is called to tell in the world.
Remembering the Poor
A key theme of God’s story is that “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18). God takes up the cause of those the world’s systems leave behind.
This is the good news Jesus proclaimed, quoting Isaiah 61 and staking his identity as God-made-flesh on the fulfillment of this prophecy: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
This is borne out in the practices of the early church, who cared for one another such that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts. 4:34). As the church spread beyond Israel to the rest of the peoples of the world, the Apostles blessed the God-given ministry of Paul with a single caveat: “Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal. 2:10).
As our churches try to navigate meeting and undertaking ministry activities in a difficult time, this remains our call. Moving on with our lives—even to good things!—without remembering the poor is to undermine and discredit much of God’s story.
The way ahead, then, is the same as it has always been. Our community life may be altered by restrictions to prevent disease, our personal relationships may be strained by politics, our budgets may be stretched to the breaking point, but the work of the church continues. It was never dependent on our strength and resources and ideas to begin with.
And yet, God calls us to work alongside Him in His kingdom. He has made us to be a kingdom of priests who “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). If we are found in Christ as part of His body, we are priest-rulers who declare and demonstrate His works in word and deed. By His power, we are not passive recipients of mercy, but active participants in the spread of God’s love.
This same posture needs to be present in our efforts to remember the poor. God’s plan for all of us, including the materially poor, is to restore us to who He created us to be. As we address the root causes of poverty, we long to see people restored to full human flourishing. The goal is not dependency-creating handouts that remind people of their brokenness and need. However, deep relationships that lead to mutual transformation as materially poor and materially rich people are formed together into the likeness of Christ.
Living into the Story
Over the next several weeks, we will be looking at what the implications of these truths are for our ministry practices. Our prayer for each of you is that in knowing who our God is, knowing who we are as His people, and growing in the confidence that the work of the church is most powerful when the world around looks bleakest. The same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead is in us (Rom. 8:11). Don’t lose heart!