Evangelizing Young People In Poor Communities
A study PAPER Written by Ajith Fernando in Consultation with Colleagues in Sri Lanka Youth for Christ
THE CONVOCATION OF
THE YOUTH FOR CHRIST INTERNATIONAL
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A Biblical Priority and a Worldwide Reality
Youth for Christ and the World’s Poor
The Scope of this Paper
An International Strategy?
Identifying with the Poor
The Problem of Low Motivation
A De-motivating Environment
The Power of Visionary Leadership
The power of Spiritual Parenthood
Develop a Sense of Ownership of the Programme
Trusting the Poor
Sharing of Heart and Possessions
Opening our homes to them
Contributing to the Programme
Liberation from the Bondage of Poverty
The Place of Education
Learning to Trust in God
Representing the Poor before the Rich
An Enemy of Evangelism?
The aim of this paper is to encourage YFC programmes to minister in poor communities. When I use the words poor and poverty in this paper, I am referring to economically needy people. There are many other forms of poverty in the human experience. But here I am restricting myself to economic poverty.
A BIBLICAL PRIORITY AND A WORLDWIDE REALITY
The Great Commission is could be considered as the basis for this paper. Christ asked us to take the gospel to the world. 46% of the world are classified as poor, and 23% of the world are classified as absolutely poor.1 If this so, the Great Commission should drive us to a major emphasis on the poor.
Studies have shown that “in a great many countries today, including many industrialized nations and developing nations that have enjoyed rapid economic growth in the past, the poorest 20% have not shared in the benefits of that growth.” This is true even of places like the United Kingdom and the United States.2 With the euphoria following the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union dying down, we are now faced with the fact that for many families [there] the economic situation is rapidly worsening. “In 1989, official figures showed 11% of the families across the Soviet Union living below the poverty line; in many regions today, over three-quarters of the population has fallen into poverty.”3
Yet the poor of the world are, and have always been, neglected by the people of God. Neglected groups are presented in the Scriptures as being worthy of special concern. We are not saying that the poor are more important to God than the affluent. Rather, we say that because they are often neglected, the Bible gives special emphasis to their needs. Many special considerations, for example, are given to them in the Old Testament laws.
Isaiah 61.1 envisaged the coming of the Messiah to be associated with preaching the good news to the poor. And Jesus quoted that statement in Nazareth in Luke 4.18 when describing the ministry he was to have. While he did not neglect the rich, he lived as a poor person and ministered among them. John the Baptist once sent his disciples to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else” (Matt. 11.3). Jesus asked them to go back and report to John what they saw of the many miracles that he performed. After listing some miracles, and says, “…and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matt. 11.5). That the poor were being evangelized was evidence that God was doing a great thing among them.
YOUTH FOR CHRIST AND THE WORLD’S POOR
If YFC is to fulfill its role as a movement pioneering in reaching unreached youth, we will need to consider afresh the call to reach the poor youth of the world. Statistics may reveal that we are not doing this with much success; that, like many other evangelical groups, we may be best at reaching middle-class people.
But signs of change are being evidenced. That the YFCI Strategy Task Force has identified this area as one of four areas needing special emphasis is a good sign. The Asia Pacific Area conducted a New Wineskins consultation this year in partnership with World Vision International specifically to study this issue. Many national programmes have been talking about new strides into poor communities in recent years and some have made significant progress in this direction. Sri Lanka YFC moved into this area in the mid-seventies, and now the the vast majority of those we minister among are poor.
THE SCOPE OF THIS PAPER
Like any contextualized ministry, ministry among the poor makes serious demands on us to adjust in order to be appropriate to the culture. But it is impossible to present a model of an ideal ministry among the poor, as the poor in different areas differ vastly. We have found that, within the same city in Sri Lanka, the culture of poor youth in different areas may differ vastly in certain features, such as musical taste.
In this paper I hope to present some principles which may work in many areas, and also share some convictions that have grown out of our experience. Some lessons we have learned may not exactly fit into all cultures, but they will give the reader useful hints contextualizing for ministry among the poor.
an international strategy?
This paper will not present a strategy that is acceptable worldwide. I must confess that I am skeptical about such strategies.
In the past twenty years or so, we have seen many international organizations develop international strategies of ministry. These strategies have attracted the financial support of pragmatic business-people. Much money is raised, huge world-wide programmes are launched, and impressive statistics are presented of the their success. The programmes are carried out by obedient, but unmotivated, nationals who are duty-bound to carry out the wishes of those who pay their salaries.
But when the total impact is measured after some time, it is discovered that the impact in terms of transformed lives does not tally with the impressive statistics presented initially. The pragmatic businessmen who have been given these preliminary statistics, are satisfied with the results and are waiting for the next international strategy to support. I believe that one of the greatest scandals of the last two decades is the huge input in terms of financial resources that has been made for projects that have had minimal lasting impact.
I believe that if YFC is going to impact the poor youth of the world it will be done by workers with a passion for the poor who will pay the price of persevering, long-term identification and ministry among the poor. Let them go and identify, and let the YFC community support them. They can get hints from others. But they will have to develop their strategy after they have gone in and learned what methods are most effective with the poor. Often they will learn this by making mistakes. So YFC will have to give them all the support they need in order to help them persevere amidst discouragement. YFC will have to be patient with them if they do not produce quick results. YFC will back them with prayer, funding, personnel, supervision, encouragement and accountability. It would be best not to spend huge sums of money on big projects until we have firmly set our roots in the area and got a sense of what works best there.
So our strategy is to pray for, recruit and train people with a passion for the poor who are accountable to the larger body. This was what Jesus did. He saw the crowds and “had compassion on them …. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field'” (Matt. 9.36-38). He then spent time with the few who joined him and prepared them to reapers of the harvest.4
As we pray we should present the challenge of the poor to our people, as Jesus did with the Great Commission. Those who sense a burden should be challenged to study the topic further. A key to this study would be to learn what the Bible has to say about the poor.5 Then they should learn whatever they could on the topic through reading, observation and through courses of study. Armed with such knowledge, they should pray, strategize, launch out in ministry and keep adapting the strategy as they encounter new challenges.
IDENTIFYING WITH THE POOR
Paul’s model of becoming all things to all men in 1 Corinthians 9.19-23 and Jesus’ model of incarnation would require that we too adjust our lifestyles and ministries in order to reach the poor. What adjustments are required are best learned from experience. But they are sometimes not as simple as we think.
One of our first discoveries of the cultural uniqueness of the poor was made about 17 years ago when we started a club to attract the poor in a certain area. A Christian family let us use their nice middle-class home with a hall big enough for meetings. But no one liked to come to that home. The poor did not feel at home in such a place. We found that community halls or cheap temporary sheds were more suitable than houses big enough to have meetings.
We soon found that many games that were popular in our Westernized ministries did not fit in here. In fact in one area the youth told us that they would not come to our meetings if we played those games. The reason for this, we concluded, was that these games were very individualistic in orientation coming from the West where individual initiative is valued highly in comparison with community solidarity. The poor live in small houses where often everyone in the family, and sometimes in the extended family, live in a single room. They do things together, and community-life is strong. They are uncomfortable with individualistic games where one person goes to the centre and makes a fool of himself or herself.
Yet we found that team games are a key to attracting youth from these areas. They love sports. But they don’t have the facilities or suitable playgrounds to play. YFC can arrange sports programmes and make contact with and attract the involvement of poor youth through this means.
The strong community orientation of the poor would also mean that it is not advisable to work exclusively with the youth. We must involve the whole family in our programmes. Organizing programmes for parents, establishing friendships with the parents and helping solve family crises will become part of the YFC workers responsibilities.
Though family and community have a high place among these people most of the poor communities we work with have shown serious family unhappiness. Alcoholism and sexual immorality are common problems. Many come to our programmes starved of love and therefore looking for attention and concern. Many have alcoholic fathers and mothers who have had to work hard to earn for the family. They have not had the time or the inclination to shower their children with tender loving care.
So in ministry with such people, as in all Christian ministry, love is the greatest aspect of identification. They come to us with deep scars, feeling that they are rejected by their families and by society. They come looking for acceptance. When we shun the conventions passed down by the unjust class system and treat them as equals and as important people, they respond with enthusiasm. Accepting these people as equals would involve going to their homes and eating with them. Usually they are not immediately eager to take us to their homes, for they are ashamed of the conditions there. But when they realize that we are at home there, it is a great joy to them.
There are many other things that increase the sense that we consider these people as significant. Examples are, remembering things about their families, introducing them to others as our friends and equals, being there at events important to their families such as weddings, funerals and puberty celebrations.
When we get involved with these families, they begin to include us when planning for their important events, and we can use our knowledge to help them. The fact that they know they can depend on us in their times of need is sometimes a nuisance to our highly planned schedules, but it is a key to effective ministry. We will often also be called upon to mediate in family quarrels, to be there and pray when someone is sick and to take the sick person to the doctor. All this is part of the identification process.
Living close to these people and feeling the pain of their struggles, greatly influences our preaching and teaching. We begin to present Christ relevently as the answer to their problems. This often comes out of deep struggle as we ask ourselves, “Does Jesus really have something specific to say to these people?” In our evangelistic camps the session on family has always been a favourite. But we have found that, considering the difficult backgrounds these people come from, we had to increase the comforting aspect of the healing balm of Christ more than the challenge aspect to honour and obey parents. We also began to speak a lot about poverty and our identity as children of God. Our list of sins to condemn, especially in the discipling process, got more defined and specific.
We will soon discover that in every culture there are some things which enhance the sense of inferiority of the poor. In our country speaking in English is one of them, as that is synonymous with upper class values. It is sometimes referred to as wielding the sword. You cut down a person by doing so. Early in our ministry we decided that we will abstain from talking in English when we are among these people. Yet these youth want to learn English, as that is a necessary pre-requisite for advancement in Sri Lankan society. So we sometimes have English classes to meet this need.
These are a few random thoughts on identification. More can be said, theoretically and practically. But I trust these have given an idea of what is involved as we seek to identify with the poor. Other related thoughts will emerge in the sections that follow.
THE PROBLEM OF LOW MOTIVATION
One of the common frustrations of working with the poor is the long time taken for mature Christians and motivated leaders to develop.
A De-motivating Environment
There are some who say that if only the poor work hard enough they would emerge from their situation. They point to a few examples of people who rose above their circumstances and say that others also could do the same. I believe this is unfair because those who succeed out of these backgrounds are exceptional people, and their experience should not be taken as the norm for our expectations from everyone. The poor face many de-motivating factors in the environment in which they live that are difficult to overcome.
- Some do not receive proper nutrition in infancy, and that affects their intellectual development.6
- In Buddhist and Hindu societies, the feeling that poverty is the inevitable result of unrighteousness sown in previous lives could cause a passive resignation to ones “fate.” This is possible in Muslim societies too where fate is viewed as the will of God. Because of such views the ambition required for liberation from the trap of poverty is difficult to muster.
- There is the sense among poor people that others regard them as inferior. This can result in an inferiority complex, which could have dangerous affects on their lives and cause de-motivation.
- Many of the facilities that should be rightly theirs are not available to them. The quality in their schools is poor. They may not have electricity in their homes, and fuel prices would make the use of good lamps difficult, making it difficult to study.
- The atmosphere at home is also not conducive to study. Usually there is no one to encourage a young student. Parents often apply pressure on the children to start working so that they could provide for the family’s basic needs. An alcoholic father’s temper tantrums and other conditions of unrest in the home act as barriers to achieving the concentration needed for studying.
- Models of people who succeeded from similar backgrounds are few.
- There are many alternate anti-social activities readily available to capture the attention of young persons discouraged about the possibility of making the grade in school.
Such a formidable array of de-motivating factors should have a sobering affect upon anyone hoping develop leadership and responsibility among the poor. They show that we need to be patient. They drive us to seek appropriate ways to help the poor become liberated from these de-motivating factors. We will now consider some of the proven methods of developing motivation among the poor.
The Power of Visionary Leadership
Since receiving independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has had three leaders who have attracted large masses of poor people to follow them in their programmes. The first, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who was an assassinated head of state, spoke of liberation from the vestiges of Western Imperialism and of opening the door of equal opportunity for all by replacing English with Sinhala as the national language and by abolishing the class system through the redistribution of wealth and land. The second, Ranasinghe Premadasa , who was also an assassinated head of state, initiated massive welfare programmes that aimed at making the “have nots” and “unables” into “haves” and “ables.” By initiating self-help, employment-generating and housing programmes, he won the support of the poor through what his critics called “the politics of expectation”. A. T. Ariyaratne, started chapters of the Sarvodaya movement in thousands of cities and villages and used foreign aid and local volunteers to initiate socio-economic development projects in these areas.
All three had a definite programme of upliftment which they presented to the masses. All three were inspiring orators. All three presented easily understood visions of liberation. Their success convinced me that visionary leadership is vital for ministry among the poor. The poor have not lost hope completely. And someone who can identify with them and give them a hope they can understand could capture their attention and their allegiance.
Many have done this in Christian circles too. Perhaps this is why prosperity preaching is so popular among the poor. I do not think it is biblical. But it has appealed to the hopes of poor people. On the other hand those who approach the problem of poverty from an intellectual stance have rarely won the hearts of the poor. They have mainly attracted educated people.
The three Sri Lankan leaders I mentioned earlier came from very different backgrounds. Mr. Bandaranaike came from an aristocratic Westernized family, as his names Solomon West Ridgeway Dias suggest, and had a brilliant career at Oxford University. Mr. Premadasa came from a very poor family and had minimal formal education. Mr. Ariyaratne hails from a middle class family, and is a teacher by profession. But they had in common the fact that they spoke in language that was attractive to the poor. Their speeches were not intellectual treatises but practical appeals delivered in impassioned, flowery Sinhala using the idiom of the masses.
If we want to appeal to the poor, we will need to work at our styles of speaking. The year after I returned from my Seminary studies abroad, we had a General Election. I went with my colleagues to many political rallies to learn how to speak from people who were acknowledged Sinhala orators.
So we will need to pray to God to give us a vision of what he can do through us in the lives of the poor, and we need to involve them in tangible programmes that are derived from that vision.
Jesus is the supreme example of the visionary leader. Whenever he called people, he called them to himself and to his programme of upliftment. He asked the weary to come to him and find rest (Matt. 11.28), the thirsty to drink so that “streams of living water will flow from within” them (John 7.37-38). He asked people to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow him, and by losing their lives in this way to find it and also inherit an eternal reward (Mark 8.34-38). He said that following him they would become fishers of men (Matt. 4.19). He challenged them to be the salt and the light of the world (Matt. 5.13-17). This is visionary leadership.
He also fed people, but he never appealed to or encouraged the welfare mentality, though that would have won him many followers. After he fed the 5000, the people tried to make him king by force, but he withdrew from them (John 6.15). The next day he rebuked them for following him only because he had fed them and urged them to believe in him because he was the bread of life (John 6.26-36). Ironically they were willing to make him king, but they were not willing to believe in him. In fact many stopped following him after that discourse (John 6.60).
So while we must give visionary leadership we must ensure that our vision is a biblical one. Many evangelicals working with the poor today are adopting methods that pander to the welfare mentality. They major on hand-outs that increase the sense of subordination and dependence among the people.
The power of Spiritual Parenthood
Another aspect of Christian leadership among the poor is the call to be parents to these people who lack good models of parenthood. Paul called the former slave Onesimus, “my son” (Phlm 10). Just like the Holy Spirit comes alongside the believer as the paraclete, we are also called to come alongside them and help them emerge as whole persons. Spiritual parenthood, not only provides a good model, and an encouragement to grow to wholeness, it also helps develop Christian identity among the poor. They may be tempted to think that they are not equal members of the body of Christ along with the more affluent people. But the fact that one of the key members is their parent helps seal their identity in the body.
I have seen spiritual parenthood abused by insecure people who have found too much ego-gratification from helping those they lead. They have taken the poor along with them sometimes to paths of unrighteousness, and the children have continued to be faithful to their parent because he or she had done so much for them. This is the way many cultic sects have developed. Yet this misuse should not discourage us from the biblical principle of spiritual parenthood.
Develop a Sense of Ownership of the Programme
Developing of a sense of ownership in the programme is another key to developing motivation among the poor. The biblical method of doing this is to foster true Christian community. That’s how Jesus related to his disciples, and that’s the model they adopted in the church described in the book of Acts.
Trusting the Poor: For people to be fully part of a community, they must sense that they are trusted and accepted. But many working among the poor find it difficult to trust them. Given their background and lack of self-respect the lack of integrity is a huge problem. I am convinced that the key to rooting out this problem is biblical community life.7 In a biblical community people get close to each other through accountability. There it is difficult for dishonest persons to survive. They will either change or leave. Or, as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), they will be disciplined by the Spirit through the confrontational probing of the leaders. We have seen all these things happen in our ministry.
With the security of close community-life the leader is emboldened to trust the people he or she works with. This is a big risk, and many times the leader is going to be disappointed. But without being trusted the poor persons will not accept that they are really a part of the community. My colleague Adrian de Visser says, “Believing the poor is the biggest sense of ownership we can give them.” Of course, we must be careful and not foolishly place temptations to dishonesty in areas where people are vulnerable. We need to strike a balance between care and risky trust.
Sharing of Heart and Possessions: A great aid to biblical community is the practice of sharing of heart and possessions described in Acts (2.44-45; 4.32-35).8 This would necessitate a simple life-style on the part of the leaders. Those who live a relatively extravagant life will find it difficult to be truly one with the poor.
- They will have to hide certain aspects of their financial life and thus not be truly one.
- The poor members will be tempted to be dishonest with organizational funds as they will resent the huge difference between their life-style and the leaders’ life-style.
- They will not be motivated to sacrificially contribute financially to the movement when they realize that their money goes to support the extravagant life-style of the leaders.
- When they get an opportunity for financial betterment outside the organization, usually through another job or through a foreign donor, they will leave.
I have seen these four things happen frequently in ministries where there is a huge disparity in the incomes of the leaders and the members. I have heard missionaries say that it was impossible for them to trust the locals. They do not realize that their lifestyle may have encouraged dishonesty. In fact often people of integrity shy away from associating with such people. Those who come are those who hope that something of the wealth of the missionary will come to them also.
Opening our homes to them: Opening our homes to the poor is an important aspect of our sharing with them. One of the first converts to Christianity from the supposedly lowest caste in Sri Lanka was the son of a chieftain. He once told me, “Our people will come to Christ, but don’t expect them to come to the church.” When I asked him why he said that, he answered, “When we come to your church buildings you will welcome us warmly, but if we come to a Christian home, they get us to enter from the back door, and give us food from different plates to the ones they use.” I bowed my head in shame.
Over the years we have had desperately poor people contacted through our village ministry come and live in our home for a few days at a time. Most often they had come to Colombo for medical treatment. This has not been an entirely comfortable experience for us because we are used to more privacy than them and they are not generally used to using our type of toilets. But our joy has been much greater than the inconvenience, especially when we see that some of the non-Christians who stayed in our home are now Christians. We did not directly lead them to Christ. But the welcome they had in the Christian home may have helped in their spiritual awakening.
Contributing to the Programme: In developing this sense of ownership it is important for the members to contribute to the programme financially and with their ideas. We should not only present our pre-planned programmes but also let them show us the best way to do ministry. We have been thrilled by innovations that have enriched our programme through the contributions of the poor. We must also look for ways in which they can use their talents in the ministry. If the programme takes an intellectual form it might increase the sense of inferiority among those with minimal education. But these people could excel through their contributions in drama and activities like handwork and construction where manual skills are required.
Ministry Styles: We also need to develop styles of ministry which challenge the poor, without giving them the impression that they are culturally alien. People may flock to some programmes in large numbers to satisfy their curiosity, but leave convinced that they do not want to have anything to do with the people who organized the programme. The programme was too foreign for their tastes. This principle applies for evangelistism, training and worship.
I find that in Sri Lanka Christian leaders from poorer backgrounds thoroughly enjoy training programmes organized in top hotels where the daily fee is close to their monthly salary. They return from these conferences grateful for the physical and intellectual refreshment they received. But they will not sense that it was “their” programme. Conferences held in very uncomfortable settings similar to what they have at home have, however, fostered a sense of ownership. This is specially true when the organizers and speakers lived with them at the conference site without traveling daily from nearby hotels.
There is an urgent need to develop styles of ministry which are simple but excellent, models that represent the simple beauty which is the great treasure of the poor. Simple but badly planned programmes do not help to develop the motivation to do things well for the glory of God.
Effective models, discovered in the grass-roots, must be circulated far and wide. Alas it is mainly in affluent societies that people can afford the luxury of separating time to write down the things they have found out. The rest of the world is unable to benefit from the discoveries of the poor. It is the affluent who generally write and influence the thinking of the church worldwide, including the church among the poor. This is a plea for the poor to write, and for communities to encourage the creative among them to write. Often people who are burdened to write leave the community and go to affluent places that offer attractive packages to help fulfill their dreams. But the most penetrative theologizing comes from the grass-roots, not from the well-stocked libraries of theological and research institutes.
Liberation from the Bondage of Poverty
One of our great aims in ministry with the poor is to help liberate them from the bondage to poverty. This is a mentality that looks at life as a sequence of unfortunate circumstances from which there can be no escape. It is an attitude which approaches people with a begging bowl seeking a hand-out. It is a sense of inferiority that makes full participation in the body of Christ and in human society an impossibility. We believe that the guidelines presented in this paper will help effect such a liberation.
When these people find their identity in Christ, their hearts are so full of gratitude that they want to give to the world some of the blessings they received from God. They look back at their past with gratitude. The bondage of the past is not a fact which produces shame and needs to be hidden. Rather, the memory of it is a doorway to gratitude to God for his wonderful liberation. This gives them a passion and a strength to help others to be liberated as they were. So they become active in ministering to other poor people and helping them overcome the handicaps of their background.
There are some people who have overcome the economic aspects of the bondage of poverty, but have never experienced the freedom of being sons and daughters of the King of kings. They hide their past. They even lie to conceal features about their background of poverty. Such people are never really free. They are looking for identity from the world. And this competitive society, which specializes in alienating people, is not the place to look for identity. Those who look for it here will ever be dissatisfied. For, though many may accept them, some will reject or ignore them. And that one rejection causes them to forget all the acceptance they have received. They become bitter with the society which does not give them their due place. They give all their energies to their insatiable quest for upward mobility. They forget the community that led them to Christ. In fact they soon find that they have no time for Christ either.
These people will not help the poor. They have lost their desire to identify with the poor. Besides they have no spiritual energy to handle the reality of poverty. They are locked into the bondage of upward mobility, destined for perpetual dissatisfaction.
A key stage then in the liberation of formerly poor people is when they can freely talk about their poor background without shame and with gratitude for God’s liberating grace.
One of the things we discovered in the early years of our ministry with the poor was that shortly after their conversion many people expressed anger and often misunderstood the leaders as discriminating against them because of their poverty. We have come to regard this as an inevitable step in their incorporation into the body of Christ. When people who have been treated as inferior realize their dignity in Christ, they may respond to the injustice with much more anger than they did as unbelievers resigned to their fate. We are grateful that we see this less now. Perhaps it is because they realize that the staff are not guilty of the oppressive attitudes of the rest of society.
Note: The urgent issue of the complexity of incorporating poor converts into middle-class churches will not be discussed in this paper. Churching of converts from unreached backgrounds is a perennial problem in YFC and, hopefully, one that we have already struggled with.9
No-one doing evangelism with the poor can neglect their socio-economic needs. The Bible has much to say about this in the Old and New Testaments, but it is beyond the scope of this paper and my qualifications to give an authoritative and comprehensive statement on this topic. Here we will confine ourselves to some brief practical observations.
Proverbs 19.17 says, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done”. What expressions should this kindness take? We will consider three stages of socio-economic change that help uplift the poor. They are (1) relief, (2) development and (3) transformation. We will also use the analogy of feeding the hungry to show how these three stages are accomplished.10
We warned about the danger of majoring on handouts and encouraging the growth of the welfare mentality. However the Bible is clear, and common sense agrees, that we cannot ignore urgent needs of food, clothing and housing which must be met for people to barely survive (e.g. Luke 3.11; 2 Cor. 8.13-15; Jas. 2.14-17). We may call this relief. This becomes particularly acute after a natural or a human inspired disaster like a storm or a riot. The poor usually suffer the most owing to poor housing and proximity to conflict.
Jesus exemplified this type of compassionate ministry. In the Gospels the word “compassion” is used in connection with the feeding of the hungry (Matt. 15.32), the healing of the sick (Matt. 14.14; Mark 1.41); the raising of the dead (Luke 7.13) and the teaching of the people (Mark 6.34).
Using the feeding analogy we can compare relief with giving a hungry person fish to eat.
There is a rapid trend among most countries of the world toward economies with a free market orientation. Governments now consider the financial profitability of ventures before launching out. International aid organizations like the World Bank pressurize the governments of poorer nations to scrap “unprofitable” ventures. So less money is being spent on welfare programmes. The church may be called upon to help bridge this gap in relief expenditure. The Old Testament had a complex system of laws which “show a distinct bias to the poor. They make provision for the poor and prevent their exploitation….The poor and weak must be cared for because [the Jews] too were once slaves and oppressed in Egypt and were delivered by Yahweh.”11 If the state does not adequately fulfill this role the church will have to compensate for the lack.
YFC rarely has the funds to initiate relief and development projects. But there are many non-government organizations (NGOs) and government bodies which are looking for trusted groups in touch with the grassroots who can take on projects in keeping with their goals. We can tap the resources of these groups through carefully composed project proposals. Each year about $5 billion (US) is given by NGOs in the industrialized countries in support of programmes to meet basic human needs. This is about the same as that given by governments in industrialized nations for this purpose.12
If we continue with the feeding analogy, development would be equivalent to teaching people to fish and helping them find a place to fish. It is looking for a more permanent solution to the problem of poverty. The first step in this process is studying the causes of poverty in a given are. Each area has different primary causes. They may be moral causes like drunkenness, natural causes like the lack of water, or social causes like the caste system. After finding out the causes for povety we must look for ways to overcome them.
The Place of Education When I discussed this paper with my colleagues, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that many of our centres working among the poor give a high place for educational programmes. That is to be expected. If the poor are to be freed from poverty they must develop new attitudes, and education is one of the best ways to help do that.13
There are special teaching challenges associated with the discipling of the poor. We must constantly teach on Christian personhood and our identity as children of God. This helps them realize that they should reject the stereotype of inferiority thrust upon them by society. It also tells them of their dignity in Christ which makes it impossible for them to resort to demeaning professions and life-styles like prostitution, alcoholism and spouse and child abuse.
There needs to be education on how to live in society. This would include such issues as the use of money, especially the concept of saving, health education, nutrition and hygiene. To equip them for this our workers are trained regularly in primary health care by medical doctors.
We need to teach people the importance of education and give them educational opportunities. Many of our ministries have tuition classes, which is a standard thing for middle-class and rich children as the instruction in schools is inadequate but which the poor cannot afford. School drop-outs also should be catered for with instruction in basic subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic and also vocational training. We have programmes in sewing for girls and in carpentry, masonry, metalwork and animal husbandry for boys. Poor children are often under pressure to drop out of school from their parents for economic reasons and from themselves because they can’t afford to get clothes, shoes and books. So we have scholarship schemes to give students some of those necessities.
Development Projects Most poor communities can be blessed by development projects. Employment generation, upliftment of health facilities, improvement of the environment, training in better farming practices are some examples of such projects. We would be wise, of course, to stay clear of huge projects which could be done by the specialists and which we usually do not have the expertise to handle.
There are many things which the government should do which are not being done in communities because these people are powerless to persuade the corrupt and negligent officials that they are worthy of receiving their rights. The YFC worker can represent these powerless people before the authorities and ensure that they are given their rights. Often they do not know what their rights are. We could study the regulations and inform them of these. We could help them fill out the applications for assistance from the government and accompany them when they go to hand them in.
Sometimes the YFC worker can help bring about change by challenging people in the community to take leadership. Some of our volunteer leaders went to India as refugees as a result of the war in our land. They lived near a very poor and depressed village. They immediately began to witness for Christ in the village. This village was not getting what the government should give them because they were represented by outsiders in the local councils. Our volunteers encouraged the villagers to contest the elections, a thing they had not previously considered because of their supposedly lowly state. A person from the village won a seat in the local council and was able to help the village in a much more fruitful way.
Learning to Trust in God In our efforts to free the poor from the welfare mentality we will discourage them from depending on us. But learning to depend on God would be one of the most important ways people develop. One of the best ways to help people learn this is to demonstrate the power of prayer. Praying for needs is an important aspect of evangelistic ministry as people are attracted to the message when they see the wonder-working power of God. It is also an important way to teach people to trust in God for great things.
The third stage of the process of helping is called transformation. In our feeding analogy this would involve “the search for ownership of the fishing pond, the distribution system for his products, and even a national structure.”14 Often people are poor because of what has been called structural evil. There is something wrong with the political and economic system which needs to be changed. This is called macro change. This is done by representation in the political and official arenas. While YFC staffers may not be called to directly involve themselves in such projects, they could encourage others to be involved.
In this way evangelicals have often been involved in bringing about peaceful social change. The early Methodist movement had many converts from poor backgrounds who talked about the struggles they had in their workplaces. This caused the Methodists to speak out about the way poor labourers were treated. The early Methodist movement has been credited with having a major role to play in the developing of the trade union movement. They are also credited with helping avert a repetition of a bloody revolution like the French revolution. They sought change using Christian methods rather than through violence.
Representing the Poor before the Rich
To ensure that the poor are given justice we may need to represent them before their employers. This becomes embarrassing if the employer is a Christian. But here we work for justice along with harmony in the body of Christ. We must never forget that the employer also may have some things to say which will help understand the issues.
The majority of members in my church are poor converts from Buddhism and Hinduism. It is a Sinhala language congregation and is administered along with an English language congregation that meets in the same building. Some of our members are servants in the homes of members of the English language congregation. Sometimes they complain about their employers. We used to listen only to their side of the story and twice members of our church have helped them find other jobs without discussing it with the employer. After unpleasant subsequent meetings with the employers we have come to realize that this is the wrong procedure.
Our aim is to bring about justice along with harmony. How significant it is that God included in the canon a book written to bring harmony between Philemon and his slave, Onesimus. Paul asked Philemon to accept “him back for good– no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Phlm. 16). That’s how important harmony between the rich and the poor is to God!
An Enemy of Evangelism?
Is social concern an enemy of evangelism? Many think so. This is because many ministries have neglected evangelism after they took social concern seriously. But this should not be so. One does not have to become disobedient in one area of God’s will in order to be obedient in another.
Yet anyone involved in the battle for obedience to God will know the difficulty of being obedient in all areas of the call of God. Most of us neglect some areas and emphasize others. To do all, which is the heart of YFC’s philosophy of the balanced life, is difficult. In fact for most of us in Christian ministry, the balanced life is our cross. To shun one area is to shun the cross for a life of comparative ease. When we get involved in social projects we can get so engrossed in meeting the many needs there are that we begin to neglect evangelism.
One of the ways I have tried to tackle this problem is to constantly place before our workers the lostness of people without Christ. They would be condemned to an eternal hell unless they are reconciled to God. When that is imprinted in our minds, love would cause us to do all that we can to bring them to the Saviour.
We have also tried to ensure that all our staffers are godly, witnessing and discipling Christians. All Christian ministry, including social action, is done in the Spirit. Only those who are in the Spirit can do such ministry properly. One of the primary qualifications for those who were chosen to wait of tables was that they should be filled with the Spirit (Acts 6.3). Often we hire staff for so-called non-spiritual activities without much regard for their spiritual status. This is destroying many evangelical social service agencies today. This becomes a particular problem when these people need to be promoted after faithful service. They become part of the leadership team and take the movement away from its evangelical foundations.
Often in evangelistic groups doing social work those gifted in evangelism are forced to give much time to manage social projects, which is a task they are not gifted in. They are detracted from their primary call. All Christians should be witnesses. But not all are gifted specially to be evangelists. Those with this gift will have to give some time for social projects, especially if they are leaders, but their energies should not be allowed to get dissipated by making them concentrate on an area of incompetence or of secondary priority in terms of their calling. When the church appointed seven people to oversee the table ministry it was so that the Apostles could be freed to concentrate on their primary call: prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6.4). This was not because one was more important or significant than the other, but because the Apostles needed to concentrate on their call.
I believe that if the above guidelines are followed, and if the leaders are constantly alert and willing to make mid-course corrections when failures are detected, social concern will be a helpful partner, rather than an enemy, of evangelism.15
Paul, the great exponent of the gospel of grace, the father of evangelical theology, went to Jerusalem and explained his message and ministry to James, Peter and John. Paul says that in response, “They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal.2.9-10). They must have feared that emphasis on the gospel of grace might result in the neglect of the poor. But they were wrong. Paul was eager to help the poor.
Yet their fears have not been unfounded. Many evangelicals, who look to Paul as their hero, have dishonoured him by neglecting the poor. May we not be guilty of the same.