Two Legitimate Models of Ministry Among the Poor

Ajith Fernando

When one thinks of ministry among the poor, the first impression that comes is that of great socio-economic needs. But we cannot forget the urgent need to evangelise the poor. I have come to the conviction that the glaring and urgent need to remedy inequality in the world requiring large-scale humanitarian assistance programs cannot be adequately met by groups following the typical discipling model of ministry such as evangelistic organisations and churches.

The discipling model works through pastoral care of individuals. There are so many physically needy people in the world and substantial financial assistance available for them that we simply would not have the ability, if we were to use the discipling model, to help as many people as need to be helped and to make best use of all the available funds. Discipling is a labour-intensive ministry, as it calls for people to get close to individuals and minister comprehensively to their spiritual, social, physical and mental needs. Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka, the organisation for which I work, has primarily adopted the discipling model of ministry. Christian social service organisations can admirably fulfil the need for larger relief and development initiatives among the poor. I believe they are an important segment of the body of Christ.

This division of responsibilities among groups within the body of Christ has become necessary in many countries for practical rather than theological reasons. It is necessary for the church to have a holistic ministry. But in some countries it is not advisable, and sometimes not legally permitted, to combine larger social programs with evangelism. In Sri Lanka this may soon be prohibited by law, and already organisations with both social and proclamation ministries in their primary objectives are not being granted government registration. The allegation is that unethical allurements are being offered through socio-economic assistance to “bribe” people into becoming Christians. People who convert to Christianity are often told that they have betrayed their family religion for a bag of provisions.

The above environment may necessitate the separation of evangelism from major social projects for, as I said, practical rather than theological reasons. The body of Christ, represented by Christian relief and development organizations, is responsible for uplifting the socio-economic lot of people. The body of Christ, represented by evangelistic organisations and churches, is responsible for evangelizing and discipling people. A few decades ago Evangelicals pitted social action against evangelism. Then we had a stage when social action was presented as a partner of evangelism within a given body. Now, in some countries like Sri Lanka, major social projects are done by some segments of the body of Christ distinct from evangelism which is done by other segments.

After the tsunami hit Sri Lanka in December 2004, for four months the Youth for Christ ministry gave all its time for relief, working in schools to enable students and those associated with them to recover from the tsunami. It was a time of intense and very exhausting ministry. But we could not proactively share the gospel with those we were ministering to because we were permitted into the schools on the condition that we do not do so. Of course, the friendships forged sometimes resulted in subsequent evangelistic fruit through personal work. After four months we decided that we will return to our primary call to evangelism, though we continued with some social (mainly educational) programs. We refused many offers of funding for large social projects as we needed to get back to our vocation as youth evangelists (for which raising funds was much more difficult).

Separating these two types of ministry is helpful for other reasons too. Many poor people do not have a personal identity of which they are proud and wish to guard. Owing to this, it would not be a major issue for them to leave their family religion, in order to join a religious group which offers them economic assistance. This could result in people becoming Christians for reasons other than the core of the Christian faith. This is an inadvisable situation both for the “convert” and for the church. The separation of economic assistance and evangelism as outlined above could be a way out of this situation.

In our early years of working with the poor, seeing the desperate need to assist families in their economic development, we launched some schemes to give loans to enable them to begin income generating projects. Soon we found out that it was almost impossible for our workers to recover the loans. Evangelists do not make good debt collectors! Youth for Christ subsequently launched a sister organization Y-Gro that operates independent of us which has been much more successful in such ministries.

Of course, there will be overlap in the functions performed by each ministry group. Ministries majoring on social work and those majoring on evangelism will, to varying extents, have some aspects of the programs of the other ministry group. For example, local churches with a vibrant evangelistic ministry may also have some very significant social projects. Also it would be wise for those in each group to be aware of and learn from the best principles and practices driving those in the other group. Workers in development organisations should adopt incarnational lifestyles in keeping with the model of Christ. The picture of the social worker coming from outside and delivering aid to the people without establishing friendship with them is a denial of many Christian principles and often fosters animosity towards the social service workers among those who are recipients of the aid. On the other hand, those discipling people from poorer backgrounds must do all they can to ensure that they are treated justly by society and must help them in every way possible to develop economically and socially.

While major social projects may not be part of our program, teaching on social responsibility should be part of the regular discipleship curriculum. Following Christ includes being committed to the poor and to their economic needs and to ensuring justice to them. In Youth for Christ we have challenged our volunteers to consider vocations which are connected to poverty alleviation. We are happy that many of them have gone into such vocations working both in the government and the non-government organization (NGO) sectors. Volunteers and alumni are serving as teachers schools in economically deprived areas and in most of the Christian social service agencies.

Another important aspect of the discipling of young volunteers would be giving them opportunities to be involved, at least in a small way, in meeting the socio-economic needs of others. On my part, despite restrictions within my ministry to involvement in heavy social projects, I have made it a priority to be available to Christian Social service agencies to minister to those working in them as a counsellor, theological advisor and Bible teacher.

Because the Bible teaches a holistic approach to mission, the teaching of all Christian groups should be holistic. But in practice the different segments of this body may focus more on some aspects of the mission than others. But the combined result would be a body of Christ that is holistic in its mission.