What Can Your
Church Do to Help the Poor in the U.S. ?
By Dr. Brian Fikkert, Chalmers Center for Economic
It is hard to
believe, but the percentage of the U.S. population that lives below the
poverty level of income is
the same today as it was 35 years ago. Despite three and a half decades of
economic growth and amazing advances in science and technology, the
wealthiest and most powerful nation in human history has made virtually no
progress in reducing the incidence of poverty within its own borders. In
fact, the U.S. has the highest poverty rate of any industrialized nation
in the world.
While there is widespread disagreement as to whether government
programs have helped or hurt the situation, most observers now recognize
that the despair and sense of meaninglessness that so often characterize
America’s poor cannot be solved via welfare checks alone. Like all of us,
the poor need the hope of the gospel of the kingdom, a hope that in Christ
there is healing for our deepest hurts. And the task of proclaiming this
gospel in word and in deed has been committed to the church - to your
But what can your church really do to help? Truly loving the poor
involves not handouts but ministries that restore the poor to being what
God created them to be: productive human beings who are able to support
themselves through their own work. That sounds difficult, and it is. Your
church has limited time, money, and expertise. Are there really things
that you can do to minister effectively to the spiritual and physical
needs of the poor? The answer is a resounding “yes!” This article will
give you some practical ideas on how to move ahead.
1. Develop/Nurture Mercy Ministry Vision: Probably the
most difficult step is simply getting started. Pastors often tell us that
they struggle to impart a vision for holistic ministry to their
2. Develop a Church Assessment and a Community Assessment:
Pastors are unsure how to mobilize their
members to reach their communities. Pastors are also sometimes unsure what
the greatest community needs
actually are. So along with developing and nurturing a mercy ministry
vision, a congregation has to conduct both
a church assessment and a community assessment to integrate the holistic
vision into the life of the church, call
and equip the members of the congregation to action, and acquire a deep
knowledge of the community and its needs.
there are now resources available to help you get over these hurdles. In
CHURCHES THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE – REACHING YOUR COMMUNITY WITH GOOD NEWS
AND GOOD WORKS (Baker Books 2002),
Ronald Sider, Heidi Rolland-Unruh and Philip Olson describe the results of
a recent study of holistic congregations in the United States and
introduce some outstanding tools that have emerged from this research.
While there is
no easy recipe for success, there are principles and tools that can help
your congregation to
develop a greater holistic vision and to assess both it and the
surrounding community in order to develop an appropriate ministry.
Following this church and community assessment, your congregation will
need to decide if helping the poor via economic development — i.e. helping
the poor to support themselves through their own work — is the proper
focus for your ministry. It might not be!
For example, if
your congregation is full of medical professionals and there are
significant health needs in your community, then perhaps the appropriate
ministry focus for your congregation should be a holistic, healthcare
ministry of some sort.
3. Is God Calling Your Church to Economic Development? If
you conclude that addressing the economic needs of the poor fits your
church’s capacity and community’s needs, you will then need to decide
exactly how to intervene. There are a number of different economic
development options that your church might want to consider. The first two
items in the list below, Jobs Readiness & Placement and Microenterprise
approaches that help the poor to generate more income.
Readiness & Placement programs
equip the poor to obtain and keep good jobs.
Microenterprise development programs
attempt to help the poor to increase their incomes by assisting them
with the necessary training and financing to start their own
Chalmers Center continues to believe that this is a viable approach
internationally, we are
no longer recommending this approach for most churches and Christian
organizations in the United States. Research is finding that
microenterprise programs in the U.S. move only one percent of their
clients from welfare to self-employment. Furthermore, most of the clients
of microenterprise programs are not the poorest, having higher levels of
education, assets, skills, experience, and support networks than other
low-income people do.
When one considers
the relative complexity of running microenterprise programs compared to
the other interventions, it seems that the costs outweigh the benefits of
this approach in most situations.
The next approach recognizes the fact that it is one thing to earn an
income, but it is quite another thing to use that income wisely.
Like many of us, the poor have trouble with budgeting, but often they
also suffer from limited understanding of financial matters and have
limited access to banks and other financial institutions.
Biblically-based, financial literacy programs can be used to overcome
these obstacles.Virtually any congregation has the capacity to engage
in this highly effective, relational ministry, and the
spiritual and economic impacts can be enormous.
The final two
interventions featured, Individual Development Accounts and Housing,
enable the poor to
turn their income into wealth. Income is the flow of revenue that we
receive for our work, while wealth is the stock of assets that we build up
as we save and invest for the future. Historically, public policy in
America has focused on trying to increase the incomes of the poor and has
paid little attention to their need for asset accumulation. However,
recent research has shown that increasing the net worth of the poor is
very important for enabling them to weather the shocks that often come
their way (e.g. loss of a job, health
crisis, etc.) and for helping them to build a better future.
Individual Development Accounts
can empower the poor to acquire wealth by matching their savings with
additional money for pre-approved, asset purchases.
helping the poor purchase their own homes - an asset that provides
shelter, stability and often rapid appreciation - is another economic
development intervention that enables the poor to turn their income
The Chalmers Center believes that most churches and Christian
organizations have the capacity to implement the various ministries
described here, and we believe these ministries — if designed properly
— can effectively address the spiritual and economic needs of the
poor. However, we do not wish to imply that these ministries are easy
to implement. Considerable prayer, planning, and perseverance are
May God bless your
church as you seek His guidance for your next steps in ministry.
Fikkert is Professor of Economics and Community Development at
Covenant College and Director of the Chalmers Center for Economic
Development. The Chalmers Center is a training and research organization
that equips development workers, missionaries, and laypeople to promote
self-sufficiency among the poor in U.S. and International contexts. Visit
www.chalmers.org to learn more about the resources offered by the