Addressing the Five Causes of Poverty

Adapted from Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream and the forthcoming A Field Guide to Becoming Whole: Principles for Poverty Alleviation Ministry. Used by permission of Moody Publishers.

Why do you do what you do at the church or ministry where you serve? Just like us, you want to see people and communities transformed! At the heart of poverty alleviation is change—we all long to see materially poor people move from their current condition to a better one.

Over the years, we’ve learned that fostering such change requires us to understand the very nature of human beings, of human flourishing, and of God Himself. God has a plan for changing the entire world—including both materially poor people and middle-and-upper-class people—and since God is all-powerful, we would be wise to get on board with His story, His plan for change.

These are deep, theological truths, that my friend Kelly Kapic and I have explored in our recent book, Becoming Whole. Like all the best theology, though, there’s a practical side as well—knowing God and His ways should lead us to faithfulness here and now.

The Place for Change: The Local Church

Recently, I shared why we at the Chalmers Center are so passionate about the local church as the key to caring for the materially poor. The biggest reason, of course, is that true poverty alleviation is about restoring relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation—the kind of transformation that only God can bring about. But God has seen fit to set aside a people for Himself, a kingdom of priests (see 1 Peter 2:9-10) who declare and demonstrate his transforming power to the world. This is the local church!

Local church sanctuary

In the face of the scope of poverty in the world today (nearly 30 percent of people on earth eke out an existence on less than $3.20 per day!1)—not to mention war, violence, racism, and all the effects of sin we see day in and day out—to say that the local church is the key to transformation seems, well, a little optimistic.

But God’s “holy nation,” small and pathetic as it often seems, is actually on the cutting edge of the universe. Indeed, when this community functions according to the story of change, practices, and systems that King Jesus has established for His cosmos, it goes “with the grain of the universe.” it lives according to the “laws of nature” of his kingdom, which is both now and not yet.2 In this sense, the kingdom community acts like something of a habitat within the larger culture, an environment in which human beings can blossom and grow into the type of creatures they were created to be.

Our role in the present is in some way to improvise the kingdom of God in our communities. By His grace, we can live in ways that genuinely anticipate and give a foretaste of the coming kingdom. And as we do so, we invent ways that are more conducive to human flourishing than the kingdoms of this world.

Unfortunately, too often the community of faith is co-opted by the culture at large. Too often it mixes the story of change, systems, and formative practices of this world with those of the kingdom of God. Too often we sound angry and afraid, rather than loving and generous. Too often the church resembles an exclusive political party rather than a welcoming hospital or home. As a result, our unfaithfulness hinders the flourishing of the church’s members and undermines its ability to shine light into the darkness of the world. The community of faith needs to become more whole—for both its own good and the good of the world.

And the community of faith needs to live out the biblical story of change where Jesus did it—among the poor and the lowly (see Luke 7:18-23; 1 Cor. 1:26-31). The kingdom of God is upside down, so the kingdom community, the church, should be too. Our churches should be bent towards materially poor people and toward doing things that enable the poor and non-poor alike to flourish.

Attacking the Roots

How do we do that?

Poverty alleviation is about creating a community whose story of change, formative practices, systems, and members reflect the kingdom of God, applying the power of Christ’s death and resurrection to address the multifaceted ways our broken and fallen world leads to poverty.

Though each one of these items could have a thousand variations, we find that there are five big things that work together to create material poverty and keep people trapped in it. These five causes of material poverty are:

  • False gods and erroneous stories of change—all the things other than the one true God that we worship and trust to solve our problems.
  • Destructive formative practices—the habits that (consciously or unconsciously) shape us according to the stories we believe.
  • Broken systems at both the community and macro levels—the ways that our collective sins and broken practices shape the world we live in (often in ways we’re not fully aware of).
  • Broken people—the broken relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation that we each experience, which both shape and are shaped by the broken systems we inhabit.
  • Demonic forces—the world is not a “neutral” space, and we must remember that we have an adversary who loves poverty and everything that keeps us from living out God’s story for His glory.

Stop and look at that list for a moment. Is addressing these causes how you think of poverty alleviation? Many of us think that poverty alleviation is about wealthy Westerners digging wells, ladling soup, or distributing backpacks. To be sure, there are circumstances in which those activities can be helpful. But the provision of these material resources usually has a lasting impact only if done in the context of the far less tangible activities in items 1 through 5 in the above list.

What does this look like in very practical terms? There is no detailed script, but the contours of God’s story give prompts that can help us to more faithfully improvise the present chapter in His grand drama. May God grant all of us the wisdom and humility we need to truly help without hurting!

For more on these “prompts,” in our book A Field Guide to Becoming Whole, Kelly and I have laid out ministry design principles that we believe can be applied by any poverty alleviation ministry to apply Christ’s transforming work to the five causes of poverty listed above.

  1. World Bank, Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2018: Piecing Together the Poverty Puzzle (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2018), 8.
  2. Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001), 214.
Brian Fikkert

Brian Fikkert

Dr. Brian Fikkert is a Professor of Economics and Community Development and the Founder and President of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College. He is coauthor of the best-selling book When Helping Hurts as well as Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions, Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence, and From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty Through Church-Centered Microfinance.

1 Comment

  1. zedrik herrera on January 16, 2020 at 9:48 pm

    me ayuda mucho esta lectura ya que trabajo como coordinador de desarrollo comunitario en comunidades que viven y dependen económicamente del basurero nacional en ciudad de Guatemala y necesito aprender de varios puntos de enfoque de como debemos de ver la pobreza y como administrar la ayuda que recibimos de una manera sabia sin hacer mas daño.

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