Foundational Ministry Design Principles

Adapted from A Field Guide to Becoming Whole

Poverty alleviation is complex, so principles are more helpful than blueprints for designing an effective poverty alleviation ministry.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to material poverty, and context matters, too. Ministry tools and strategies that work well to facilitate lasting transformation in a rural village in Togo might not work in an urban area in the U.S., and vice versa. Effective, sustainable ministry reflects God’s story of change and the way He has made us as human beings. Pursuing this requires us to think deeper about the root causes of poverty, and what we find then is that there are foundational principles that apply to ministry across multiple contexts.

After more than two decades of developing programs and walking alongside ministries as they walk alongside people in material poverty, the Chalmers Center has identified 20 ministry design principles to guide churches and organizations as they craft poverty alleviation programs. We share these in depth in our book, A Field Guide to Becoming Whole, but over the next few weeks, we will be posting summaries of these on our blog so you can search and share them.

Ministry Design Principle 1: Christian poverty alleviation ministries must be “rooted in and flow back into” the local church.

Human beings are created to enjoy flourishing in our relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. When it comes to our relationship with God, we were created to live in God’s very presence, so forming a community where His people can dwell with him is central to God’s story. The place where He dwells and from which He reigns in the here and now by His Spirit is the local church. In this light, one of the primary metrics for determining the success of any poverty alleviation ministry is this: Are the church and ministry functioning in such a way that materially poor people long to be present with God’s people to worship Him? And a corollary metric is this: Are our local churches welcoming and culturally accessible to people in material poverty?

These metrics present quite a challenge for most of our ministries. Many of our churches don’t even know any people in poverty, and the culture of our congregations and our corporate worship often create tremendous barriers to them. Moreover, while parachurch ministries definitely have a role to play in poverty alleviation, they often are not connected to the local church beyond as a source of funding and volunteers.

But the local church is crucial to poverty alleviation. Jesus Himself is the temple—the one in whom the presence of God dwells bodily (Col. 2:9)—so as we take are united to Him through hearing the Word, baptism, and the Lord’s supper, we experience being in the temple and the temple being in us, not just in our brains but in our entire being: mind, affections, will, body, and relationships. And in communion with God we are also pointed back toward restored communion with our neighbors. Brought back into God’s presence, the most important of our four key relationships is restored, and we experience something more of what it means to be whole. This is poverty alleviation!

Ministry Design Principle 2: Use supportive, gospel-centered groups as much as possible.

Human beings are deeply wired for community, to enjoy flourishing in relationship with others, too. In fact, community precedes work. God eternally exists in community (as Father, Son, and Spirit) before He acted in creating the world, and He has wired human beings in the same way.

Although this is true for all people, it is particularly true for people in material poverty, who often experience the following:

  • Geographic, social, and economic isolation
  • Lack of support and encouragement
  • Feelings of shame and loneliness
  • Messages that they are inferior and worthless

Because of this, it is crucial to use supportive and encouraging groups as much as possible in the design of our ministries. For example, in the interests of efficiency, many microfinance programs are moving away from methodologies that require participants to meet together, sometimes even collecting savings and administering loans to individuals via cell phones, thereby removing the need for any human interaction. While this approach cuts down on time and costs, it also loses the tremendous power of the group, so the Chalmers Center continues to use the group-based approach in its microfinance ministries.

A Moment for Reflection

Before you close this page, take a moment to read over both of the principles we shared in this post and see if you can identify ways in which you incorporate these principles in your ministry. If there is one you’re not using, take some time to brainstorm with others from your church or ministry, “How might we _________” in our work. Of the principles we shared today, which do you think is the most challenging?

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center helps God’s people rethink poverty and respond with practical biblical principles so that all are restored to flourishing.

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