Start with the Story

Poverty is complex; a problem with deep and tangled roots that resists quick fixes. This is because poverty is fundamentally about broken relationships, and alleviating poverty is about restoring these relationships. It’s an organic process that can’t be easily manipulated or controlled and still be successful.

In our books Becoming Whole and A Field Guide to Becoming Whole, my friend Brian Fikkert and I have tried to explore the nature of people and the nature of poverty with this goal in mind:  discover principles that anyone can put into practice as they walk with their low-income neighbors on the journey of poverty alleviation.

One of the key themes that emerged in these books is that this work has to address all five root causes of material poverty:

  1. False gods and erroneous stories of change
  2. Broken and destructive formative practices
  3. Broken systems
  4. Broken people
  5. Demonic forces

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing more about each of these aspects.

Stories Shape Us

We all love stories, don’t we? Think about what you naturally do when you’re gathered together with friends—you tell stories, you laugh together, you relate things from your past. We love stories because they shape who we are, who we’ve become, and who we are becoming.

Now, some of you have probably been told good stories your whole life—that you’re really smart, that you’re fun, that you have gifts, you are good at soccer, you’re excellent at math, etc. Whether you know it or not, these narratives have significantly shaped your life.

But the reality is that not all of us have been raised with those kinds of stories. When we are working with the materially poor from all kinds of situations and circumstances, we often find folks have not been told life-affirming stories. Imagine hearing again and again, “You’re never going to amount to anything. You’re stupid, you’re ugly, you always quit,” etc. When you hear that kind of negative talk again and again, that story starts to shape who you are, just as surely as a good story would.

Sometimes when it comes to poverty alleviation ministries, those of us who aren’t materially poor come in and we think people living in poverty just need to try harder. What is often the case, however, is that a much deeper need is for them to be told a new story.  A true story.   They need to be told new truths about who they are as image-bearers of the living God.  And they need to be told the beautiful truths of a compassionate, kind, and patient Heavenly Father.

Tell the Right Story

If we are all being shaped by stories, we should ask ourselves which stories we are living into. I live in America, and the American dream shapes many of us. But what has that dream become? Often the American dream, that story that shapes us, is a story of affluence, of accumulating material goods for our comfort, and of independence so that we don’t need anybody else. That story can deeply shape what we think is real success—what the good life we are aiming for looks likes to us.  But is that really the good life?

How have these conflicting values subtly but profoundly shaped all of us and our ministries?  When you are out there, working so hard in your attempts to walk with those who are materially poor, you still need to keep in mind these same things. What story are we presenting?  Is the story we’re bringing simply the American dream? That’s not a good enough story, is it? We all know plenty of people who have followed the American dream: some “made it” and yet they’re miserable. As followers of Jesus, we can bring a much greater story to bear on our lives and the lives of those we are serving.

It’s the story—the story of what God has done from creation. The story of how He created us with dignity and worth, the reality of how sin affects all of us, but then the promise of Christ, of His love and of His grace and what God is doing even now. The biblical story is the promise of Shalom—total well-being—and the call to loving communion with God. It’s healthy love toward our neighbors, even a healthy relationship with the earth that God has made.

So, the story we have to tell is a story of what God has done, is doing, and will do ultimately when He makes His dwelling place among men again (Rev. 21). It’s the story of hope, both for eternity and in the present.

When you’re doing ministry—exhausted from your calling—it can feel like telling stories doesn’t count as “real” work, but it actually is some of the best work we can do. Friends, the last thing I want to do is to ask you to do more. You’re doing plenty! We want to encourage you to remember that telling the biblical story—by focusing on what God has done, is doing, and will do—is crucial to poverty alleviation. It’s not neglecting material needs to meet them in light of what God has done in Christ and what God is doing in and through you and his Church.

This is a good story, not just for people battling poverty, but for you and me, too. It’s our story. It’s how we become whole.

Kelly M. Kapic

Kelly M. Kapic

Dr. Kelly Kapic (PhD King's College, University of London) is professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, where he has taught since 2001. He has written and edited numerous books, including Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering, which won the Book of the Year Award from Christianity Today in the category of Theology and Ethics.

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