The Five Causes of Poverty—Part 1: Stories

Adapted from A Field Guide to Becoming Whole, 17-19, 50-52.

Poverty alleviation is fundamentally about transformation—about walking alongside people and communities who are materially poor as they move to a better situation than their present one. 

Doing this effectively requires us to know where we are trying to go and how we can get there. In other words, we need a solid “story of change,” or as it is often referred to in the social services sector, a “theory of change.” At its core, a story of change is your ministry’s answer to two fundamental questions:

  1. What is the goal of life?
  2. How can that goal be achieved?

Take a moment and reflect on these two questions. It’s possible that you’ve never consciously answered these questions before, but you have answers to them nonetheless. Most of us have unknowingly internalized our surrounding culture’s story of change, conditioning us to automatically and subconsciously think, feel, and act the ways that we do as a matter of habit. 

Even though it’s often unarticulated, our story of change dramatically impacts every aspect of our lives, including the way we design our poverty alleviation ministries. If we want to help without hurting, we’ve got to get our story straight.

Our story of change—whether stated or unstated—reflects our understanding of the nature of God, of human beings, and of how the world works

False Stories That Hurt

Most people in the U.S. and other wealthy countries hold to some form of a naturalistic worldview, which we call in Becoming Whole “Western Naturalism.” This view assumes the world is fundamentally material in nature. 

Consistent with this, naturalism sees human beings as highly individualistic, materialistic creatures that derive happiness from obtaining greater and greater material consumption. The story of change in this view is what many of us consider the American dream—work hard so you can get rich and consume more goods and services to become happy. 

Unfortunately, churches in the majority culture of the Western world have largely mixed Western Naturalism with historic Christianity to create what our friend Darrow Miller has dubbed “Evangelical Gnosticism,” a story that separates the spiritual and material realms. 

This has produced a story of change that splits Sunday from the rest of the week, in which the goal is to get one’s soul to heaven for eternity and live the American Dream here and now.

Inflicting Our Stories on Others

Whenever people attempt to alleviate poverty, they bring their religious perspective to the design of their program. As a result, poverty alleviation often involves an encounter between Western Naturalism or Evangelical Gnosticism and the religious perspective of the materially poor people.

Sadly, it has become increasingly clear that there is something terribly wrong with the stories of change of Western Civilization and the Western church. Despite unprecedented wealth—perhaps even because of it—we are not flourishing. Disillusionment and cynicism are rampant, families and communities are breaking apart, measures of overall happiness are declining, and mental illness is skyrocketing. Many of us have reached the goal—we’ve achieved some version of the American Dream—but somehow this dream is far less satisfying than we thought it would be.

The tragic irony is that the implicit assumption in most of our poverty alleviation efforts is that the goal is to make poor people just like us. We try to turn Uganda into the United States and America’s impoverished urban communities or rural areas into its affluent suburbs. Though we are increasingly dissatisfied with our own lives, our message to people in poverty is “come join us!” as though we had it figured out.

A Better Story

We need a different story of change from Western Naturalism or Evangelical Gnosticism because they aren’t working. Unfortunately, most of us have been trying to live for so long in a world in which the spiritual dimension is irrelevant to our daily lives that the real world—the world of Christ’s kingdom—seems quite unbelievable to us. As a result, we have a hard time embracing biblical principles of human flourishing and of knowing how to achieve such flourishing.

We need the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of our hearts and to infuse us with His power so that we can live into the biblical story of change, for it is the only story that really works, because it is the only story that is actually true (see Eph. 1:18–19). 

How can we put a better story into practice in our poverty alleviation ministries? Here are a few suggestions from Chalmers’ Ministry Design Principles.

  • Have all ministry stakeholders “pray without ceasing”

We need to communicate with God regularly and make sure our plans are in line with His plans. How can we do this without prayer? Make prayer an active, ongoing part of your ministry work—give it more time, attention, and resources than you might think necessary! All ministry participants, leaders, financial partners, ministry staff, and volunteers should be engaged in regular prayer.

  • Narrate God’s story of change throughout life

Tell the whole gospel story over and over. Study the Bible together as a ministry team. Ask God to reveal the false stories you are living into and to give you a better alternative. Remember that Jesus isn’t just saving our souls so that we can go to heaven when we die, but “reconcil[ing] to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:20).

  • Integrate God’s story of change into technical training
    Don’t just adopt standard curriculums for financial education, health training, microfinance, business development, jobs training, etc., and tack a Bible verse on them. Seek out training tools that fully connect God’s story of change with both the why and the how of giving ministry participants new techniques for addressing material poverty. Show how the work itself is part of God’s story!
  • Use funding sources that permit God’s story of change to be fully reflected in every aspect of ministry
    Make sure that the financial resources you’re seeking to expand poverty alleviation efforts don’t come with strings attached. If you receive a grant that requires you to separate the good work you’re doing from the whole gospel story, consider what long-term effects of that separation might have on your ministry.

Over the next several weeks on the blog, we’ll be looking at each of the 5 causes of material poverty—false gods and erroneous stories of change, broken and destructive formative practices, broken systems, broken people, and demonic forces.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to integrate our ministry design principles into an existing or new poverty alleviation program, check out our Innovate: Global training.

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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