A Long Walk in the Same Direction
Adapted from A Field Guide to Becoming Whole, 107-112.
When followers of Jesus describe our relationship with God, we often use the language of a “walk with God” or “Christian walk.” That’s because spiritual growth is not a sudden jolt into greater maturity. Instead, it’s the patient outworking of the Spirit of God in our lives.
Scripture teaches us that God demonstrates his love toward us in sending Christ as a sacrifice “while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8). God calls us to Himself and leads us gently toward Christlikeness. He not only calls us to obedience, but He also empowers our growth and forgives our sins as we confess them (1 John 1:9).
In a similar way, when we at the Chalmers Center talk about ministry alongside people struggling with material poverty, we use the language of “walking with” people across time. This metaphor connects us to the relational, patient, collaborative work of poverty alleviation and community development.
Walking with people means that we do things with them, never for them or to them, allowing them to fully participate in the process of development such that they are acting on the things they want for themselves.
Invitation to Ownership
We’ve said many times that the goal of poverty alleviation is change—growth from a place of greater brokenness and need toward a place of wholeness. This looks like increased flourishing in our relationships with God, self, others, and creation. In that goal, the role of our ministries is to invite people into the transformation God desires for all of us. To do that, we need to be careful not to plan the path of their transformation for them.
For individuals or communities to pursue the hard road of making changes in their lives, it is profoundly important that they “own” the course of action from the very beginning. This means that both a woman wrestling with material poverty and those from a church or ministry walking with her must see her as the person who, with God’s help, is primarily responsible for making her desired changes happen.
All human beings are generally more likely to “own” plans that they have helped to initiate and to shape more than plans that have been imposed upon them.
Partnership in Participation
Poverty alleviation efforts should avoid “blueprint” approaches that impose a predetermined plan on low-income people, imposing our ideas about what to do and how it should be done. A blueprint approach fails to create the necessary ownership of the change process that is essential if people in material poverty are going to initiate and sustain the changes they hope for in their lives.
In addition, a blueprint approach tends to exacerbate the harmful dynamic in which the materially non-poor can “play god,” speaking and acting in ways that confirm the sense of inferiority and shame that many low-income people already feel.
On the other hand, a participatory approach asks someone what he believes he should do to improve his life, how he thinks he should do it, and what actions he will take to pursue positive change.
This does not mean that a church or ministry walking with him should never speak into his life. Instead, they should try to act in a way that is consistent with biblical truth. They need to recognize that, as an image bearer, this man has insights and abilities, and he is called by God to be the primary person who stewards those insights and abilities by using them to initiate and sustain changes that move towards becoming whole.
In many cases, especially in situations involving mental health concerns or long-term trauma, people don’t need help for just a week, but for years. But the help a church or ministry offers does not need to entail a never-ending series of handouts. This is why we need a developmental approach—a team of people walking with ministry participants across time, providing support, encouragement, and accountability as they use their gifts to move toward transformation.
This could certainly include offering various forms of material assistance, for people may need help with big, recurring expenses like housing, transportation, etc., along the way. But it mostly involves identifying, strengthening, and mobilizing their gifts and increasingly inviting them to steward those gifts to the glory of God.
Making the Shift
That said, it’s also important that your church or ministry doesn’t get twisted in knots and paralyzed into inaction by trying to discern how best to help the individuals and communities they serve when participation is hard to see.
When faced with a decision about the best next step in a relationship focused on long-term transformation, ask yourself the following question: If I take this action, will I contribute or detract from the long-term goal of empowering this person to serve as a priest-ruler, fulfilling her design as image bearers of God and living in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation?
Ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom and guidance, and then move forward humbly but without fear. Jesus Christ is actively present, and He will accomplish His purposes despite our mistakes. All we can do is our best!