The new year is upon us, and after the long, painful year we have just been through, the traditional resolutions, hopes, and dreams might take on extra significance for many of us in 2021. Perhaps you and your church or ministry are thinking of how to improve your work and witness in the coming year.

At the Chalmers Center, people often come to us asking “What should I do to serve the materially poor in my community?” They are often perplexed when we offer things in response like an online training to help them develop relationships across socioeconomic lines, a book about the shortcomings of the American dream, or a Bible study about the kingdom of God.

“No, you don’t understand. I just want some practical tips to help people.” The reality is that over the many years we have been helping churches to walk alongside people who are materially poor, we have learned two key things:

  1. Good intentions are not enough. It is possible to do grave harm by applying the wrong solutions with all the best intentions. In order to enable you to truly help without hurting, our books and resources incorporate research and best practices from leading experts to ensure that you are equipped to pursue the good work of long-term, relational, asset-based, participatory development.
  2. Why you do things and who you are as a person, church, or ministry matter even more than any particular tip. This is because the right approaches to poverty alleviation are not quick fixes, but often decades-long processes that you can’t control. Being formed into people who can walk the long road of mutual transformation by the power of Christ is key.

Where to Start

If you haven’t yet done the heart work of spiritual formation, seeking God through His word and prayer, start there. As we often point out in our books, trainings, and blog posts, the Lord has definite ideas about caring for the poor. We should not presume to know better than the One who made us and those we are seeking to help how human beings are designed to flourish. Take time to reflect on what you have been doing, and ask God for wisdom to see areas for growth.

Like we mentioned above, Chalmers has many resources designed specifically to help with this discipleship process (see the list at the bottom of this page for suggestions). Discipleship is following Jesus so that you can become the type of person who does the things that Jesus does. As Eugene Peterson writes: “A disciple is a learner, but not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site of a craftsman. We do not acquire information about God but skills in faith.” If we want to obey Him, we need to understand how we are being made like Him by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Articulate a Vision and Mission for Poverty Alleviation

Adopt a clear vision for poverty alleviation that is rooted in God’s mission. It’s not uncommon these days for churches to have a vision statement, something like “To know Christ and to make Him known,” that captures the overarching purpose of the church. What we’re suggesting here is perhaps a sub-vision statement, something that describes God’s heart for the poor and sets the tone for your church’s poverty alleviation ministries (benevolence, community development, missions in low-income contexts, etc.).

Think of this as the goal you’re aiming at which you know will not be attained fully until Jesus returns, but that shapes the approach to ministry you take now. In our book Becoming Whole, for example, we suggest that the goal of a biblical story of change is: “People experience human flourishing when they serve as priest-rulers, using their mind, affections, will, and body to enjoy loving relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.” We have to guard against setting goals that assume false stories of change, that seek for people to become self-sufficient or middle-class, even if we would never say it in those words. The goal of a healthy poverty alleviation ministry has to be compatible with the body-mind-will-affections-relational creature that God has made human beings to be.

Once you have a vision firmly in mind, then craft a mission statement to describe at a high level how you plan to live into that—keep it simple, a sentence you can use to answer the question, “What is your church doing to serve your community?” or “How does your church approach serving the poor?”

You might also want to go a little deeper and list out some specific ways you will work to achieve the goal. This “philosophy statement” or “values statement” isn’t an incredibly detailed plan that includes everything you hope to do through your ministry. It should lay out some ground rules for the type of work you are pursuing and the way in which you pursue it. Remember that your goal is never to “fix people”—that’s the work of our triune God—but to pursue mutual transformation. Focus on big picture principles here, like recognizing the image of God in everyone, treating people like part of the family of your church, and working with rather than for people.

If you are part of a nonprofit organization or parachurch ministry, you probably already have vision, mission, and values statements governing your work. In this case, reflect on those in light of what you are learning about the nature of poverty and the nature of human beings. Do these statements line up with the way God has designed people? If not, you might want to consider how these statements were written in the first place, and then consider what it might take to shift them. Are these statements reflective of the way that you do ministry, or are they simply gathering dust?

Share The Word

Of course, vision, mission, and values statements are meaningless if they aren’t communicated clearly and actually applied to the work you’re doing. Think about how to involve your whole church in this work. Real, long-term care for the materially poor isn’t sustainable if it’s only the responsibility of a handful of church staff, officers, or volunteers. This good work requires a strong, biblical vision and commitment among everyone in your church—it needs to be communicated by your pastor, practiced by your ministry teams, and prayed for and served by the rest of the congregation. Talk about this work in the worship service, Sunday school, and small groups, let people know God’s heart and your church’s calling.

Build for Transformation

Once these pieces are in place, the journey isn’t over but only just beginning. There is always more to be learned, more to be done, more to be changed and modified as you go along. That’s where many of the tools and resources the Chalmers Center has created over the years come into play to help you and your church or ministry learn and grow as you go.

Earlier this year, we put together a full list of our resources and some suggestions about how they can best be put to use.

Our prayer for you in 2021 is that you and your church can begin to think differently about poverty and then do something about it, by God’s grace, according to His design, and to His glory.

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