What Story Is Your Ministry Telling?
Adapted from a post originally shared on our blog in 2019.
Stories are powerful. The stories we believe—whether true or false—shape our entire lives, telling us who we are, who we were, and who we are becoming.
But what are we becoming? Can it be predicted? Can we choose what we become?
How does the fact that we all are becoming something inform the way we walk with people who are materially poor? Can we help them change? If so, change to what?
And if individuals can change, what about communities, institutions, or even nations? Can they change for the better, too? If so, how? And what does “better” even mean?
How we try to answer these questions reveals our “story of change”—what we think the goal of life is and how we can achieve it. This is a similar idea to what the social services sector refers to as a “theory of change.”
False Stories of Change
Unfortunately, several common but misguided stories of change are shaping our lives, including our approaches to poverty alleviation. Our poverty alleviation efforts often do harm because we have unknowingly and unconsciously—yet deeply and destructively—absorbed misguided stories of change from our culture.
The unstated assumption behind most poverty alleviation efforts is that the goal is to make poor people just like middle-class Americans. If that’s us, we implicitly believe we have exactly what the poor need, so we try to turn Uganda into the United States and America’s impoverished neighborhoods into its affluent suburbs.
In short, we tend to design our poverty alleviation initiatives—our interventions, operations, staffing, funding, marketing, metrics, messages, and goals—to help people in poverty pursue the American Dream. But we need to step back and ask ourselves whether the American Dream is the right story.
Why the American Dream Falls Short
The phrase “American Dream” can mean different things to different people. We agree that the opportunity to build a stable life through hard work has been a force for good for literally millions of people over the centuries.
What we take issue with is a way of life characterized by self-defined happiness and the pursuit of ever-increasing wealth, power, and freedom. This version of the American Dream—of unchecked and unexamined self-fulfillment—is the wrong story, for both people in poverty and ourselves. We all need a better story.
The Story We Need
The story of poverty alleviation shouldn’t be to turn Uganda into the United States or impoverished communities into affluent suburbs, for all these places are fundamentally broken. Rather the right story calls for all these places to become more like the New Jerusalem. That’s God’s story. It’s the only story that’s actually true, the only story in which we can actually play the roles for which we’ve been created. It’s the only story that actually works.
Too many poverty alleviation strategies aren’t founded on God’s story. They’re built on versions of the American Dream—giving people handouts so they have more material goods or promoting economic empowerment as a way to consume more and just tacking evangelism onto the end of other programs to deal with the soul. None of these stories lead to flourishing.
The story of change we need is one of restored relationships. Humans flourish when they live in restored relationships with God, self, others, and creation. The only way to achieve this kind of restoration is the gospel. That’s why the gospel must be fully integrated into all parts of a poverty alleviation ministry.
Building an Effective Poverty Alleviation Ministry
Effective poverty alleviation ministries are built on the foundation of God’s story. This is what we teach teams who work with the Chalmers Center to design ministries. In addition, we also show them how to integrate God’s story with best practices from community development and innovation tools. If you’re interested in learning how God’s story fits into designing a poverty alleviation ministry, sign up to join us for the Fall 2022 cohort of Innovate: Ministry Design.