Why Talk About Work?
Work is good. It is the most effective way to provide for our material needs, but also provides ways for us to interact with the world around us and contribute to our community. Studies have shown that access to steady work itself increases people’s overall well-being.1 And if this is true for people in general, it is also true for people who are materially poor. People who are poor need work that pays!
Ideally, most—if not all—of your church or ministry’s poverty alleviation efforts should include some sort of emphasis on work, jobs, or entrepreneurship. Yet among American churches, it is much more common to find ministries focused on food, clothing, housing, healthcare, etc.—often downstream symptoms of the lack of sustainable work—than work itself.
Beyond the obvious connection between employment and financial stability, let’s consider why a focus on work should be part of our poverty alleviation efforts.
It Fits Who People Are Created to Be
As part of God’s restoration of all things through Jesus Christ (Col. 1:13-20), He is restoring human beings to whom He created and called us to be. Adam and Eve were to be priests and rulers who would spread the reign and worship of God from the garden-temple to every corner of creation. To glorify God through our work and abilities is close to the heart of what it means to be human.
But the Fall happened—because of their sin, Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden, bringing brokenness and suffering into the world. There is a sense in which, in this moment, Adam and Eve “lost their jobs” in that moment. The wonder of the gospel of the kingdom (cf. Luke 4:43) is that Jesus is making all things new, including “giving us back our jobs” as priests and rulers. The local church (and parachurch ministries rooted in the church) should be a place where this new-creation reality is loudly proclaimed and faithfully demonstrated as a launching pad for Christ’s work in the world. One of the best ways we can do that is by being a place where people’s dignity is affirmed and their participation in the life of the world through work is given space to flourish.
It Accounts for Real Brokenness
Certainly, enabling materially poor people to engage in work that pays a living wage is the most sustainable way for them to no longer be materially poor. By damaging a person’s relationship to creation (one of the four key relationships that all people are designed by God to enjoy), long term un- or under-employment can have massive effects across all of a person’s life. Sustaining work is critical for poverty alleviation and holistic development.2
At the same time, it’s not enough for our churches and ministries to simply say, “Work is good, so try to get a job.” Generational poverty is a breeding ground for all sorts of trauma, the long-term effects of which can lead to difficulties in finding and keeping good-paying jobs. In the United States, historic injustices, mass incarceration, and other economic and cultural factors often influence hiring decisions as well.3
Addressing the heart posture of both potential workers and potential employers is key to overcoming these barriers. This takes time, energy, and space for difficult, honest conversations. There are no “microwavable” solutions to chronic joblessness. The brokenness in the world, both in individuals and systems, is real and must be faced, but God is transforming them both as He makes all things new. Our churches are uniquely suited to facilitating such a reconciling approach.
It Builds Community
Overcoming the obstacles to good work, like all transformational development, happens best in community. Relationship precedes development. And real relationships are never one-way or transactional, but a place of mutual vulnerability and openness to change.
Too often, our approaches to poverty alleviation—even if we are incorporating work—can be prescriptive and demeaning. As our friend Michael Rhodes so beautifully describes, such “soup kitchen” approaches that divide us into “haves” and “have-nots” need to give way to a “potluck” model that invites everyone to find a place and bring a plate.
A healthy understanding of work and a commitment to help folks find and keep good jobs or start their own businesses can be one of the best ways to bring this “potluck” to fruition in a community. In this way, we can move toward creating economic partnerships instead of handouts, and replacing pity with hope. We can provide a place where people are known for who they are rather than what they have not done in their past, and where they are seen as participants in the life of our churches and communities rather than problems or projects. Outside of such a relational approach, we might be tempted to see helping someone find a job as getting them toward self-sufficiency (so they are no longer our responsibility to care for) rather than a part of inviting them into deeper connectedness with us and with their wider community.
Helping people rediscover their capacity to be who they are called to be through meaningful work ought to be one of the centerpieces of all our ministry.
How Can We Do This?
There are lots of creative ways to shift our ministries to include work, but here are a few suggestions that you can begin to apply at your church or organization:4
- Pay people struggling with poverty to do odd jobs. Do you know low-income neighbors who have skills in construction, car repair, cooking, landscaping, etc.? Could you connect them with families who need these services? This could form part of a holistic benevolence response when people request financial assistance. When people do good work, refer them to others. This adaptation of the biblical principle of gleaning (Lev. 19:9-10) can shift your relationships with neighbors from one-way “soup-kitchen” giving to an empowering “potluck” approach that recognizes their dignity and assets.
A strong caveat, though: it is far, far better to approach this conversation with a job seeker with a question such as, “Is there any skill you’ve used to gain some money on the side when things were tight in the past?” or “What sort of work have you enjoyed doing in the past to make ends meet?” This ensures that the gleaning jobs created are dignifying for the person who does them. This is particularly important in light of the context of America’s racial history. For instance, for many years black Americans were confined to certain types of work (housecleaning, for example) that have acquired negative connotations as a result.
- Connect job seekers with members who are gatekeepers to jobs in the community. Perhaps you are not in a position to hire people, but you are likely connected with those who are. Think of the business owners or leaders who are members of your church or who financially partner with your parachurch organization. Encourage those people who are “gatekeepers” to employment to consider how to practice gleaning in how they seek job candidates and create roles that can provide long-term, sustainable employment for people wrestling with material poverty.
- Start a jobs ministry. One of the best ways to incorporate God’s purpose for work with the practical tools and supportive community it takes to help people find and keep meaningful work is through a church-centered jobs ministry, such as Chalmers’ Work Life jobs-preparedness training.
- John Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, World Happiness Report 2017 (New York, NY: Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2017), 146.
- Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic, A Field Guide to Becoming Whole: Principles for Poverty Alleviation Ministries (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019), 116-17.
- It is likewise important to remember that many are not able to access paying jobs through disability or injury, but finding meaningful contributions they can make in spite of (or even through) their physical or mental limitations is just as crucial to their long-term well-being as it is for any of us.
- Suggestions adapted from Michael Rhodes and Robby Holt with Brian Fikkert, Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018), 154.