Most Christians want to do something to address the problems of poverty. But many of us just don’t know where to start.
Here are 50 ideas, shared by 15 Christian leaders from around the world, to help you show the love of Jesus to those who are poor.
Almost any of us could try at least one of these strategies.
1. Create a community garden. Each year ours produces thousands of pounds of healthy food that is distributed to hundreds of families in our community who live below the poverty line. They are invited to help harvest the food, which allows us an opportunity to connect with them spiritually.
—Kirsten Strand, Community 412, Aurora, Illinois
2. Bank your money (checking and savings) in a fund that does healthy development work locally or internationally.
—Ryan Hayes, Christian Missionary Fellowship/Namikango Mission, Malawi
3. Provide multiple entry points for people to serve in the community. Not everyone will have the same level of commitment, dedication, gifts, abilities, and interests.
—Rick Grover, East 91st Street Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana
4. Work with organizations like Fuller Center for Housing that make it possible for people to own a home. Fuller Center looks at a family’s needs and then works with them to set up the mortgage. Churches in the area fund the build with money and time. For families who have a veteran, Home Depot has become a major sponsor and will donate heavily toward projects like this.
—Michael Plank, Spring Road Christian Church, Lanett, Alabama
5. A team of 325 doctors and nurses in our church volunteer their time in two local clinics that provide free health care to more than 3,000 uninsured Lexington residents. We also rely on more than $1 million in pharmaceutical donations from wholesale providers to meet the prescription demands of the patients. Our clinics have allowed us to build relationships with people whose life expectancy rates are sometimes half the national average due to very preventable illnesses.
—Jon Weece, Southland Christian Church, Lexington, Kentucky
6. Collaboration with other community groups and agencies is a key element in breaking poverty cycles. We bring large pools of volunteers, ready access to large, multipurpose buildings, and significant experience in planning large group activities. These are “gold” to many agencies that have clinical and even financial resources, but lack manpower, event organization skills, and facilities.
—Becky Ahlberg, My Safe Harbor, Anaheim, California
7. Partner with a school in an at-risk area of your community. Adopt the school as your mission field. Sponsor their school carnival and pay for and staff the whole thing. Engage with kids as mentors.
—Titus Benton, Current, A Christian Church/The 25 Group, Katy, Texas
8. Partner with area restaurants to take their leftovers and distribute them to helping organizations. A gentleman in our church runs one such program out of our building, working with 13 local restaurants to give away hundreds of thousands of pounds of food annually.
—Jeff Faull, Mount Gilead Church, Mooresville, Indiana
9. We participate in, and helped begin, a local chapter of Interfaith Hospitality Network. More than 40 churches here give money or serve as “host” or “support” churches to provide overnight shelter for homeless families for a week at a time. We host around four times a year, turning our Sunday school rooms into bedrooms and providing volunteers, meals, and transportation to a day center where the families can look for jobs and learn life skills.
—Aaron Wymer, Grandview Christian Church, Johnson City, Tennessee
10. Take the “25 Challenge.” Look at your bank statements and find something you spend way too much money on. Give up that something—fast food, gourmet coffee, movie dates, etc.—for 25 days and donate that money to an organization fighting poverty. (Obviously, www.the25group.org would be a great choice.)
11. Learn to live frugally that you might share abundantly with others. Living frugally will look different in different situations, but just as God has provided abundantly for our life and health in creation, so we too should follow that example and share abundantly with ministries that are working to fight poverty in our neighborhoods and around the world.
—Chris Smith, Englewood Christian Church/Englewood Review of Books, Indianapolis, Indiana
12. Devote a portion of your church budget to fighting poverty locally and globally. Increase that budget 1 percent each year.
13. Learn gratitude. The most destructive forms of upward mobility are rooted in an ungrateful heart that is not content with what God has provided. As we learn to be grateful, we slowly begin to opt out of the selfish pursuit of more and find time, money, and other resources to share with those who truly need them.
14. Teach generosity. Nothing impacts hardened hearts, sinful souls, and jaded observers to Christianity like true generosity. Churchwide programs are OK, but contagious Christ followers who are on call 24-7 and able to spontaneously and lavishly give in the moment are much more powerful in the long run than any orchestrated program.
—Mike Schrage, Good News Productions International, Joplin, Missouri
15. Confess your own poverty. We are all poor and broken creatures, and the sooner we come to grips with that reality, the better suited we will be to enter into the poverty of others.
16. As Christians, we must not approach people from any position of strength when it comes to our relationship to God. Remember that you need grace as much as they do.
17. Shift your paradigm. When we are not prideful, we realize it’s more about a hand up from me to another person than about a handout, or even worse, a hand down. I am a poor beggar giving good things to other beggars.
18. Understand the complexity of poverty. Too many times we want to run with our gut and judge success by our gut, when that may only foster dependence.
19. Well-intentioned Christians often assume they know what poverty-stricken families need without ever asking. We’ve learned the best way to establish trust with marginalized people is to ask what they need and meet that need. Every Monday and Tuesday night in three central Kentucky communities, teams of our volunteers go door-to-door in the most crime-ridden areas and ask the residents how they can help.
Make It Personal
20. My wife and I realized we had to get in the game ourselves. I couldn’t just preach about it and then drive home to my suburban house. I can’t lead people where I’m not willing to go. So my wife and I got involved with a Christian respite care ministry for families in need. This has given us an opportunity to connect with a little girl and her family, and we hope there will be many other opportunities in the future. We have to be intentional about building relationships with others and not just rely on church programming to get the job done.
Make a Commitment
21. We empower our parish neighborhoods to adopt a local organization to work with during the year. All of the small groups within a neighborhood are connected to an organization within their immediate area, and are scheduled (from our office, through our missions director) with serving days and projects over the course of the year. We want these groups to learn the value in narrowing their scope and serving just one or two places on a regular basis rather than dropping in here and there, never really building relationships or seeing long-term results.
—Derek Sweatman, Christian Church Buckhead, Atlanta, Georgia
22. Commit to keeping your church in your neighborhood indefinitely. Neighborhoods go through cycles every 50 years or so (and some cycle at faster rates). Do not abandon your neighborhood when poverty or crime levels rise or when the racial or ethnic demographics start to change. Your church’s commitment to “seek the peace of its city” over the long haul will speak powerfully of the love of Christ to your neighbors. If you start to outgrow your facilities, consider planting new churches in other neighborhoods, perhaps even some that have deeper struggles with poverty than your own.
23. Be intentional about staffing. Every church should hire someone to design systems that mobilize and shape the church’s mind-set and behavior in dealing with the poor.
24. Think generationally. This is not a “short-term missions” project; it requires a sustained and committed effort. Food at the holidays or backpacks in the fall, while kind, will not go very far in addressing the key issues: disintegrating families, which means unstable environments for women and children; poor education, which means poor employment opportunities; and a general decoupling of choices and consequences, which means a decline in personal responsibility. All of these problems will take long-term and targeted efforts.
25. The Stanford University Center for Philanthropy concluded an article on child sponsorship by saying that if you want to transform Africa, sponsor a girl. If you really want to transform Africa, sponsor 10 girls. Any church can do this. CMF International has a wonderful child sponsorship program in the African countries of Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Kenya. Ten children sponsored would cost a church less than $5,000 a year (one child would be $460 a year). Sponsored children can attend school, which greatly enhances their chance to escape poverty.
—Doug Priest, Christian Missionary Fellowship, Indianapolis, Indiana
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about Christian Missionary Fellowship’s Child Sponsorship program, go to https://give.cmfi.org/sponsor.aspx.
Contact the missionary you support to inquire about child sponsorship opportunities. Some possibilities:
Stadia collaborates with Compassion International in a partnership to plant churches and sponsor children. For information, go to www.stadia.cc/2011/networks/together-with-compassion-international/ and www.stadia.cc/global-planting/global-planting-partnerships/.
Lifeline Christian Mission: www.lifeline.org/Make-An-Impact/Give/Sponsor-a-Child.html.
26. Microfinance programs around the world have shown that a simple loan to a poor person (who cannot get a loan from a bank due to lack of collateral and who dares not borrow from a loan shark because of the outrageous interest fees) helps him manage and escape poverty. The 3,000 people who have received loans in a microfinance program in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, paid back their loans at the rate of 96 percent. Many have returned for larger second and third loans.
27. Start in your neighborhood. The causes for any particular person’s situation might include things like a single-parent home, divorce, addiction, mental illness, unemployment, abuse, or poor education, and can best and most sustainably be addressed in close proximity by walking with a person over a period of time. Also, it is helpful if this sort of work is entered into as a church, as different people will have different skills to engage various kinds of situations.
28. Our youth ministry does local mission trips rather than going overseas or to other states. This summer our middle school group stayed in the downtown Atlanta homeless shelter for a week, working alongside the shelter’s team to serve the homeless of our city. It took me ten minutes to take my son there—only five train stops away. Something seemed right about that, about a mission trip in our own town.
29. Helping the homeless can be daunting: How do you get a job if you don’t have an address? How do you navigate the system to get help? The national organization Open Table allows several folks to “surround” a person to help him out of homelessness. The group (table) has worked really well to help folks not only get a home, but an education, a job, and full independence.
—Glen Elliott, Pantano Christian Church, Tucson, Arizona
30. We were running the traditional food and clothing pantry, but we were duplicating services and not providing long-term, sustainable solutions. We began working with community leaders to assess needs and think strategically about community transformation through Jesus Christ. This is a much slower process, and it doesn’t bring about the “warm fuzzies” for people who just want to drop off old clothes or canned goods and feel better about “serving the poor.” But our commitment is to develop a relational approach where people are engaged in providing solutions and not just receiving handouts.
31. Learn more about Community Health Evangelism, or CHE. This is a comprehensive way to help a neighborhood or village address the issue of poverty without much outside assistance. The theory is that all the resources to improve a village or neighborhood are already there; it is the lack of education and a cooperative plan that hinders movement from poverty.
32. In developing countries such as India, it is easy to see the rampant poverty. As you travel on the dirt roads to the villages, it is normal to see huts and malnourished children with very little. However, as we dig deeper than the surface level, the poverty is even more evident in the chains shackling our hopes, futures, and dreams. Poverty can be related to material things, but there are also spiritual, relational, psychological, and emotional issues.
The church can eliminate poverty not only in the physical realm, but in the spiritual realm as well. Jesus is our prime example; he met people’s needs, but always kept the end result in mind. Jesus healed people and rescued people from being outcasts and untouchables. In the process, he developed a personal relationship with them as their Savior and Lord.
—Ajai Lall, Central India Christian Mission, Damoh, India
33. Be intentional about connecting with people. A missionary to the Bedouin community told me, “Communication is to humans what water in a desert is to animals.” People are starving for relationships, and the hectic pace of our mobile era just magnifies the silence and loneliness.
34. Become a “friendship partner” for a refugee or immigrant family, coming alongside them in their first year in the U.S. to help them adjust and learn basic skills. We do this in partnership with World Relief.
35. Treat people compassionately as people. One of the most unhelpful things you can do is treat a person in poverty as a project or as a problem to be fixed. Instead, treat them as a friend, walking with them and entering compassionately into their struggles. As in all friendships, be willing to teach, encourage, and care for one another.
36. Remember that relationships may precede programs. So many of the processes required to address poverty also require trusting relationships. If people believe you care about them and respect them, they are much more likely to participate in programs and opportunities and trust you to become part of their lives.
Help Them Help
37. We began a parent mentor program that pays parents in low-income communities a stipend in exchange for volunteering 10 hours a week at their child’s school. It provides training and empowerment to moms (who may not speak English or have much education) that they do have something to contribute.
38. Learn the skills and passions of a person in poverty and find ways for her to use those skills to serve others. This, of course, is something we should be learning to do for all of our members and neighbors, but it is important that people in poverty understand themselves not just as receivers of others’ generosity, but as joyful contributors to the health and well-being of the church or neighborhood.
39. Find ways to include the people you want to reach in the things you want to do. For example, consider asking participants in your food pantry program actually to work in your food pantry. In return for their participation, they get additional items and they get to know your people. And provide child care for their children while they work! Or, if you invite neighborhood children to your VBS or after-school program, find ways for parents to participate, too. They can check kids in, help with refreshments or games, address postcards, etc. If parents make connections with other adults, they are more likely to support the connections their children are making.
40. At Christmas, create a “gift mart” that allows parents to purchase toys for their own children. We collect thousands of donated toys and then set up the gift marts at under-resourced elementary schools and donate all the money we raise to the school. You can also do this with school supplies, winter coats, food, or anything you would give away. Make it a dignity-preserving opportunity that recognizes everyone has something to contribute.
41. Find ways to connect people who have jobs to fill with people who are looking for jobs. This can certainly be complicated, but get to know the people in your church or neighborhood who run businesses and what sorts of skills their work requires. If you have many people who are looking for work, imagine ways your church could start initiatives that would employ people. For example, I am familiar with churches that have started coffeehouses, farms, cleaning businesses, and a day care.
42. In an Indian tribal area, people were making bidis (local handmade cigarettes) simply by wrapping tobacco in leaves. This job was done mostly by women, who work 10 or more hours a day and make only one U.S. dollar! This was replaced by a significant project where they could assemble reading glasses. With only eight hours of work, they could make three times more money while helping those who could otherwise not afford to have reading glasses.
43. We invite homeless men and women to enter a program that partners them with a local business owner who is willing to pay their rent, guide them through a recovery ministry, if necessary, and provide them with on-site job training until they can provide for themselves. More than 600 people have successfully completed the program, are gainfully employed, and are no longer dependent on government or charitable assistance.
44. Central India Christian Mission offers training to 84 of our nursing college students to be medical evangelists. Through this training, they not only receive their four-year nursing degree, but also a diploma in Christian service. As the nurses, paramedical workers, and medical technicians serve people as the hands of Christ, they also pray for them and extend the love of Christ to them during their suffering.
45. When a church participates in a carefully planned short-term trip, its participants often desire to help those whom they have met. Three girls from New Hampshire did just that, and with their church’s backing raised enough funds to provide shoes for all the children in a school in the slums of Kenya. Another boy shot baskets for hours on end, with sponsors supporting his activities.
46. Take a few rolls of quarters to a laundromat in your town. Introduce yourself to a family that looks like they may need a helping hand. Pay their washing and drying costs, and use the time in between loads to have some meaningful conversation.
47. Host a film festival addressing poverty and related issues, such as human trafficking or the water crisis. Advertise to your community and charge a fee for entry. Donate the proceeds to one of the causes mentioned in your films.
48. Commit to praying for the people you meet by name, and then become the answer to your prayer by creatively finding ways of caring for that person.
49. We’ve finished a yearlong study as a congregation that began with our elders traveling to Indianapolis to meet with Englewood Christian Church and reading several books and articles (see recommended resources on p. 23). The study culminated with a 10-week focus in our small groups and Sunday school classes. Our people studied the same material and interviewed community leaders about their perceptions, strengths, and goals, and the possibilities for partnerships to serve the community.
We met personally with school administrators, police officers, other churches, and even the president of East Tennessee State University. We also invited the classes/groups to walk areas of our community with a list of questions to help them see things they may not have seen. The youth participated as well. Then we had a “listening event” where we reported our findings. From that event we identified four areas of focus for going forward, and we hired a part-time minister to lead and implement these strategies.
50. You can create jobs, empower workers, and fight issues like human trafficking through your purchases. Here are just a few of the many options:
• International Disaster Emergency Service’s Christmas Catalog offers a variety of ways to bless others at Christmas. Whether it’s a $15 cooking pot or a $2,500 well, you can give tangible, practical items to people in need around the world. Learn more at www.ides.org.
• byTavi is a faith-based microenterprise initiative of the Center for Global Impact. This ministry teaches women in Cambodia how to sew clothing, handbags, and other items, and pays them a fair wage for their work. Learn more at centerforglobalimpact.org/bytavi.
• Buy T-shirts, bags, and more at cleomentary.com, and 25 percent of the proceeds will go to provide food, water, health care, education, and housing for the poor in America.
• Support small-scale farmers by purchasing organic coffee, tea, chocolate, and fruit from Equal Exchange Coop (www.equalexchange.coop).
Read . . . Discuss . . . Decide
Each of the following was recommended by at least one of the contributors to this “how-to-fight-poverty” feature:
The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence, by Gary A. Haugen (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day, by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orlanda Ruthven (Princeton University Press, 2009).
Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, by Bryant Myers (Orbis Books, 2011).
Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo (PublicAffairs, 2012).
More than Good Intentions: Improving the Ways the World’s Poor Borrow, Save, Farm, Learn, and Stay Healthy, by Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel (Plume, 2012).
Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, and How to Reverse It, by Robert D. Lupton (HarperCollins, 2011).