Bryan Chappell of Covenant Seminary asks the question: “How can a local church make a difference, and how do individual Christians meaningfully reflect Christ’s grace when the disparities of wealth and power in our world are so great?”1 As our leadership team begins to lay the groundwork for church planting in Philadelphia, we have had to try to wrestle with this question in a practical way rather than the typical way of theorizing from the relative safety and comfort of middle-class suburbs and seminary classrooms. Located in a transitional urban neighborhood where urban blight meets white flight, we are confronted by challenges regarding our biblical responsibility to the poor. We are not experts in urban ministry and poverty alleviation. We recognize the complexity of the causes of poverty and confess the failure of many Christians, including ourselves, to address and to engage this issue. Some people are born into poverty through no fault of their own and find themselves trapped in an inescapable and infernal cycle. Others fall into poverty as a result of calamity including natural disasters, unemployment, health problems, or traumatic experiences. No easy solutions are forthcoming. Our response must be rooted in the Bible as we seek to lay a theological foundation for our engagement in dealing with societal problems which in reality are spiritual problems.
We are not utopian dreamers with illusions about what we can do to relieve misery in its many forms with our meager resources and limited wisdom. Yet we remain compelled by the Gospel to not cast a blind eye toward those in need since we are also needy even if in different ways. We cannot ignore the Old Testament prophetic voices and the New Testament witness “to do good to all men” (Gal. 6:10). Poverty is about broken relationships, and we are all broken in some ways. Those materially better off than others still face brokenness and impoverishment whether spiritually, economically, or socially. And even if we have much to offer as a church to our community, we also declare that we have much to learn from our community. We do not enter the community with pat answers. We enter to listen and learn from the experience and wisdom of those who live in poverty and of those who serve their communities.
It is easy to fall on one side or another of extreme perspectives on the reasons for poverty. Does poverty result from a lack of individual responsibility (a standard conservative response), or unjust social structures (a standard liberal response)? The answer is not either-or. It is both-and. There are those in poverty due to wrong choices, lack of discipline, skewed priorities and wasteful habits. But that description fits many who were born with a silver spoon in privileged conditions and yet have abundant resources for which they did not labor and which they squander. There are also those in poverty due to systemic political, economic, and social inequities or ill-conceived social programs which hinder more than help the impoverished.
Whatever the causes for poverty, it may be time to re-examine our responses in light of Scripture in order to guide our uneasy consciences and to no longer remain captive to the particulars of history which have led us astray in this domain.
In declaring the Gospel we must declare that it touches and transforms every area of life. It will no longer suffice to neatly divide and compartmentalize the human condition as if the Gospel has no power beyond the saving of souls. The power to save souls is the greatest and most important aspect of Gospel proclamation. However, word proclamation and deed proclamation cannot be separated.
The appearance of the social gospel in the early 20th century continues to haunt Bible-believing Christians. They are often unaware that evangelical Christians who lived before the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies did not hold to the stark dualism that characterizes and paralyzes many Christians and churches today who live in the shadow of the social gospel boogeyman. It is true that there were theological aberrations among those who replaced proclamation of the Gospel with deeds of mercy. There were many who did good works under the banner of social justice which replaced the banner of the cross. In reaction to that drift there was a wholesale abandonment of “word and deed” ministry and the unfortunate and unbiblical emphasis on verbal proclamation minus deed engagement. In the name of separation from liberals who no longer preached Christ, many Christians avoided being associated with any whiff of social gospel influence, escaped neighborhoods in the throes of change and disruption, and fled to safer communities and fortress churches.
Apart from occasional forays into cities for relief efforts to distribute sandwiches to the homeless or assist at rescue missions, enough to soothe troubled consciences, there has been a tragic absence of long-term engagement with the oppressed and downtrodden. The common retort that “we just preach the gospel” must be seen as an incomplete and truncated understanding of the gospel. Tim Keller, in his assessment of Jonathan Edwards’ “Christian Charity” from 2 Cor. 8:8-9, argues persuasively “that if you grasp substitutionary atonement in both your head and your heart, you will be profoundly generous to the poor” and that “all sinners saved by grace will look at the poor of this world and feel that in some way they are looking in the mirror.”2
There is a yearning in our hearts to serve others and to make a difference in the lives of people through planting churches that preach the glorious Gospel of salvation and effectively engage and minister to the community. We’ve experienced God’s rich grace toward us and want to confront others with the claims of Christ. At the same time, however, we acknowledge our inability to bring about lasting transformation through human endeavors. Our best efforts may be well-meaning yet misguided. But we are confident that the Gospel which brings forgiveness and spiritual liberation also provides the power to transform lives and to enable believers to live life as God desires. New life in Christ may not bring about immediate release from poverty.
Yet with the restoring of broken relationships which exist between individuals and God and between individuals and their community, a new direction can be set in motion that impacts every area of life.
We are cognizant that not everyone will respond to the Gospel and that not all who respond to the Gospel will immediately or necessarily experience dramatic changes in their economic situation. Moving from poverty to material prosperity is not the goal and cannot be promised, although material betterment may take place. The end in view is spiritual transformation in recognition of the lordship of Christ in every area of life and the extension of that lordship, however imperfectly, into our communities. While we look for that eternal city whose Builder and Maker is God, we labor and serve in our city that we and others might experience by grace a foretaste of what God has prepared for his people.
1 Back cover endorsement of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert.
Dr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA) and adjunct professor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania. He and his wife Kathy recently moved back to Philadelphia to plant Grace Church with his brother John and his wife Dawn and three other couples. Steve’s views do not necessarily represent the position of Calvary Baptist Ministries.