In recent months, some thought-provoking articles have been written about wrong ways to approach poverty—articles that have struck a chord with the justice generation. A shift is slowly taking place in how our society views the poor. We desire to give more than just handouts and move beyond the statistics. We want to give of ourselves on a personal level, replacing numbers with names and faces.
Although this shift in our paradigms resonates within us, putting it into action is another story. While blanket drives, soup kitchens and food pantries are all needed and necessary, moving beyond the handout model takes time, investment, resources and collaboration. So where do we even begin?
Thankfully, we don’t have to start from scratch. In fact, one of the largest distribution centers in addressing poverty is right at our fingertips. It has been around longer than any organization or government program. It exists worldwide, thriving both in impoverished communities and in affluent neighborhoods. It is growing daily, and most importantly, it has a vast supply of experience, creativity, skill sets and manpower. I’m talking about the global Church.
Throughout history, we often see the global Church as the first to respond in times of need or crisis. It is frequently regarded as a symbol of peace for those in distress, a beacon of hope for those in need and a safe haven for those at risk.
But although the global Church has made great strides in addressing poverty, there are a number of underutilized resources that exist within the Church, that if mobilized, have the potential to change the face of poverty.
Mobilizing Skill Sets
Summer is the prime time for many churches to send out short-term mission teams. Usually, the prerequisite to go is to be willing to participate in a skit or two, sing a few songs and maybe have a specialized art skill such as face painting or making balloon animals.
While running a children’s Vacation Bible School or sharing your testimony on a street corner definitely has value, the church has so much more to offer. What if we utilized some of the many skill sets we use in our everyday lives?
What if we sent a graphic designer to help a struggling micro-entrepreneur boost his tiny business by creating business cards and marketing material? What if we sent a small business owner to help a family learn how to budget, save and understand profit and loss from their vegetable stand on the side of the road? By taking the time to invest in the lives of the poor, rather than just a quick handout, we communicate value and dignity, opening the door for long-term relationship and sharing the Gospel.
Gerry Couchman, CEO of Willow Creek Association South Africa, explains this underutilized potential well when he says, “The untapped resource of businessmen and women in our churches is a powerful force. Once engaged, it has the potential to create massive impact among local entrepreneurs working themselves out of poverty.”
Often, having no ministry outlet for their skills and experience, professionals and businessmen and women in the Church are left with options such as ushering, serving coffee, serving in the children’s ministry or on the worship team—all noble opportunities, but none using their skills and passions in business.
In addition to giving suitcases full of secondhand clothing or bags of candy and toys, we as the Church can provide training and guidance that will go much further than a worn-out pair of shoes, both overseas and in our own local communities. From CEO’s and small business owners to accountants and marketing consultants, the church is overflowing with talent, skill sets, experience and knowledge just waiting for the opportunity to be used.
This sleeping giant within the Church of untapped skill sets would not be complete unless we also engage in mentorship—specifically, relationship with someone different from ourselves. If we want to get up front and close with the face of poverty, we must continue “crossing the street” so to speak, entering into the lives of those in need.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” When we involve ourselves in the lives of the poor, and vice versa, our mindsets suddenly shift from “their struggle” to “our struggle.” Within the Church, relationships like these are just waiting to be ignited.
In South Africa in particular, one of the most dual societies in the world, we are seeing a growing number of churches catch on to the power of mentorship. For example, I know a man named Gavin who has years of sales experience in the textiles and garment industry. His goldmine of knowledge and experience was sitting dormant in the Church, just waiting to be utilized. When an opportunity arose in his local church to become a mentor to Alvin, a struggling micro-entrepreneur in his community, he jumped at the chance.
“I enjoyed being able to offer help with the things I had managed to learn from years of being in the corporate world. As a mentor, I’ve almost come to know more about Alvin’s family than my own! We’ve become quite close,” he explains.
There is something powerful that happens when the Church Body takes ownership and truly engages in the lives of those in need. Bridges of trust are formed as economic, social, racial and religious barriers dissolve in the context of relationship.
Though we don’t have a perfect track record, the Church remains one of the greatest resources the world has in making a dent in poverty. As a result, not only are the lives of the poor transformed, but the Church is empowered, using their God-given talents.
Pastor Rick Warren sums it up well when he says, “The Church is still God’s chosen way of getting His work done. We have the privilege of making the invisible God visible to a hurting world through our service.”
Michelle Lenk is a native Floridian currently living in Cape Town, South Africa. She serves as the communications manager for the nonprofit organization Paradigm Shift.