Redefining Poverty in Urban Ministry

"Because my definition of poverty was deficient, I couldn’t help but believe my 'ministering' was helping others with a problem that I myself didn’t have. However, God quickly revealed to me that I wasn't exempt from the problem of poverty!" East St. Louis 1Three weeks ago I had the privilege of partnering with two Campus Outreach staff and four Western Carolina University students as we visited Rebirth: East St. Louis, a ministry located in East St. Louis, Illinois. The trip consisted of teaching times centered on topics such as holistic ministering, ministering to the poor, and ministering in an inner-city urban setting. We also had hands-on interaction with the high school students involved with Rebirth. Along with the teaching and hands-on interaction, we had the opportunity to tour the city of East St. Louis and learn about the city's history. The trip was eye-opening, soul-stirring, and more humbling that I could have imagined...

Out of everything I learned, what rocked my soul the most was the time we spent learning about ministering to the poor. Due to our faulty definition of poverty, many of us think about ministering to the poor from a very practical, yet prideful mindset. Many of us, myself included, have watered poverty down to this definition: lacking money, clothes, and/or other materials needed to survive. East St. Louis 2Although this definition is not wrong, I learned for the first time that this definition does not adequately paint the full picture of what true, bible-defined poverty is. Because my definition of poverty was deficient, I couldn’t help but believe my “ministering” was helping others with a problem that I myself didn’t have. However, God quickly revealed to me that I wasn't exempt from the problem of poverty!

To biblically understand poverty, one must understand what true life consists of. In the beginning (Genesis 1-2) when God created man, He created man in perfect relationship in four different areas of life. Those four areas included man’s relationship with God, others, self, and creation. Having perfect relationship in EVERY area is TRUE life! Unfortunately, due to the Fall of Adam those four relationships were marred and eventually distorted. The effects of the Fall are still prevalent today and easily seen in society. Here is the true definition of poverty: a distortion or lacking of perfection in any of the four relationships. Man by nature is hostile to God, envious of others, insecure about self, and ruled by created things. All areas of life are distorted and lacking for all men. Consequently, ALL men suffer from poverty and are in need of restoration. From the poorest man on the corner, to the richest man on Wall Street, we are all in need of restoration through Jesus Christ.

Here is where the Lord totally blew me away! I, a college-educated, middle class American, suffer from poverty. Just because I don’t lack food or clothing doesn’t mean I don’t lack spiritually. I lack confidence that God is close to me at all times. I lack the ability to not idolize my job or ministry. I lack the respect not to envy things that aren’t mine. I lack so much, and NEED restoration. This perspective is the secret to ministering to the poor, recognizing mutual poverty that points us all to the One who restores, Jesus Christ our Savior.

~ Chris Williams

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