Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Best Ways to Fight Poverty—Really by Mark Galli

A really thoughtful piece on the role of the church in responding to the issue of poverty in our world today...

When it comes to alleviating poverty, it is the best of times. Never in history have so many people so quickly been taken off the poverty rolls.

Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015, a 2011 Brookings Institution publication, summarizes this stunning development. Researchers Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz note that as late as the early 1980s, "more than half of all people in developing countries lived in extreme poverty." By 2005, they report, that number was cut in half. By 2010, "less than 16 percent remain in poverty, and fewer than 10 percent will likely be poor by 2015."

In other words, the seemingly audacious UN Millennium Development Goal of reducing poverty by half between 1990 and 2015 was met three years ago.

What's more, apparently no continent is being left behind. In the 1980s, poverty increased in Africa, and, in the 1990s, in Latin America. But, according to Chandy and Gertz, "poverty reduction is currently taking place in all regions of the world." For the first time, the poverty rate of sub-Saharan Africa is below 50 percent. The authors' model predicts that by 2015, poverty will be reduced in 85 of the 119 countries included in their analysis. The sharpest reduction is seen in Asia; given current trends, they predict 430 million people will be taken off the poverty rolls by 2015—a drop of 30 percentage points.

The developments in Asia, in fact, are the reason they say "the bulk of the fall in global poverty can be attributed to the two developing giants, India and China. They alone are responsible for threequarters of the [expected] reduction of the world's poor."

Not large donations, microenterprise programs, or child sponsorship, but rather sheer economic growth, has effected this change. With massive populations, the two nations made a number of interrelated decisions that opened their countries to globalization, which in turn has led to remarkable economic performances, where we've seen GDP growth rates (except for 2009) stay above 6 percent since 2003. The wealth has indeed trickled down to the lowest economic strata of their societies.

Thus the plethora of new and hopeful books: Charles Kenny's Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding—And How We Can Improve the World Even More, Jeffery Sachs's The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, and, for Christian activists, Scott Todd's Fast Living: How the Church Will End Extreme Poverty—among many others.

Though economists debate specifics, it's a moment bursting with hope. But these dramatic developments, ironically, present the church with a few serious challenges.

Relative Ineffectiveness

What these latest findings demonstrate is the church's relative ineffectiveness and impotency at helping the poor. Some Christian activists have been trying to motivate us to care for the poor by pointing out how they are neglected by society. The state is a clumsy and arrogant institution, they argue, and not doing its job. So the church must step in to make a difference. That means that (1) churches should create their own anti-poverty initiatives (like microfinance), and (2) churches should lobby governments to do better.

These recent economic developments suggest that both of these strategies are either insignificant or relatively ineffective. It is not Christian activism that has created history's greatest poverty reduction initiatives in India and China. And it is not micro but rather macroeconomics that really makes a difference.

Other activists focus on motivation. Both personal experience and national studies have shown that when it comes to poverty reduction, Christians are discouraged. We tend to believe the world is getting worse, and that our little efforts won't make much difference anyway. So some activists tout these poverty reduction numbers, saying, "See, we can make a difference!" Then they encourage us to get involved in our own small way, because if we do, "We can defeat poverty in this generation" or, "The church can end extreme poverty."

But of course, it is a stretch to suggest we can end any sort of poverty. I asked a number of Christian economists about this, and all agreed: No, we can't. When I asked why, every one of them said, "Original sin." Until the coming of the kingdom of God, greed, sloth, oppression, corruption, and the like—all of which breed poverty—will persist.

Some rightly point to the huge strides made in abolition, prison reform, child labor laws, and so forth due to Christian activism in the 19th century. Take slavery: Indeed, it is much better to live in a time when every nation on the planet has outlawed slavery. But as experts today acknowledge, slavery (defined as people enduring forced labor, including sex) is still endemic worldwide. There are more slaves today (estimates range from 12 million to 27 million) than ever. By contrast, even at the apex of American slavery, the United States counted only 4 million slaves.

So yes, we can indeed improve social conditions in some regards. But the human capacity for sin is relentless and will find ways to subvert even our most stellar progress. As we'll see, however, this is no cause for discouragement—only a realistic picture of what we're up against.

Sometimes our idealism is grounded in what might be called social-improvement math. For Christians, it works like this: "There are nearly 200 million Christians in the United States. If they were able to see that (a) poverty can be defeated, and (b) Jesus calls them to have a heart for the poor, then they could change the political climate. Representatives would have to take this constituency seriously when they started asking for policy changes that would help the poor."

This assumes a number of things that have never materialized in history. We can confidently predict that we will never be able to get 200 million Christians to agree on any priority except, perhaps, that Jesus is Lord. But let's take the best-case scenario: If one could get all 200 million believers to make poverty reduction a top priority (trumping abortion, human rights, and a hundred other causes), there are no uniquely Christian solutions to ending poverty that we all would agree on. What separates Christian Democrats and Christian Republicans is not their concern for the poor but rather their strategies for helping the poor. Political wrangling will be with us always.

But more to the point we began with: When huge poverty reduction strides have been made, it has been due not to every person doing their little part, but to government economists and bureaucrats making top-down macroeconomic decisions. Doing our little part makes very little difference when it comes to large-scale poverty.

So if the church in fact cannot defeat poverty, and if the church's efforts make an insignificant dent in macropoverty, how should we then live toward the poor?

The Church's Unique Calling

It would be foolish to stop caring for the poor. We are not called to obey Jesus only if our efforts are guaranteed to make a difference. As the article "Cost-Effective Compassion" shows, when it comes to poverty, impact is indeed one important criterion for how we invest ourselves. But who and how we love can never finally be decided on effectiveness, for otherwise we would neglect all those for whom we can make little practical difference—those in hospice care and nursing homes, those with mental disabilities, and so forth.

In fact, if this becomes our primary motivation—to change the world—we risk sabotaging the uniquely Christian approach to poverty.

What I mean is this: In pragmatic America, we are often enamored of and motivated by pragmatism rather than simple obedience to Jesus. We are too often tempted to justify our existence on this planet by doing something "significant," by "making a difference in the world," so that we can go to bed at night feeling good about ourselves. But the Christian message is about a God who judges and loves us in our insignificance—that is, when our selfcenteredness has sabotaged our ability to make any fundamentally sound contribution to our lives or to others'. This God speaks to us the frank word that not only do we not make a difference in the world, day to day we threaten to make the world worse by our sin. But in Jesus Christ, he has judged and forgiven us through the Cross, and now he uses even our insignificant efforts to witness to his coming work in Jesus Christ.

What is that coming work? Among other things, it is the end of poverty. No,we cannot end poverty, but God can and will. From this perspective we see that our efforts to stem poverty have significance not because they make us feel better, but because they point to Jesus' final antipoverty program.

With this end in view, when we inevitably enter a period in history when poverty gets worse, either globally or locally, we won't get discouraged. We are involved with the poor not because we're going to make a difference, but primarily because we are gladly responding to the call of a gracious God to show forth the Good News—in deeds of justice and mercy, and more importantly, in gospel words—that he will defeat all forms of poverty, spiritual and material.

And then there is this very practical dimension: The church can never match the sweep of national and global initiatives. But if the poor will be with us always, until the Second Coming, it is also true that bureaucratic and impersonal government will be as well. When it comes to caring for people as individuals in their uniqueness, the government is the clumsiest tool imaginable.

Ah, but people—those precious individuals embedded in a unique family and community—they are right in the church's sweet spot. No government can touch what the church can do here.

Our poverty reduction efforts have significance not because they make us feel better about ourselves, but because they point to Jesus' final antipoverty program.So while the government makes needed sweeping changes, the church is there to pick up the inevitable pieces of people trampled by government regulations, of people who get left behind, of people whom the government treats as mindless sheep, but whom the church knows have a Shepherd.

Thus the church's most characteristic antipoverty efforts are those that are utterly personal. I believe we instinctively understand this. This is why among the many antipoverty interventions offered, we evangelicals are so fond of child sponsorship, for example. It is not only a proven strategy for making a difference—it works—but more importantly, it is very relational and very personal.

If you're concerned about poverty, these are indeed the best of times. But we mustn't be discouraged if it appears that the church has been left on the sidelines in this historical moment. We still have our irreplaceable calling. It begins with responding to the divine and gracious call of Jesus to follow, and ends with loving the unique people, especially the poor, whom he providentially puts in our midst.

Friday, February 17, 2012


A great article that causes people like me to consider whether our time is spent in the office or the Student Union...and if we are planning the next great program or sharing experiences with my students...the phrase he offers in this article is truly one that challenges our spiritual formation office world each day...

More than any other type of life and faith in culture, there is no doubt in my mind that college ministry is consistently the most rapidly changing population of believers. I am only 11 years removed from my freshman year in college; looking back over the past decade, my undergraduate experience is nothing like that of the students currently finishing their freshman year.

Though many can look back on a decade once removed and see some extreme generational differences, the postmodern explosion through technology, polarized political cultures, a growing movement of gay rights and a default worldview that inherently questions the validity of everything has irrevocably shifted the trajectory of the role of campus and college ministers.

Ten years from now, the new normal will be a multifaceted set of experiences overwhelmingly based on a series of uncertainties that must connect you with the students' on their turf and filtration system, not yours.

The exciting part, however, is that after another decade of questions surrounding student's interpersonal, sexual, political, and cultural exploration, I see the forthcoming landing point between minister and student centralized around one of the most overlooked principles of Jesus: credibility over credentials.

Credibility over credentials is what I believe will be the future of college ministry—one that focuses heavily on the relational sustainability of the campus/college minister and the student through an incarnational medium of engagement. For a number of years, the engagement between the minster and the student has been more along the relational lines of a psychologist-client, teacher-student, wise sage-na├»ve searcher. For campus/college ministers to stay relevant and continue to have any ability to speak into their students' lives, that old paradigm must change.

I have been given the opportunity to lecture around the country at a variety of Christian colleges and secular research universities, and the most prevalent theme I continue to see, especially during the past few years, is that students are weary of the current hierarchy and chain of command. Too often they see members of any administrative leadership as "the man" trying to censor or hold down their generation's ideas of love, life, faith and creativity. How much more so will this be in another 10 years?

Therefore, the way forward must be incarnational in its very core. The exploration of incarnational work and life will revolutionize the minister's ability to connect deeply with the students on the most sincere and sacred levels. Go to the students. Be with the students. Stay with the students. This isn't a 9-5 job anymore. In fact, it never should have been in the first place. Noted youth ministry leader and blogger Adam McLane suggests that impact is directly proportionate to the amount of time you don't spend in your office.

The main question that has been asked for decades is what will build the campus/college minister's reputation of trust with the students so much, that will one day they will be able freely and reputably to impart the important lessons learned over a number of years to best influence these impressionable emerging adults the most? A Ph.D.? A position of influence? The number of students per program or gathering? None of those important credentials are going to bring the inherent respect they used to even a few years ago. If anything, my experience has shown me that today those exact variables are outliers to access, clearly cutting a further chasm into the minister's ability to connect and relate to his or her students.

Credibility is the answer to this problem.

Incarnation is the means to get it done.

I was recently consulting at a liberal arts university with Christian ties and the university minister, in front of his staff and the top of that university's administration, asked me bluntly: "What do we need to do to create an environment where our students want to engage their faith because most of the time they only come around when credit is involved? And this is a Christian university!"

I responded by telling them a story about a campus minster named Terry at a Big Ten university. Terry was running into some of these same problems. With a heart for those on the outskirts, he left his office behind and started spending the majority of each day at the artsy coffee house right outside campus. You know, the one where the gay, lesbian, bisexual, emo and dark-reserved-misunderstood-artistic-type students go. You know, the place where Jesus went. Literally.

After two years of no successes and a whole lot of heat from his superiors for "slacking off at a coffee shop," the gay, lesbian, bisexual, emo and dark-reserved-misunderstood-artistic-type students slowly started to find Terry as a safe person to talk to. He had been there long enough not judging, not worrying about getting them to come to his programs and gatherings, but just listening to them on their turf day after day after day.

It was actually quite strange for a number of the students' years later to find out he was a campus minister. My friend Jimmy Spencer calls it loving without agenda. The next thing you know, Mondays at the coffee shop with the gay, lesbian, bisexual, emo and dark-reserved-misunderstood-artistic-type students became the largest Bible study on this Big Ten university's campus of 40,000 students. Today, it continues to grow in its campus and community-wide impact.

We have to remember Jesus went to the Pharisees. He went to gather His disciples. Jesus went to the outsiders, to homes, to cities, to sinners; and He went to everyone else, as well. I don't believe that what happened because of His preferred medium of engagement was any coincidence either. Scripture repeatedly tells us how large crowds would come and gather around Him after He went somewhere and started engaging. Jesus didn't wait for anyone to come to Him. He intentionally turned a traditional rabbi's role upside down and went to their temples, forums, meeting places, homes, marketplaces, wells, graveyards and their street corners to listen, learn, teach and build relationships…and to bring healing as it had never been brought before. As theologian and author Scot McKnight suggests, there is a certain type of authority that can only come with sustained proximity.

Jesus knew that many wouldn't listen to Him. He knew that many wouldn't like Him, think He belonged or wanted Him to stay alive. Jesus went anyway—over and over and over and over again—personally engaging each step of the way.

The broader cultural point is that the everyday masses of people were enamored with a man subverting the traditional hierarchy of rabbinical authority. As a campus minister, when you use your position to subvert the traditional medium of engagement with your campus's students, it will, without a shadow of a doubt, bring the masses. The unique twist is that you are not bringing the masses to any one particular place you designated. The masses are going somewhere they already want to be, a place you are already at—building bridges and tearing down old relational paradigms by subverting the system the students are leery about in the first place.

Too often people of rank and in power talk a great game about "meeting their students where they are" and "understanding where their students are coming from." But they don't. They don't because that takes too much time and effort. "There needs to be boundaries." I hear that lie all of the time.

The unfortunate part is that by the time some people are hired into their university minister position, they have enough comprehensive intelligence to be able to watch the news, read the journals and the newspapers and know how to generalize what is going on in the broader culture and supplant it to their campus without ever actually talking to or meeting with or investing into a student who doesn't want to have anything to do with them. Jesus said in Matthew 11 that "wisdom is proved right by her actions." If that is true, it is no wonder why so many university ministry offices are calling, asking the same question.

Do you care about making a lasting, eternal impact on the students who don't seek you out? It never will happen without your incarnational investment over a significant period of time. Actually, even with all of the incarnational time invested, it still might not happen. Just because it's called the Great Commission doesn't mean it will turn into the Great Reality. But does the uncertainty of not knowing the outcome before the beginning threaten the potential of sustained incarnational commitment? I like to think God doesn't only work when we know what the outcome is going to be.

The answer has been in front of you the whole time, in the book you carry around as a badge of honor. It's time to go. It's time to do likewise. Faith intertwined with a variable life of students is all about living in the complex simplicity of the ancient words from a battle-tested Rabbi of no status, with no credentials other than being empowered by the Holy Spirit to change the world.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Book Cover Reveal!

I have had the privilege for being friends with Jon McGrath for over 15 years now...and he's been an incredible help in my professional work over the last several years. I don't know anyone who comes up with the quality of design work for my style and ministry impact wishes than Jon. And he has been and will be a huge reason that my book sharing the story of our Zambia project will come to life as a book this spring. He has created a cover for the book that I simply is even better than I hoped.

Click on this link to see what it looks like and sign up to get updates on the book's progress as we move toward its release in may...this is a pretty exciting and even a bit overwhelming time...

I am glad for people like Jon and his design team to take the publishing journey with me...