Preach on Poverty at Your Own Risk
- Tuesday, July 30, 2013
3. The Complexity of Understanding Poverty
Preaching on poverty gets even more difficult when we look at poverty in the world around us. What does it mean to be "poor"? Does a family in America who only makes $30K per year qualify as poor, or do you have to be living on the streets begging for your next meal, or barely surviving in African on less than $1 a day? Are there poor people in your church, possibly sitting right next to you, or are the poor on the street corners, in shelters, and in other countries? Just identifying the "poor" can be a challenging task.
And what causes poverty? Is poverty primarily the result of the bad decisions that individuals make, and thus something that can largely be alleviated through individual training/instruction? Or does poverty mostly stem from harmful social structures, making our response to poverty more about social and economic reform? Obviously it's a little of both (and more).
I could continue. People write entire books on the nature of poverty and the correct responses to it. Yet many sermons present poverty as something relatively simple and straightforward.
4. The Painful Personal Experience of Poverty
I'm pretty sure that you wouldn't preach on sexual abuse without being incredibly sensitive to the possibility (almost certainty) that someone in your audience has suffered through that painful reality. So you would preach with great sensitivity. If anything, you'd err on the side of being overly cautious, willing to take a little extra time lest you stomp indelicately on someone's unquestionably painful experience.
But we do it all the time with poverty. Even though every church has at least some people wrestling with financial difficulties, almost certainly at least a few living below the poverty line, I routinely hear sermons that manifest surprisingly little tact on this difficult subject. We'd never callously blame an abuse victim for their own abuse, but we routinely fault poor people for their own poverty. Is it possible that they're at fault? Sure. But it's also quite likely that other factors, many beyond their control, were at work as well. Let's demonstrate a little sensitivity when talking about a subject that is often one of the most painful and difficult aspects of many people's lives.
Interestingly, I've heard far more tact recently in sermons on the importance of work. Most pastors are well aware of how many people in their churches are unemployed or underemployed. And they appreciate how painful it is to lose your job and not be able to find a new one. So, when they present the Bible's perspective that God created us for meaningful work, they're careful to address the topic delicately because of the painful reality of unemployment. I'd love to hear that same sensitivity when addressing poverty. But since most of the sermons I've heard on poverty recently were preached at largely middle-class churches, there seems to be less awareness of poverty as a personal problem, one faced by people sitting right in front of you, and thus less nuance and sensitivity in the presentation.
Again, I hope that none of this makes us shy away from preaching on such an important issue. If poverty is one of the Bible's main topics, we can and must address it regularly from the pulpit. But let's do so with full awareness of how difficult the task is. It may be more daunting that way, but then preaching should always be a daunting task.
Marc Cortez is Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general. You can read more from him at marccortez.com.
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