David French:

For many, many years I spent time “in the trenches” reaching out to at-risk youth.  At first I was the stereotypical naive idealist.  ”All they need is love and a chance,” I thought.  Working in mentoring programs, I spent untold hours playing catch, going to little league games, going to parks, and just hanging out with at-risk kids as part of a variety of programs.  Seeing ragged clothes, I’d buy new clothes.  Hearing that a mother couldn’t pay the light bill, I’d kick in and help.  I spent night after night sleeping in homeless shelters, cooking dinners in the evening, pancake breakfasts in the morning, and fixing snack lunches for hard days on the streets.

I can’t remember when I first realized that I was accomplishing nothing of substance.  A few car break-ins taught me that some guys saw me as an easy mark.  A few pot purchases with the “gas bill money” taught me that others saw me as an ATM.  Admonitions to “stay in school” had little appeal compared to drug-fueled orgies for kids as young as fifteen years old.  I tried.  God knows I tried.  But it was all for naught.

Only one thing really worked.  The Cross.  There are kids today that Nancy and I worked with who are doing well, who are happily married, and who are pillars of their community.  What made the difference for them?  The Cross.  It wasn’t about my words.  It wasn’t about my effort.  (After all, I tried just as hard or harder with other kids — who are now in prison or “baby-daddies” or both.)  The kids who made it heard the Gospel, repented of sin, and were transformed through the renewing work of the Holy Spirit.

It’s trendy now for churches to put less emphasis on the Gospel and more emphasis on service.  I’ve even heard Christians almost brag that their outreach efforts don’t include any proselytizing at all.  This is tragic.  Billions of dollars of “service” won’t change hearts and lives.  We know that now.  In fact, those very billions may very well numb the human heart to the gravity of its sin.

So, yes, let’s do “more,” but let’s make sure that “more” is aimed at the real source of American poverty — our depravity.

You can read the whole thing here.

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31 thoughts on “The Gospel and Poverty”

  1. Seriously? Depravity leads to poverty? That’s the best we can do under a blog post entitled “The Gospel and Poverty”?

    I’m afraid I really can’t respond in a civil fashion, so I’ll just leave it at this:

    http://www.amazon.com/Generous-Justice-Gods-Grace-Makes/dp/0525951903

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Jonathan, I think the Bible is pretty clear that no depravity would mean no poverty. But that’s not the same as saying that all poverty is uniquely caused by depravity, nor that the poor are more depraved than the well-off. But that’s not what French is saying. He thinks we are all depraved, and that the only thing that brings lasting change (both spiritually and socially) is the gospel, not more programs.

      1. Justin,

        Thank you for responding in a way I couldn’t, at first. I’ll try to keep my cool.

        To be clear, I’m reacting more towards what French doesn’t say than what he does say. I agree that social action devoid of the Gospel message will fail to bring about lasting change, and that human depravity is the ultimate cause of all brokenness in the world.

        But to write about the individual choices that keep people in poverty without discussing the systemic factors that put people there in the first place is to propagate the fiction that the poor deserve to be poor, and the rich deserve to be rich. The Bible is pretty clear that that’s not the case, as Keller expounds. The poor are poor not just because they make sinful choices, but also because of injustice and oppression on a societal scale. Thus, preaching the Gospel to individuals without addressing these issues won’t bring about lasting change either.

        In Camden, NJ, where I’ve visited often and many of my friends are engaged in Gospel work, the systemic causes of poverty are clearly in play. During the first half of the 20th century, Camden was a booming industrial town made up of primarily European immigrant communities. As we entered the 1950′s and 60′s, African-Americans began streaming into the area, attracted by its economic growth. But tens of thousands of jobs disappeared when the 3 largest employers in the city (New York Shipbuilding, RCA Victor, and Campbell’s Soup Company) either went bankrupt or relocated their plants elsewhere. As jobs left the city and tax receipts fell, Camden’s government tried to make up for the shortfall by allowing a prison, trash incinerator, and sewage treatment plant to be built in prime locations in the city. In exchange, they received payments from the surrounding counties that depended on these facilities, but didn’t want to deal with their ill effects. The result? Camden, NJ, once a middle-class industrial town that exemplified American hard work and industry is now one of the worst places in America to live. And it’s located only 8 miles from Cherry Hill, NJ, often rated one of the best places in America to live.

        Yes, many of the kids and parents my friends serve make terrible, sinful choices that only end up hurting them more. But so do I, and because of my parent’s wealth and the opportunities they afforded me, I am shielded from the worst effects of my sin. Individual choices alone cannot explain poverty. If the Gospel were to infiltrate every street of that city, but Christians of means and power did nothing about the lack of jobs, the environmental degradation, nor the electoral politics that make Camden the dumping ground for all of South Jersey, then much would remain the same. The Cross must not only mean a new birth for the individual, but also the new creation in which the wicked kingdoms of this world are supplanted by the Kingdom of our God.

        Finally, this is a bit of tangential issue, but it seems that French is playing fast and loose with the facts. The research he cites excludes African-Americans and Hispanics because “black and Latino religiosity is less divided by education and income”. In other words, they followed the research practice depicted here. So it’s much less relevant than he makes it out to be.

        Sorry, I imagine that all of that was a bit scattered and not that clear. If I have time in the next few days I’ll refine them. Thanks again for engaging in thoughtful, civil discourse. I hope you and I (as well as French) aren’t far from the same page.

      2. BH says:

        Justin – I think you’re mistaken about the author’s point, which is a relief to me because I momentarily thought you actually agreed with him. The author absolutely is implying that individual poverty is evidence of personal moral failure. You deny that he’s making this point, but I’m not sure how the essay can be understood any other way. That’s why he recommends the Gospel’s transformative power as the only true route out of poverty – he thinks the poor remain poor in spite of welfare programs because they just can’t shake their sinful habits.

        I’m not disagreeing with French’s view of the Gospel. But frankly, I think his view of poverty is immoral and unchristian. Yes, the Proverbs admonish us that sloth and other vices cause poverty, but that doesn’t mean we should assume the poor are so because they’re slothful. This logical fallacy is known as “affirming the consequent”. And if we see poor people making sinful choices, I think it’s arrogant of suburban, upper-middle class folk like us to assume that we wouldn’t be similarly tempted if we inhabited their environments.

        The essay also highlights a larger problem with conservative thinking on poverty. Some conservatives seem unable to admit that capitalism could ever create and perpetuate poverty. They’re ideologically opposed to the welfare state and committed to the faulty notion that the system would work great if we’d just leave it alone. Social problems like poverty, then, need to be explained in other ways – “they wouldn’t be poor if they would work harder and get married like I did!” Christians ought to reject this view of poverty in favor of a more biblical view which allows us to consider the possibility that persistent poverty is caused, in part, by larger economic or social problems.

        I’m looking at the accompanying picture you chose. What do you think Christians should assume about his life story? I don’t think we should assume, as French does, that if he’d just stop sinning he could get out of that cardboard box.

        1. JP100 says:

          BH,

          I think you are inferring something from the post that is not really there. Saying that bad moral behavior perpetuates poverty is not the same as saying that poverty is evidence of bad moral behavior. “If A, then B” does not lead to “If B, then A”. If a man breaks a leg, he will go to the hospital. This does not mean that if a man is at the hospital, he has broken his leg. There are many reasons why people fall into poverty and remain in poverty. I’m willing to bet that the author has met many poor people who are just as moral or more so than a typical middle class person but have become poor through losing a job, a death in the family, or any number of unfortunate circumstances.

          Having said that, I also don’t think the author is making a strict “If A then B” statement either. If he were, then he would have to say that if a man is wealthy, it is evidence that he has not made bad moral choices. “If not B, then not A.” I agree with your point that it is arrogant (and so obviously incorrect) for rich suburbanites to assume moral superiority over the poor. But Mr. French’s position is that all people, regardless of economic status, make bad moral decisions all the time. This is depravity and it is not isolated to the poor, but is part of humanity’s fallen condition. It’s just that people with wealth are better able to absorb the consequences of their bad choices (and, I would add, well-connected people can make a lot of money from bad behavior). He makes this point in a separate post on NRO.

          In the end, BH, I agree with you completely if Mr. French is saying everything you say he is. But I don’t think he is saying those things at all. He is making one statement: poor people who make bad moral choices are likely to stay poor. We can say this without making any judgments on how they became poor, and without comparing their morality to anyone else’s. The only upshot is that if we want to help a poor person, the best way is to remove the impediment of bad choices and habits. This is what the gospel of the cross does.

    2. David Sangokoya says:

      I think it is much more Biblical to say that this may describe some whom we label as “poor,” but is not all encompassing, even when describing only poverty in America. Without sin, we would have no poverty – true. But do we see other reasons for specific forms of poverty in our world – yes, and Keller and many others before him do describe this.

      I think the author is clear on this, but the blog title may mislead some.

  2. In regards to mercy ministry and gospel-proclamation, it’s a both/and not an either/or. Our mercy ministry gets us into the lives of people who we can then preach the gospel to. The words and deeds go hand-in-hand. Kudos to David for being merciful to so many people and for seeing God use him as a vessel to disclose the life-transforming Gospel to those he’s come in contact with.

  3. Barry Westbrook says:

    David’s solutions to poverty? Don’t get a divorce, faithfully attend church (there’s probably a note about tithing in there somewhere, don’t want to forget about tithing) and keep up the hard work. Essentially: pull yourself up by your bootstraps and if you are poor, it’s almost certainly your fault.

    One of the worst things I’ve ever read on this blog.

    1. Greg Long says:

      Actually, no. His solution to poverty is the Cross, as he makes abudantly clear.

  4. Taylor says:

    Granted, I don’t agree with the idea that being just, and more importantly, being merciful aren’t absolutely an essential result of our salvation. That should reflect in how we treat the poor, and the rich (they’re no less broken and in need of it). But…

    When someone needs heart surgery, you don’t just slap a bandage on their chest. You must clean the surface of a wound, but give the source first priority. And never assume that changing programs will be of lasting value if hearts aren’t changed first.

    I believe wholeheartedly in living in a way that says ‘the kindgom of God is at hand.’ Because of that, my primary desire is to see people become citizens of that kingdom before it comes in full.

  5. Bruce says:

    The Fall is a contributor to poverty, but so is the Curse. Both are related to sin, but the latter is not always related to individual choice and personal responsibility.

  6. sokun says:

    I think the gospel can really help impoverished people. After all Jesus said the poor are spiritually rich.

  7. MRS says:

    some of us really need to work on our reading comprehension skills.

  8. michael henry says:

    “The Cross must not only mean a new birth for the individual, but also the new creation in which the wicked kingdoms of this world are supplanted by the Kingdom of our God…”

    Seriously sir? Do you have an iota of scripture to back up this Emergent nonsense? Is it so because scripture says so, or because you say so?

    “But to write about the individual choices that keep people in poverty without discussing the systemic factors that put people there in the first place is to propagate the fiction that the poor deserve to be poor, and the rich deserve to be rich. The Bible is pretty clear that that’s not the case, as Keller expounds.”

    Holy smokes. I have to go back and read the bible. Did Keller die for us? Is Keller the authority here? I don’t recall anywhere in this post, let alone thousands of blogs where a “fiction” was “propagated”. And then you base the Bible being clear on no Biblical scripture whatsoever.

    “Finally, this is a bit of tangential issue, but it seems that French is playing fast and loose with the facts. The research he cites excludes African-Americans and Hispanics because “black and Latino religiosity is less divided by education and income”. In other words, they followed the research practice depicted here. So it’s much less relevant than he makes it out to be.”

    Who exactly is playing fast and loose? I would say you are equally as guilty of what you charge, and you make no case with facts that he is. And if it’s not so relevant, why did you mention it?

    ” If the Gospel were to infiltrate every street of that city, but Christians of means and power did nothing about the lack of jobs, the environmental degradation, nor the electoral politics that make Camden the dumping ground for all of South Jersey, then much would remain the same.”

    Sir the power of the Gospel is the Gospel, not the feeders of the materially hungry. To denigrate the awesome grace of mercy that is the cross and the Gospel as you have done is breathtaking. Infiltrate? Seriously?

    You can’t even get companies right. Campbells is still in Camden. I know this and I live in Washington State. Your throwing stones in the guise of some Holy Kellerite social justice is troubling at best.

    1. Taylor says:

      that was rude. and while i would agree that the true Kingdom, in all its fullness is not something that will not happen on old-earth, it is not Emergent to say that it is present in the form of its citizens, who are united with the King. and citizens should live their citizenship.

      it is also not Emergent to suggest that our most basic commands as citizens of the Kingdom are loving God and loving our neighbor. if that is the case, and anyone is my neighbor, so-called social justice is simply Christian charity.

      the Gospel has no power if it isn’t transformative. what is grace if i know it and then fail to show it?

    2. @michael henry,

      I apologize for the offence I caused with my initial comment (it seems as you’re responding to that as well), which was short-tempered and ill-advised. I’d hope that you, Justin, and anyone else I offended would forgive me for being quick to speak and slow to listen. It’s clear that there’s much work to be done in tempering my youth and zeal with maturity and humility.

      Campbell’s corporate headquarters remains based in Camden, you are quite correct there. I should have specified that I was referring to Campbell’s production facilities which anchored the city’s economy with thousands of jobs. They closed down years ago.

      As to the rest of your objections, I can’t really imagine that there’s really anything I can say that you would hear at this point, and I can only blame myself, as I caused you offence. I can only say that I, for one, wouldn’t classify myself as emergent. I’ve never read any of Brian Mclaren’s books, I disagree with Rob Bell fairly often, and I’m not completely clear on who Doug Padgitt is and how he fits into the emergent ecosystem. Name a reformed or traditional evangelical figure, and it’s more likely I’ve read and agree with their work. Of course, reasonable people could charge me with being influenced by their ideas, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, depending on the topic. I cited Keller because from my perspective, he’s written a superb, Biblically-based primer on the relationship between the Gospel and social issues. I could not do a better job handling the relevant passages of Scripture in any format, much less a comment thread, which is why I didn’t attempt it.

      I also must take issue with the charges that I denigrate the power and mercy of the Cross. Perhaps my writing has done it a disservice, but that was not, and never will be my intent. That anyone would interpret my words as such is painful to me.

      You have no idea what the justifying and sanctifying work of Christ on the Cross mean to me. If I did not believe that Christ’s shed blood is the full propitiation for the sins I’ve committed, then I would not be able to bear the guilt and the shame. I’ve lived most of my life hating not only my sin, but myself as well. The Cross is the sure sign that God loves me so much that He became sin who knew sin, that I might become the righteousness of God. Take that away from me, and I would have nothing left.

      1. Taylor says:

        Jonathan,

        If you haven’t already, check out the book Christian Mission in the Modern World, by John Stott. It has been hugely formative for me in the way I look at justice as an integral part of mission, but not a part of evangelism. One of my favorite quotes he cites: ‘the hungry man has no ears.’

        http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Mission-Modern-World-Classics/dp/0830834117/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1314336474&sr=8-1

        1. Thanks Taylor, I have read and love that work. The Lausanne Covenant remains for me to be the definitive evangelical statement on evangelism and social action on a global scale, having been crafted in collaboration with our brothers and sisters in the Global South.

  9. Theologian says:

    JT,

    Politics guiding theology? Or is theology guiding politics?

    1. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

      Politics is applied theology.

  10. Mike Busch says:

    This comment by France over at National Review Online would be helpful to note:

    “I am arguing, however, that American poverty is quite closely linked to individual moral choices. In fact, those moral choices are far more important than any other factor in determining whether a person is — or will remain — poor.”

    France’s work is much more nuanced than many of the comments above.

    At the end of what Justin posted France states: “So, yes, let’s do “more,” but let’s make sure that “more” is aimed at the real source of American poverty — our depravity.”

    I take that as more mercy ministry, but mercy ministry that recognizes the preeminent place of the Gospel in transforming a life for the Glory of God.

    The NRO link is at: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/275518/more-poverty-and-depravity-david-french

    (. . . and now you all know my credibility is shot on this because I read National Review . . .)

  11. Good dialogue. We are in Cleveland, OH doing mercy ministry impacting hundreds of families and also the homeless. This includes running a missional house in a tough neighborhood. While we distribute hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of resources we take little comfort in that action. This is what the point of all of it is: proclaiming the Gospel, discipling men and women and planting missional house churches. We plant in both urban and suburban environments. Resources and wisdom flows along the paths of mercy to the needy who Providence has permitted us relationships.
    Jesus saving, filling and transforming for His glory is the point of it all.

  12. Great post from David French.

  13. Gordan says:

    Great post, Justin. The cross is the only real solution, to my own poverty and to everyone else’s.

  14. Part of our problem over poverty has to be over the deliberate plan to keep people in that situation. A few years ago, say about 10-14, I read a work in which the fellow cited a fictional work written circa 1906, discussing the treaties that would move jobs from America in the 1990s. Duh! About 20-21 years ago, I wrote a paper evaluating some stuff on jobs and the future. My conclusion to the paper: There will be no jobs in the future for our children due to robotics, computerization, and automation. And then add the fact that signicant people are talking about the need to get rid of the excess population, read 5.5 billion people. Read also that H.G.Wells called these people “useless eaters.” And the excess population idea goes back to the whinings of Malthus circa 1800. And, of course, we must add the schools for the bright kids…where even in a 2 weeks scholarship and work on a computer by a 11 year old whiz kid mentored by a 20 year old black college student in the summer of 1983, a question comes upon on the computer: “If you were an official in a world government and had an over population problem with a country in Africa, how would you handle it: a) have a war and kill them off. b) use an infectious agent, germ or disease, and kill them off. c) let them starve.” That was a question on a state dept. exam taken by a friend at a local university in the 60s. And while we are about it: What in the world is a theoretician for world communism doing teaching at a small Black State University in the middle of America in the 60s? Could it be we have so many poor now, because some people want it that way and have taken the means to ensure that it is so…AND THAT REGARDLESS OF INVENTIONS, ETC. ONLY CERTAIN PEOPLE ARE TO BE ALLOWED TO HAVE THE WEALTH, AND COMMUNISM OR WAS IT SOCIALISM WAS AN INVENTION OF CERTAIN CAPITALISTS TO CONTROL THE POOR.???

    What about the possibility of a stone cut out of the mountain without human hands smiting the old image in the feet and utterly destroying it. Then that stone becomes a great mountain and fills the whole earth (and perhaps a 1000 1000 earths for a 1000 generations for a total different future???? Why is it people don’t grasp the depths of the Bible which, if inspired by the Omniscient God, must reflect a depth of profundity of wisdom commensurate with that fact of its inspiration…..and it does….! So an exclamation and not a question.

  15. thatbrian says:

    Justin,

    Thanks for posting this. It had to be said, and it was said well by David.

    The social “gospel” has grown beyond the mainline denominations into evangelical circles with the damaging effects: the true gospel, the only hope for sinful mankind, becomes secondary (or worse, abandoned) to temporal issues.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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