It’s a pretty scary thing asking an external body to do some research for you and having absolutely no control over the findings. What if you don’t like what they come back with?!
So it was with some nervousness that we decided at Tearfund to team up with the research firm Barna Group to look into connections between caring for people in poverty and spiritual growth.
In particular, we wanted to look at what we call a ‘whole life response’ to poverty. Tearfund is absolutely committed to helping Christians, in the UK and around the world, respond to poverty in a ‘whole life’ way: through prayer, giving, advocacy, lifestyle, and other actions such as volunteering. We summarise that as Pray, Act, Give.
In the research we wanted to explore this whole-life response and see how that features for Christians in the UK (and in the US too – a US version is soon to be released). The research came back with a huge amount of fascinating findings – too many to go into in detail here! But three things in particular stood out for me:
- There is a close correlation between the Christian faith and responding to poverty, and Christians are more likely to engage in poverty activism than others.
Four out of five Christians (87%) have taken action on poverty in the past year and, in every area of poverty response, churchgoers scored more highly than non-churchgoers. Of particular interest to me was the small minority (16%) of Christians who took action in all five areas and were what we would call ‘whole life responders’. Consistently the findings showed that Christians who prioritise serving people in poverty also prioritise faith practices such as reading the Bible, being a regular part of a church, and praying.
- The Christian faith has a continued legacy when it comes to poverty response.
I was fascinated to see in the findings that growing up in a Christian household is a significant predictor of later poverty activism, even among adults who don’t attend church now. Six out of ten poverty activists (62%) grew up in a home where Christianity was practised regularly, even though they no longer attend church. This underscores the long-term impact that religious upbringing has on caring for the poor, even without current involvement in a church.
- We have a long way to go
Although the links between responding to poverty and Christian faith are strong, the research also shows there is much more we can do. It’s great that 73% of UK self-identified Christians gave to a charity last year but, quite honestly, why isn’t that 100%?! And only 34% say they respond to poverty in their prayers. It is encouraging to see that 63% have been engaged in advocating for political change in some way (the majority through petitions), but only 39% report making a concerted effort to change their lifestyles, and especially their consumer habits.
So what can we take away from this research? Well I’ve no doubt all sorts of different things will be brought out by people looking at it, but for me there are two things to take away:
- Responding to poverty and discipleship are deeply intertwined
This should be pretty obvious to any church leader reading this, but somehow we still seem to miss it. Around the world, discipleship is one of the big issues being discussed (how can we form faithful and effective disciples in today’s challenging context?) and we run all manner of discipleship courses to try to make this happen. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking we need to sort out people’s prayer life and bible reading habits first, and things like responding to poverty come further down the line.
If you are a church leader, the message is clear: if you want your congregations effectively discipled, get them engaged with people in poverty and their relationship with Christ will be transformed.
- An effective response to poverty requires our whole lives
Giving financially is a vital part of how we can respond to poverty. Tearfund couldn’t do the brilliant work it does if it wasn’t for the generosity of our incredible supporters. And giving to help others is a Biblical command and reflects our values – if you want to know what is most important to a person, look at their bank statement! But giving on its own isn’t enough. We must also take practical action through, for example, volunteering. And alongside these things, we must be advocates: speaking to governments, institutions and businesses to encourage and push for policies and practices that work on behalf of the poor, instead of against them. Underneath all of this is our own lifestyles and endeavouring to live in ways that are respectful to both people and planet. And finally, surrounding all these human endeavours is prayer. Through prayer we connect with who and what we are praying for and we believe prayer is powerful: at Tearfund we have seen amazing things happen through prayer!
For all of us reading this post, let’s ask ourselves: what are the areas of response we are stronger or weaker in, and what are the steps we could take to live a life that is focused on spending ourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfying the needs of the oppressed (Isaiah 58:10)?