“Why do you guys have to talk about Jesus—can’t you just help people?”
I sat silently for a moment to collect my thoughts with my wife’s uncle Steve just across the table, his frustration evident. I’d recently joined Compassion’s staff and had just explained how our ministry works. Steve didn’t like what he’d heard.
I get why. The idea that we openly preach the gospel in our ministry is disturbing to non-Christians (and some Christians, too). They hear “we share the gospel” and immediately think proselytizing. While this once was a synonym for evangelism, it now carries a far more sinister connotation—think pressuring children to say a prayer in exchange for a bag of rice or a hunk of bread. Proselytizing—and by extension genuine evangelism—has become the bogeyman of the non-profit world, to the point that some organizations now prohibit it.
We don’t like proselytizing either. That’s why we don’t do it. We accept people of all faiths into our programs, and we don’t require or coerce them to change. We want to help people in a way that protects their dignity as humans made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). While we don’t proselytize, we are uncompromising about our evangelistic focus. As a Christian ministry committed to ending poverty in the lives of children we can be nothing less.
Perhaps it seems strange to connect the gospel to poverty. If poverty were simply circumstantial—a lack of food, education, or medicine—then it would make sense for our efforts to solely focus on those areas. But as we read the Scriptures, we see that behind all the devastation that poverty brings there is something else at work, a spiritual condition that continually frustrates and undermines our best efforts to change our own circumstances.
In the opening chapters of the Bible, we are shown a world in which everything is perfect, one God declares “very good” (Gen. 1:31). God, man and the rest of creation were in perfect harmony. It was a world in which poverty could not exist. Until the Fall.
When Adam and Eve rebelled against their Creator, they set in motion events that would turn God’s good creation, one in which poverty could not exist, into one where poverty was now the default setting. Where there was once harmony between God, mankind and creation, there was now discord. Where once the ground produced fruit in abundance with ease, now man would toil to scrape out even a meagre existence. Economic prosperity would be elusive and constantly slip through our fingers (Gen. 3:16-19).
Because of one man’s sin, all of humanity came under a curse. It is this curse that is at the heart of poverty today. Whether war and corruption, droughts and earthquakes, poor crop yields or total economic collapse, everything we see and everything we experience—all of it—goes back to the curse.
It is from this curse that Jesus came to set people free. This doesn’t mean that God promises that those who come to faith in Jesus will have health and wealth. We live in a fallen world where the effects of sin and the curse remain at work. But it does mean that if poverty at its most basic level is a spiritual issue—the result of sin’s presence in the world—then there is an eternal solution.
There is a day when poverty will finally and fully end. A day when Jesus will return to bring about the new creation, when he will wipe away every tear from every eye and all of God’s people will spend eternity with Him (Rev. 21:1-4). This is the hope we look forward to. This is the hope that has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of children through Compassion’s ministry, who today serve their communities and nations, in whatever circumstances God has placed them, fueled by the promise of the new creation to come.
Caring for physical needs is absolutely necessary, and something God clearly commands (James 2:14-16). To neglect this charge would be to deny that God’s love lives within us (1 John 3:17). But the poor’s (and our) greatest need isn’t met through good deeds. It is only the gospel that offers forgiveness of our sins and reconciliation with our Creator. The gospel deals with the root Poverty from which all other poverty flows. If we are serious about our mission—if we are serious about releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name—then we need to talk about Jesus.
Five years and several conversations later, Steve is still frustrated. He still doesn’t get why we talk about Jesus. He still doesn’t like it. But this is the task to which God has called us. May he continue to grant us favour.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Compassion Today.