Where the Gospel and Ending Poverty Meet
In 1983, Barry Slauenwhite left the pastorate to join Compassion Canada, a global ministry that comes alongside churches overseas seeking to lift children out of poverty. Ten years later, he became its President and CEO — a position he has held for the past 25 years. That will end when he retires this coming October.
The path Slauenwhite’s ministry would take was set early on. It happened during an encounter on the field with Compassion Mexico’s national director, who challenged him to see the poor as God sees them.
“She put her finger right up to my face,” he recalls, “and she said, ‘Don’t you ever give up on the vision God’s planted in your heart.’ Then she went on to instruct me about when we only see the poor as lacking possessions, then the way we try to help the poor is very ineffective, because we’re missing the real root cause of poverty — which is a broken and fractured relationship with their Creator.”
In response, Slauenwhite promised that Jesus Christ, the only One who can restore humanity’s relationship with God, would be Compassion’s cornerstone. “It was as if I was lifted out of my body in the presence of God. I remember saying to her as if face-to-face to God, ‘You can count on that. I will never ever let Christ down.’ And so, for 35 years, that’s been my agenda—to ensure that Christ is front and centre of everything we do to help the poor.”
There is no denying that humanitarian relief organizations have made significant progress since 1990 toward their common goal of all but ending extreme poverty in the world by 2030. But in recent years, that progress has slowed considerably due to the war in Syria and a population surge in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Over the last 25 years, more than a billion people have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty, and the global poverty rate is now lower than it has ever been in recorded history. This is one of the greatest human achievements of our time,” Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, told The Guardian newspaper in September.
“But if we are going to end poverty by 2030, we need much more investment, particularly in building human capital, to help promote the inclusive growth it will take to reach the remaining poor. For their sake, we cannot fail.”
Yet from Slauenwhite’s perspective — as he explains in his new book, Strategic Compassion — all the resources that are being poured into the fight against poverty target only its symptoms. They do not and cannot address its root cause, which is the curse of human sinfulness.
“If we feed people who are hungry, that’s commendable. We cannot turn our back on those that are hungry,” he says. “If we only bring healthcare to those that are sick or education to those that are illiterate or unlearned, if we do all of those things, which are all good and admirable, but we do not introduce the equation of Jesus, then we are not addressing the heart-issue, the cause. And that’s what ends poverty.”
When people hear and choose to believe the good news that Jesus brings, they receive a gift that foreign aid alone can never give them. And that’s hope. “Hope,” says Slauenwhite, “is a motivating, powerful gift. You will see these people, with the same meagre resources, making different choices and changing their environments. I firmly believe this. I have never seen a community develop. But I have seen people develop and change their communities.”
Or as he writes in his book, “I am also convinced beyond a doubt that the gospel is the key to releasing children, and their families, from the chains of poverty.” Slauenwhite is not alone in making this connection. More than eight in ten of the poorest of the world’s poor, who subsist on less than a hundred dollars per person per year, live in the so-called 10/40 Window, an area of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia roughly between 10 degrees north and 40 degrees north latitude. This area is also where the majority of the people in the world live who have yet to hear the gospel. As Joshua Project, a ministry to unreached people groups, has noted, “There is a remarkable overlap between the poorest countries of the world and those that are least evangelized.”
In other words, proclaiming the gospel and demonstrating it — putting it in practice through acts of compassion — are essentially two sides of the same coin.
“The Bible says that we are to go into the world and we are to preach the gospel. That’s the proclamation. But the Bible also says that preaching is more than just talking. If we don’t demonstrate the gospel, our preaching is in vain,” Slauenwhite says.
“Jesus’ view of people, like ours ought to be, was holistic. He saw them as spiritual, as physical, as social, and as economical. He addressed all of those needs. Why then did he feed people? It’s because they were hungry, and he loved them. But Jesus never came to earth to start a feeding program. The most important piece of that equation is the gospel. But the gospel must never stand alone.”
For believers, he says, that holistic view extends to seeking to be in a right relationship not just with God but with all people.
“I have a responsibility to have a relationship with my fellow man that is right. And my fellow man includes the guy at work, the guy down the street. It includes the poor in Africa, the poor in Haiti, or wherever,” says Slauenwhite. “What we have done as Christians is focus so much onthat vertical rightness with God that we can be really out of place with the horizontal, the way we treat people around us. In working with the poor, I want to make sure as best I can that the people around this world that I can influence are also being helped.”
That also means Christians in Canada who want to financially support men and women like Slauenwhite, who minister to the poor in other countries, need to show some real discernment.
“Let’s have a plan. Let’s do some research,” he says. “I want to challenge every man, if you’re a Christ-follower, you are obligated to be careful to fund Kingdom activity. Don’t waste the resources you’re going to invest in the poor in humanitarian efforts. Let the non-Christians do that. There’s lots of money out there. We need to be strategic and we need to fund ministry and activity that is Kingdom-impacting.”