The Church’s Response to Generational Poverty

Posted on March 5, 2018


I’ve been doing a lot of reading, research, and writing for my doctoral program these days. One more semester to go before I start writing my dissertation in June. Normal routine is to finish my papers for school and then send them to Dara, my mom, and my dad with a similar message.

“You are my wife and you just saw me at the kitchen table writing this for hours.
Please read this.” 

“You are my (insert mom or dad here). You have to read this.” 

Beyond those three people, most of my work has only been read by my professors (who are brilliant, kind, caring, and encouraging) at Southeastern University. I’ve decided to start posting some of my writing on this blog that has been mostly dormant since I stopped writing for pleasure multiple years ago and took on the task of pursuing my master’s degree and then this current Doctor of Ministry program. I have no illusions that thousands of people will flock to academic writing on the topic of generational poverty. However, what a testimony it would be to the world if the church became more knowledgeable about things that are dividing our country.

With all of these disclaimers and some insecure ramblings of a person still learning and growing in these areas, I present a five-page paper I just submitted called, “The Church’s Response to Generational Poverty” for a class I’m taking with Dr. Leonard Sweet.

If you have any feedback, I’m all ears. david(at)centercitychurch(dot)net



Many people in American culture misunderstand the topic of generational poverty. Due to the complexities of economic and social systems in our country, this topic has gone largely ignored by people for far too long. In his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Ronald Sider challenges churches and parishioners to evaluate themselves in regards to their care for those who are poor and marginalized. He states, “Is there the same balance and emphasis on justice for the poor and oppressed in our programs as there is in Scripture?”[1] Sadly, all too often the answer to that question is a resounding no. The message of the Gospel demands attention in this area, and this theological evaluation aims to shed light on the inequities that have been present for our neighbors that have been trapped in the devastating cycle of generational poverty.

Cultural Analysis

Dr. Ruby Payne gives a working definition that brings clarity to two different types of poverty: generational and situational. She states, “Generational poverty and situational poverty are different. Generational poverty is defined as being in poverty for two generations or longer. Situational poverty is a shorter time and is caused by circumstance (i.e., death, illness, divorce, etc.).”[2] The focus of this paper will deal with issues pertaining to generational poverty.

Tavis Smiley and Cornel West challenge Christians living in America to consider the poor in their book The Rich and the Rest of Us. They state, “How can America be first if the least among us are our last collective concern?”[3] As the collective attention of the Church begins to focus on bringing the message of the Gospel to high-poverty communities, God’s power is given an opportunity to flow through those that are willing to reach out to their neighbors with grace, patience, understanding, and love.

Biblical and Theological Review

The command from Jesus to love God with full commitment and to love others with the same dedication is a primary tenet of faith in the Christian community. Mark 12:28-34 gives proper motivation to disciples of Christ to balance the personal and communal elements of Christian behavior. In this account of the life of Jesus, a lawyer asked him to identify the greatest of all the commandments. Jesus responds with two commands that could not be separated: love God with all of your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus did not simply command his disciples to love their neighbor, but that they are to love God with their whole being in combination with loving their neighbor.[4] A person cannot love God with full commitment without expressing neighborly love. Two commands become one because they are inseparable in the life of Christians that fully embody the life and message of Jesus to their community.

God’s concern for the neighbor is embedded in the central text of biblical law.[5] The holiness codes found in Leviticus 17-19 address the topic of neighborliness. Leviticus 19:18 states, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

The book of Exodus supports this narrative of neighborliness, as well. In this case, however, expressing love to neighbors also includes showing kindness to enemies. Exodus 23:4-5 states, “If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.” The expectation from God is that loving a neighbor does not mean simply loving people from their own tribe or country. Loving neighbors means loving each person that is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

 The Church’s Response to Generational Poverty

Ephesians 4:11-16 examines Paul’s encouragement to activate a diverse group of people within the community of faith to accomplish the work of ministry. The Apostle Paul prominently lists five gifts that are given to the church in this passage: apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. While this is not an exhaustive list, it does serve as a unifying focal point for church leaders and congregation members. As Neil Cole states, “By developing a solid, biblical understanding of the five gifts, we can see how these signature gifts of Jesus anchor and propel the ministry of the church, and how we, both as individuals and as a community of gifted believers, fit into the picture.”[6]

Everything that is needed to care for the poor is found active and present in the body of Christ. Apostles are entrepreneurs by nature, prophets keep the community accountable, evangelists gather and motivate the masses, shepherds care for the spiritual and physical well-being of others, and teachers take large concepts and break them down into palatable lessons that can be followed by members of the community.

Truly, God has given the Church everything she needs to holistically care for the entire community. However, Christians must first choose to share their influence, resources, and social networks for the benefit of all.

Paul was compelled to preach and teach a message of generosity that rejected the Pharisaic practice of accumulation in favor of divine love for neighbors.  He encouraged disciples of Christ to disengage from the economy of extraction and extortion and to embrace an economics of abundance that is grounded in divine generosity. A cheerful giver is one who gives with a joyful spirit and without grudge or reluctance, thus reflective of God’s own cheerful generosity.[7] Walter Brueggeman states, “Self-emptying in economic conduct is done in an assurance that there is more than   enough. When one is convinced of the scarcity of goods or for that matter a scarcity of divine grace, one readily becomes parsimonious and exclusionary.  Such a stance, however, is inimical to the ‘mind of Christ.'”[8]

The Church’s Response to Generational Poverty

God has given the church everything that it needs to care for communities that have high concentrations of poverty. However, Christians must be committed to learning about the inequitable practices that have been in place for generations that have stripped impoverished communities of their culture, nuance, and brilliance. These communities are rapidly being impacted by gentrification and displacement. Peter Moskowitz states,

“At the end of the day, that’s what gentrification is: a void in a neighborhood, in a city, in a culture. In that way, gentrification is a trauma, one caused by the influx of massive amounts of capital into a city and the consequent destruction following in its wake.”[9]

God has created his body to include entrepreneurs (apostles) that can create jobs that change the trajectory of many lives by giving economic stability. He has given truth-tellers (prophets) that can declare hope by sharing beautiful pictures of the promises of God. People-gathers (evangelists) can create community events that help people to build relationships that lead others to realize that everyone is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Caregivers (shepherds) are present in the body of Christ to nurture relationships and care for broken souls that are being led to healing through relationship with Jesus. Teachers are able to create classes and creative gatherings that teach sound economic practices, healthy relationships, parenting principles, and share the Word of God that will support the holistic renovation of the human heart.

This will be messy. This will not look like professional ministry led by a band of professionally trained entertainers. It will be the priesthood of believers fumbling their way into the full expression of Christ. In the body, every member must be taught to serve. The Greek word katartismos (training, preparing, equipping) conveys the idea of a harmonious development in which all parts are brought to a condition of being able to perform according to their created purpose (2 Tim. 3:17).[10]


The overwhelming call to neighborliness that is embedded in the full narrative of Scriptures should cause us to truly consider the holistic message of the Gospel in relation to the day-to-day realities of those living in poverty. Additionally, Jesus modeled generous behavior as he told his disciples that any time they gave to the poor, they were actually giving to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:31-46). These are not words of a distant deity that is aloof or disconnected to the cries of the poor. God himself is present with the poor, and if Christians want to be present with their Creator, they can find him among those that many have pushed to the margins, overlooked, and disparaged. The Church has every resource needed to holistically care for the community. However, Christians must learn to care and courageously choose to share in order to see neighborliness thrive.

            [1] Ronald J. Sider. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity. Nashville: W Pub. Group, 1997. 68.

            [2] Ruby K. Payne. A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Highlands, TX: Aha! Process, 2005. 3.

            [3] Tavis Smiley, and Cornel West. The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. New York: SmileyBooks, 2012. 55

            [4] Nancy J. Duff. 2011. “The second great commandment.” Journal For Preachers 34, no. 4: 18-23. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 20, 2017). 18.

            [5] Rolf A. Jacobson and Karl N. Jacobson. 2017. “The Old Testament and the neighbor.” Word & World 37, no. 1: 16-26. ATLA Religion Database with             ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 20, 2017). 18

            [6] Neil Cole. Primal Fire: Reigniting the Church with the Five Gifts of Jesus. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2014. 134.

            [7] Walter Brueggemann. Money and Possessions in Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2016. 4261.

            [8] Ibid., 4318 .

            [9] Peter Moskowitz. How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood. S.l.: Nation Books, 2018. Kindle Edition. Location 105.

            [10] Arthur G. Patzia. New International Biblical Commentary–Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians. Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1990. 243.



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