Does relative poverty in the UK really matter?
Poverty in the UK should matter to Christians for at least three important reasons.
Firstly, it is a serious situation if hundreds of thousands of people in a country as rich as ours cannot afford sufficient nutritious food, cannot afford to adequately heat their homes, experience serious financial insecurity or are overloaded with unpayable debt. It is a serious matter if people are excluded from society because they can't afford to take part in simple leisure or social events. Such problems divide society and demoralise the poorest. No concerned Christian can turn a blind eye to such burning issues.
Secondly, the best available research suggests that poverty is on the increase and that the gap between rich and poor is widening. It is a matter of social justice to stand up for the poor at a time when the rich are getting steadily richer.
Thirdly, it is a serious matter that the rise of poverty has gone hand-in-hand with a hardening of attitudes towards the poor. We have seen in recent times the resurgence of the time-worn tendency to stigmatise the poor and blame them for their plight. This has been especially prominent in the media. However, Christians must not acquiesce to such socially divisive and negative stereotyping.
Isn't supporting church-based social action enough of a response?
The proliferation of church-based foodbanks, debt advice services, supported housing schemes, elderly support projects and much more are testimony to the energy and vision of churches in the face of increasing social needs of all types. However, the poor and deprived are still sometimes helped at a relational 'arm's length'. The church has more to offer those in need than just social action projects. Many people need someone to walk alongside them as they try to find ways of rebuilding their lives. We need to find ways of integrating those from poor or deprived backgrounds into church communities, especially as some embark on a spiritual journey towards faith in Christ.
Does poverty have any other significant dimensions?
Poverty is primarily an economic phenomenon. However, it is widely recognised that there can be a number of negative aspects of poverty that provide a broader context within which to consider poverty in modern Britain:
Aspirational poverty – the loss of hope
Aspiration lifts people up, believing that positive change is not only desirable but also possible.
However, for many caught in long-term unemployment or trapped in poverty, aspiration has been crushed. Hopelessness has crept in, often followed by depression, cynicism, social isolation and passivity.
John suffers from some minor special needs, has been unemployed all his adult life and begs on the streets to supplement his benefits. He has been to our church foodbank on many occasions and has been connected to our church community. He believes that there is no point trying to get a job. He had been rejected too many times. He sees himself as unemployable – condemned to a life on the margins of society. This is aspirational poverty.
Many deprived people need more than crisis intervention or a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear. They need their confidence rebuilt in order to face the challenges of their lives. Walking alongside the poor as we seek to help rebuild aspiration turns out to be one of the most creative things Christians can do in becoming a church for the poor.
Relational poverty – the loss of community
We function best when in community. However, the poor are at greatest risk of social isolation and what we may call 'relational poverty'. Many have experienced family breakdown, many are scarred by the experience of poverty, many suffer mental health problems.
Widespread social mobility now means that extended families are more frequently spread far and wide across the country – and even abroad. For those battling with poverty, this is a particularly acute problem. Everything from emotional support to childcare to housing often turns out to be hard to get in our modern far-flung family networks.
Ray is long-term unemployed and lives alone in a one-bedroomed council flat. Ray was introduced to our foodbank as a client. Then he became a volunteer and served faithfully every week for a long time. Ray has made some new friends and he has found something to live for. He has taken a vital first step out of relational poverty.
Spiritual poverty – the loss of ultimate meaning
Spiritual poverty has reached epidemic proportions in the UK. However, spiritual poverty is a particularly acute problem for the poor. With so little else to fall back upon, a lack of spiritual values can lead to an even starker and bleaker life.
The church has an urgent mission to retell the Christian message to the poor. Their spiritual issues must not be neglected in our concern to address their material needs. The church has made the mistake in the past of dividing social activism from personal evangelism. This is the most unloving thing we can do. God cares for the poor in their current need, but he also cares for their future— their eternal future.
Ken and Barbara arrived at the money advice centre at our church for debt advice. Shortly after they received support and advice, Barbara suddenly became seriously ill and died unexpectedly. Ken came back to the money advice team, whom he now saw as friends. They were able to encourage and support him, as well as discussing reorganisation of his budget to cope with his new situation. Then Ken was invited to attend Sunday meetings at the church, followed by an Alpha course run by the church. Ken found himself on a quest to discover ultimate meaning in life after the tragic events that he had been through. He became a Christian and was subsequently baptised and became a member of the church.
A church for the poor will boldly and humbly offer the gospel message to answer the deep spiritual poverty that so often exists side-by-side to material poverty.
Edited extract reproduced with permission from 'A Church For The Poor: Transforming the church to reach the poor in Britain today' by Natalie Williams and Martin Charlesworth, published by David C Cook (paperback, £9.99). Find out more about Jubilee+ at www.jubilee-plus.org. On Twitter @jubileeplus