With the hardship brought on by the global pandemic, the poverty rate in Malaysia saw an increase in 2020. As Christians living in Malaysia, we have a responsibility and voice to stand up for what is right and just, a call to social action.
Exploring the role of the church in alleviating poverty will hopefully shed light on the Gospel and its message to bring hope and love to the poor and needy. But knowing that poverty cannot be addressed by a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, it is important to study the definitions of poverty and understand the different circumstances that lead to it.
We start by understanding the definition of poverty
Poverty is defined as the ‘denial of choices and opportunities most basic to human development – to lead a long, healthy, creative life and enjoy a decent standard of living, freedom, self-esteem and the respect of others1.’
However, in today’s world, the lack of resources also includes a lack of access to healthcare, education and even transportation and this causes a ripple effect that ends with many people living in poverty.2
According to Geremek (1994:5), the causes of poverty are divided between external and internal causes. Internally-caused poverty could be linked to human behaviour like laziness or social ills. External causes would be when the poor are victimised by an oppressive or discriminating system.
As Christians, we must also look at poverty within a Biblical framework
However, as Christians, there is an entirely different lens through which we view the world: Jesus Christ.
According to Myers, a leading Christian development thinker, poverty is intricately linked to the brokenness of the world. He defines poverty as ‘the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that is not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings”.3
Shalom is a Hebrew word used for greetings and farewells. It is often thought to mean peace, but the true meaning of shalom is much more complex than that. Author Jason Soroski says the word suggests ‘a state of fullness and perfection; overflowing inner and outer joy and peaceful serenity’.4
Myers posits that God established four foundational relationships for each one of us and that is to have a relationship with God, with self, with others and with the rest of creation. These four relationships constitute the building blocks for all of life.
When these relationships are broken, we experience spiritual and physical poverty.
There is an undeniable connection between religion and poverty
There is interestingly a connection between poverty and religion as helping the poor and marginalised is a form of lived faith. Religion uplifts and motivates; hence, many individuals and faith-based organisations fight poverty by encouraging the poor to break out of it instead of submitting to it (Jaco & Beyers, 2014).
In the Malaysian context, access to clean water and sanitation, education, electricity and even health care is also a struggle for the indigenous people groups. From first-hand personal experience, houses in the indigenous people communities have no access to water and electricity.
Having also worked with the indigenous people’s groups in Perak, Pahang, and Kelantan, one would realise that they are rich with the land. Yet, it is the lack of education, economic opportunities, and income inequality, that leads to the indigenous people being vulnerable and exploited.
Running community centres among the low-income groups helps with reaching the community. Through the community centres, programs such as guided study, income generation projects, financial literacy programs, etc. can be introduced.
How should our Christian faith propel us?
Addressing poverty begins at the highest and lowest levels
To alleviate and eradicate poverty requires everyone to play their part. Paying attention to the economically disenfranchised to understand their needs is vital in the process of poverty reduction.
Setting minimum wages to a living wage helps with this strategy which is why Malaysia ought to look at increasing the minimum wage, especially in large enterprises.
Accessibility to key social and public goods is a second area to consider. Quality education, health care, housing, and childcare ought to be affordable and available for people from all walks of life.
The struggle is real: getting the Church to avail not just finance, but resources and time
However, one struggle when it comes to action is getting the church to be a partner and avail themselves. To be available to teach, to reach and equip them; to genuinely love them as a friend. People become too busy with daily mundane life and the church tends to be very focused inwardly.
My team once went to a housing area with majority lower income groups and ran a sports program. We used the ‘character first program’ as a base to teach godly values and principles, emphasising respect for one another and refraining from vulgar language.
The impact was significant… [but] we had to exit from the community due to lack of church members willing to serve and this is such a common problem. It’ll always be the 20% of the church serving in almost every department, doing 80% of the work. Indeed, the harvest is plentiful, labourers are few.
God has not forgotten the poor, and neither should the Church
Being salt and light really requires commitment.
Being intentional, genuine, and doing the work of poverty alleviation with the right heart is crucial. It is the role of the church to alleviate poverty, and this is done through a developmental lens, with the aim of seeing communities and lives empowered spiritually, and economically, building human capital and building positive and healthy relationships.
After all, we’ve discovered that material poverty is rooted in the brokenness of the four foundational relationships, and everyone falls under this category.
So, as a church, as a body of Christ, as believers, and as available vessels, working to reconcile the four foundational relationships with God as the centre will lead to people fulfilling their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families: living a life of abundance, freedom, and contentment.
Focus on people’s assets and skills and enable them to use what they have towards a sustainable future and for the glory of God.
The need is immediate. Find the right intervention. ‘Christ’s return is imminent, and time is running out. Let’s work while it is a day for when night comes, no man can work (John 9:4, NIV).
This excerpt is taken from a paper by Rachel Shanti Karthiripillai entitled ‘A Theological Research Writing Paper on the Role of the Church in Poverty Alleviation in the Community’. Rachel is the administrator of Rumah Faith run by Desa Amal Jireh and is currently pursuing a Masters in Ministry at the Bible College of Malaysia.
1. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “poverty”; Encyclopaedia Britannica, December 31, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/poverty.
2. Suzana Md Samsudi, “Does poverty lead to corruption? Or is it corruption that actually causes poverty?”, News Straits Times, December 21, 2021, https://www.nst.com.my/opinion/columnists/2021/12/756446/does-poverty-lead-corruption-or-it-corruption-actually-causes
3. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When helping hurts: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor…and yourself, (Moody Publishers, Chicago, 2012)
4. Jason Soroski, “What does Shalom mean and why is it important?”, Crosswalk, March 3, 2021, https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/what-does-shalom-mean.html.