Evangelical views on poverty: good news for the poor?

A new report from the Evangelical Alliance presents findings from a survey of more than 1,600 evangelical Christians across the UK. Greg Smith, a long-time member of Church Action on Poverty who worked on the research, summarises the key findings and reflects on how far they are good news for people in poverty.

How poverty is perceived

The vast majority of evangelicals are not poor themselves. Almost half (48%) said they had a monthly household income after tax of more than £2,000, with those on lower incomes concentrated among young adults. The survey adopted the ‘Breadline Britain’ method of asking people’s opinions on a shopping basket of goods they think are necessary for an adequate standard of living. Some 88% said they could afford all the suggested items in the list, though 20% choose to go without some of them. The panel on the whole seem to have somewhat higher expectations of the threshold of poverty than the general public. For example, when it came to the ability to pay an unexpected expense of £500, 67% of the evangelicals thought this was necessary compared with 52% of the general public. The exception is that fewer evangelicals see a TV as necessary (40% vs 51%).

Evangelicals have very different views about the causes of poverty when asked to compare the situation in the developing world to the UK or their locality. In the graph below we can see that the top and bottom half dozen explanations in each case are almost a mirror image.

21st Century Evangelicals - causes of poverty

In less developed countries In the UK
Corruption 97% 12%
Unfair trade structures or practices  96% 13%
Racism, sexism or other forms of discrimination  84% 30%
Educational inequality 84% 33%
Inequality or social injustice 90% 37%
********************** ********************** **********************
Laziness 11% 75%
Addictions 14% 76%
Poor management of household budgets 5% 77%
Family breakdown 7% 80%
Personal debt 7% 82%
Welfare dependency 3% 84%

What is happening here? Naming structural causes, such as corruption and educational inequality abroad, it looks as though evangelicals are being strongly influenced by the narratives of aid and development charities such as Tearfund, Christian Aid and the Make Poverty History campaign, in a field that the mass media gives scanty coverage. For domestic poverty it looks as if the narratives of the popular press and media dominate understandings, and perhaps feed into an evangelical theological framework, which privileges personal sin and personal responsibility.

How they respond

This understanding of poverty seems to shape evangelical responses to poverty in the UK, which mostly takes the shape of involvement with charitable projects such as food banks, soup kitchens, job clubs and Christians Against Poverty debt and money advice centres. Half say that their church is committed to supporting a charity or ministry tackling poverty overseas, and 44% say that their church is working on a project to address poverty in their own community. Clearly at the present time all these are necessary and welcome, though it seems to be unusual to find evangelicals involved in political campaigning, community organising or helping people in poverty to find their own voice in the public sphere.

Many evangelicals are directly involved in tackling poverty, and this often brings them into contact with people who are in need. In the past year 73% gave to a charity tackling poverty overseas and 70% donated food to a food bank. Direct personal involvement in tackling poverty is slightly less common, with 56% giving to someone they know personally who is facing poverty. Some 37% offer volunteering time to a Christian poverty charity or church project, and another 9% to a secular project. A quarter have given long-term support or befriended someone who is in poverty in the past year. However, only one in 10 are inviting poor people into their homes for a meal or intentionally living in a poorer area in response to God’s call. And 39% also admit feeling guilty for not helping when they could have. Many also admit to judging and treating others differently because of their social status.

The role of the Church

Evangelicals believe God cares about the poor and that they should too. Indeed, in an earlier survey on politics, poverty and inequality in the UK was named as one of the election issues that caused most concern. Evangelicals clearly see the Church as having a key role in tackling poverty and being a place where people of different income groups are in fellowship together. More than three quarters believe that local churches should organise themselves to share their wealth so that no members experience serious poverty – although from my experience of church life I am not so convinced that many churches actually live up to this aspiration, other than at a fairly tokenistic level. Very few (11%) support the idea that being faithful to God means we will prosper materially, with most (87%) believing that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed.

Evangelical churches are involved in a range of activities to do with poverty, from running projects to raising money to praying for the poor. While believing that God cares for the materially poor and wants economic justice and greater equality, evangelicals are almost equally concerned with spiritual poverty. Many commented that the UK as a nation is in spiritual deprivation. Yet just 14% agree that it is more important to share the gospel with poor people than to meet their material needs. Evangelicals certainly recognise the need to meet both needs. Perhaps this explains the finding that they are much more likely to volunteer for Christian than secular poverty projects (37% vs 9%) as they see them as providing more holistic support.

Evangelicals also recognise that their churches are often poor at discipling or giving leadership opportunities to those in poverty. In fact, two thirds admitted that churches are not good at evangelising the poorest – nonetheless, over a quarter said that their church has seen people living in poverty come to faith in Christ in the last year.

The politics of poverty

Evangelicals generally do not look to the government alone to solve poverty, but they do seem concerned about the impact of policies on the poorest and most vulnerable. Some 78% feel that government economic policy is hurting the poor more than the rich, and two thirds think that welfare reform policies are having a negative impact on the sick and disabled. More than two thirds also believe that economic policy is failing to raise most people’s income to meet the increased cost of living.

Our panel are less likely than the national population to think that the welfare budget is too high and should be reduced (22% vs 46%), and more likely to think that most people who rely on welfare benefits are victims of circumstances beyond their control (53% vs 30%). Comparative figures were taken from identically worded questions in YouGov polls for the Westminster Faith Debates, which questioned groups of Anglican clergy, people who identified as Church of England and those who said they attended church weekly. Our evangelical panel stand out almost as much as the clergy as deviants from the majority view, being less likely to favour cuts in welfare and more generous in their views of those who need to turn to the state for help.

21st Century Evangelicals - views on welfare

In conclusion

From the perspective of Church Action on Poverty, these findings from the Evangelical Alliance give grounds for hope. It is encouraging that evangelicalism as a whole has moved on from the old stereotype of an exclusive focus on saving souls, and the accusation that they were so heavenly-minded as to be no earthly use. There is now a generous and justice-focused attitude towards people in poverty, and a wide range of practical commitment to doing something to help. Nonetheless, there needs to be a deeper understanding of the links between poverty overseas and in the UK, for it does seem to be the case that among Christians charity begins far from home. Indeed, if we are to be more effective in fulfilling the command to remember the poor, as Stanley Hauerwas would have us do, more theological and political thinking needs to take place about the underlying causes of poverty and the nature of oppression and structural sin alongside personal moral responsibility. Though there is no time to develop this in this blog, I suppose there is no better place to start than by reading the Bible, as I wrote about as long ago as 1986.

4 thoughts on “Evangelical views on poverty: good news for the poor?

  1. Oh God nothing changes. Back in 1990 I was in touch with needy people; often young people coming out of care at 16. I also had a handy estate and belonged to an evangelical church who often gave me stuff they no longer wanted. I remember as clearly as yesterday this person, who in effect I was helping by carting away his unwanted sofa , saying would it go to a ‘deserving’ home. When will the church wake up and realise that there but for the grace of God they could end up as the countries ‘undeserving’ poor. I am still in touch with those who have little and have little in terms of background or support to make a difference.Our media loves to tell us it is their own fault just so they can feel comfortable turning their backs on them.

  2. An interesting analysis. The contrasting views of LDC and Western causes of poverty needs to be looked at harder; are you suggesting that the difference reflect a cognitive dissonance? For example the claim that ‘unfair trade practices’ are the cause of poverty in LDCs is strongly challenged by the experience of East Asia over the past 60 years, where South Korea, Taiwan and more recently China have all seen the prevalence of poverty fall massively; perhaps the cause ‘adoption of ‘socialism’, i.e. state capitalism’ should be added to the list of plausible cause!

  3. Pingback: Evangelical views on poverty | Urban Presence

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