When the church in Macedonia comes to mind (2 Corinthians 8:1), so does generous giving. But not only that, poverty too. Remarkably, that 1st century local church was known for both: generosity and poverty. Likewise none of us preach in socio-economic vacuums. And poverty is rife in Africa. So many Christians sitting in the pews are poor. We contend with the reality of having to bring the gospel to people whose longing is for a slice of bread rather than a biblical text. How do we preach in those contexts? What does preaching to those who are well and truly poor look like?
We preach the gospel to many people whose longing is for a slice of bread rather than a biblical text.
The heart of this article is not on techniques for preaching. Rather I want to address the heart behind preaching. My goal is to help pastors preach with both sensitivity to the people in front of us while honouring the Bible’s integrity and authority. As we seek to honour God’s word we must steer away from two extremes when preaching to the poor. The first promises what God doesn’t: physical prosperity and health. The second makes a virtue out of poverty, deterring ambition to work hard and seek to improve one’s living conditions.
So, how should we preach to the poor?
‘Am I Poor Because I Lack Faith?’
Enter the prosperity gospel. What is that? It’s the false notion that God’s greatest desire for your life is physical wellbeing and success. This teaching says man’s greatest problem is poverty and poor health. As many pulpits weave entrepreneurship, ‘miracle money’, name-and-claim chants, and a plethora of other tactics to get you out of a bad spot, the picture of God slowly changes from Saviour from sin, to dispenser of physical blessings.
The prosperity gospel measures God’s goodness and grace by our material blessings.
This preaching is disastrous, perhaps especially among the poor. It measures God’s love, goodness, mercy, and grace by our material blessings. Thus we cease to see God as being these things in his essence, as well as demonstrating them in his gospel. Instead we determine God’s character by our experience. The prosperity gospel doesn’t only reduce God to our needs; it reduces our value before God. Furthermore, when we lack material blessings the prosperity gospel undermines faith. When we preach the prosperity gospel to the poor, we’re peddling an earthly hope that says God alone is not enough.
‘Will the Rich Get Into Heaven?’
So, what then is our response? How should we preach to those living hand to mouth? Are we to deny them the physical prosperity that they desperately desire? This is one response to the prosperity gospel. However, it seems harsh and unwarranted, especially when preached by those who have access to the comforts that impoverished people seek. In countering the deceitful prosperity gospel we must avoid tending towards the other extreme, making poverty into a virtue, even possessing salvific value.
Most common among verses misquoted to support this view of poverty is Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But there is no glory in poverty itself. Nor does Christ call on his disciples to become poor. Here, as in many other places in the Gospels, he describes an attitude of the heart. The “poor in spirit” are always needy, fully aware of their insufficiency before God. Like those who peddle the prosperity gospel, the ‘poverty gospel’ is equally destructive. This isn’t the kind of preaching that the poor need to hear.
Christ doesn’t call his disciples to poverty, but to sacrifice and devotion.
Another commonly misquoted verse to support this second erroneous way of thinking is Matthew 19:23, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.” We should take Christ’s words literally. For the rich young ruler wouldn’t part with his riches and follow Christ (Matthew 19:22). However, Jesus isn’t teaching that those with physical blessings forfeit heaven. The problem for the rich young ruler was not his riches, but the hold they had on his heart. Christ doesn’t call his disciples to poverty, but to sacrifice and devotion.
Neither Prosperity Nor Poverty Gospel is the Solution
At the heart of all this is the reality that both the poor and rich can cling to their wealth, no matter how small or large, as the means of their salvation. We should reject the calls of the prosperity gospel and its fuelling of greed. Jesus warns us, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Yet the prosperity gospel celebrates the insatiable desire for more possessions and physical blessings.
Both poor and rich can cling to their wealth as the means of salvation.
On the other hand, God calls every man to work with their hands. Thus the poverty gospel breeds ungodly laziness and false piety. Being poor isn’t better than being faithful and diligent. As we preach to the poor, we must warn our people of the deceitfulness of riches, as well as their usefulness. The warning from scripture is two-fold.
Preach What is Eternal and Satisfying
Paul writes, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10). Yet he later says, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). The desire to prosper materially is a matter of hope, located elsewhere than God.
At the heart of the gospel is the reality of universal spiritual poverty.
Simultaneously, when preaching to the poor we shouldn’t deter them from betterment. Poverty is not the purpose of faith. The drive is to align them to understand that what they desperately need should be pursued considering what they have been abundantly given. We err if we preach poverty alleviation as the essence of the gospel. We err equally if we advocate that the gospel belongs to those in poverty.
At the heart of the gospel is the reality of universal spiritual poverty – sin. The solution is Christ’s sacrifice for man’s justification and righteousness. The result of this is overwhelming spiritual riches, enjoyed in God’s grace. The outworking of the gospel is not the pursuit of other blessings, nor a shunning of them. Rather the Christian lives out of the abundance of what Christ has done and accomplished. If this is the content of our preaching to the poor, the outworking will be a gospel culture, where diligence, hard work, giving and community is evident among God’s people, rich or poor.