The Church And Poverty

The poverty statistics coming out of Africa has to be scary. Especially when you realise those numbers are people, real people. Nigeria’s population is 195M and we have 116M people living in poverty. Democratic Republic of Congo’s population is 84M. She has 60.9M living in poverty, Kenya’s population is 60M. She has 14.7M living in poverty. Ethiopia’s population is 107M. She has 23.9M living in poverty.

The breakdown of statistics from Nigeria is even more scary. According to the United Nations’ Global Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index 2015, 50% of the states have a poverty rate above 50%. Zamfara has a poverty rate of 91.9%, Yobe – 90.2%, Jigawa – 88.4%, Bauchi – 86.6%, Kebbi – 86%, Sokoto – 85.3%, Taraba – 77.7%. With this breakdown one can see the root cause of many of the problems confronting Nigeria, some existential.
Poverty PARTLY accounts for the high level corruption. There’s the question of survival. Endemic poverty breeds endemic corruption. That’s not saying all corruption is as a result of lack. Such belief cannot resolve the issue of greed. Some have fat bank accounts but are nonetheless corrupt.
The unemployment rate among Nigeria’s youths is 33%. That’s 19.2 million youths without jobs – about the population size of Lagos and many countries. The population of Romania is 19.5M.
The biggest problem Nigeria faces is poverty. It was produced by poor management of resources, human and material. There are very, very few nations as endowed as Nigeria. To be fair the church has played a highly significant role in mitigating the potency of poverty in Nigeria. It’s not generally acknowledged because pastors have a PR challenge at this present time. The church actually serves as the social security system in Nigeria. There’s hardly a church in Nigeria without a social justice program. They offer scholarships, run feeding programs, take care of widows and orphans, the indigent and socially disadvantaged…
Churches offer drug rehabilitation programs, sex-worker rehabilitation programs, as well as “Area Boys” rehabilitation programs. They run hospitals – many subsidised, build schools, refurbish schools, procure books and notebooks for students… Organise business seminars for youths, hold job fairs, run mentoring programs… Many churches are rising to the challenge of youth unemployment and development, and that’s good. Millions have benefitted from the largesse of the church. It is unfair to criticise the church without acknowledging her great contributions to society. Criticism must be balanced. Neither is it fair to generically label the clergy on account of the deviant behaviour of a few. The law of anomaly insists there must be unscrupulous clergy. Even Jesus had Judas. Judas would be called a pastor today.
Some Christians criticise churches who run seminars outside “spiritual” purview. They miss the point. Jesus held seminars. The Parable of Talents is a business case study. It’s about venture capital. The moral is accountability. A church must respond to the needs of her context. Jesus did. He fed the people sandwiches on two occasions. They were poor and hungry. On the first occasion over 5,000 were fed with five loaves and two fishes. John 6:1-14.
In trying to solve the problem of poverty at the retail level some churches preach what is sometimes referred to as “prosperity gospel.” This has of course been abused on some level, but the intent is clear. The fact remains however that the prescription for prosperity in the Bible is hard work, not spiritual kalo kalo (slot machine). There can be no prosperity without hard work. That’s what the Bible teaches. Proverbs 10:4.
But hard work validates the seed principle. The law of sowing and reaping will forever remain a valid principle. “As long as the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.” Genesis 8:22. Those seminars and teachings have produced evident results. There are many stories of indigent young men and women who by dint of hard work and scriptural discipline became successful. Those seminars have their uses.
But all those teachings only produce retail results. They can’t address wholesale issues of poverty. That’s the huge gap in the efforts of the church. It’s like scooping water out of a leaking canoe. It’s a lot of effort but it’s better to plug the leak. That’s more efficient. For every young person who finds his way out of poverty there are millions more struggling below the poverty bar. The numbers are too overwhelming for retail efforts to be efficient. Too many people in poverty is a danger to the state. Poverty is a destabilising factor in any political environment. Jobless youths without hope are ready-made recruits for terror entrepreneurs. The question of course arises as to what the church can do to defeat poverty in a country. Many will rightly argue the church is not government. But Jesus said he was anointed to preach the gospel to the poor – both the materially poor and the spiritually poor: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.” Luke 4:18. Therefore based on this passage the poor are a primary constituency of the church. Christianity is not an elitist religion, it is egalitarian in grace.
The only way to rid a nation of poverty on such a massive scale is to place the economy on centre stage. It’s a policy issue. Only government has the wherewithal to operate on such a massive scale. No nongovernmental organisation can muster such power or resources. Which is why the church can’t be uninterested in governance. Christians can’t be uninterested in politics. It defeats the purport of the gospel. The gospel is about people, their material and spiritual wellbeing. Jesus said, “I am come to that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” John 10:10. God is not satisfied with mere existence. There’s an elevated vision for the human race beyond the existential.
There are two things the church can do to tackle poverty on such a massive scale: encourage those with know-how to go into government to formulate the right policy; engage government with ideas. The development of policy blueprint can’t be done by pastors. The church needs to utilise her intellectual assets. There are many economists and policy wonks in the church, many strategists. The inability of the church to make use of her intellectual assets has hampered the effectiveness of the church. And yet the church needs to interface with government to solve the problem of poverty in Nigeria. It’s overwhelming.
For such level of engagement to be consistent however the church needs to take her seminars up another notch by setting up schools on leadership and governance. An institutional approach is better. This is something the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) can undertake, it’s what the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) can pick up. Through these institutions policy research and development will be undertaken. And the institutions will liaise with similar institutions the world over, like the Kennedy School of Government.
The government policy institute is a bit restrictive and does not factor in the aspirational audience – the young man or woman who wants to go into politics. Yet leaders will always arise from the people. Individual churches can also set up these institutes. Nigeria needs at least 7 of these institutes of governance, each with its own specialisation. And the curricula of the schools have to be practical. Real world practitioners of politics must be appointed tutors, as well as past government executives. Consultants as well. A school of business without real world practitioners is just a theoretical workshop. Same thing applies to a school of government. There must be real world practitioners. These institutes must not discriminate against people from other faiths even though set up by the church. These are not religious institutes. This is how the church can make respectable policy contributions. Pastors shouting from pulpits have limitations. If these schools live up to their potential governments will seek to recruit the graduates; they’ll seek collaboration with such institutes. At this level the church is harnessing her intellectual capacity for the good of the nation. Retail efforts won’t do. Policy contribution will make a better difference. The scale of poverty in the country is too overwhelming.
In devising policy on how to improve the economy to create more jobs the educational policy must of course come in for review. An educated workforce is better for the economy. The illiteracy rate in Nigeria is too high to sustain the rise the economy requires. As it is there are several deficiencies in the education policy. Because of these deficiencies corporations have often had to retrain potential staff. One high profile bank puts her shortlisted recruits through three months of retraining. There’s a linkage between employment and education policy. A poor education policy will affect the quality of employees. But the health policy must come under review too. A growing economy needs a healthy workforce.
We must then ask ourselves how do we create job creators? How do we grow young businesses to employ 20 people and above. Such a focus will mop up some of the unemployment numbers. Then we must look at the artisanal level. Why don’t those businesses grow for example? Why does the Battery Charger remain a small kiosk business with one apprentice, if at all? We need to retrain at that level if we want to solve unemployment. If you’ve ever engaged at the artisanal level you’ll find there’s hardly respect for work contracts. There’s poor customer service, over promising, poor capacity and minimal investment in technology. Can we change that?
We must also ask ourselves how do we leverage technology to create more jobs – the Uber model. How do we apply that principle to other sectors of the economy? Then we need to look at the creative field. The oil sector is dominant in Nigeria’s GDP but in absolute figures it’s a poor employer of labour. It has little workforce requirement relative to income generation. We must ask ourselves, how do we grow the creative sector. A lot of young men and women are going into the creative filed – fashion, design, beauty, cookery, film making, media, blogging, fashion accesorization, etc.
There are job development opportunities in our film industry as well. There are huge gaps of specialisation. We need specialist writers, editors, equipment lessors, studios, wardrobe specialists, animation and SFX specialists. Look at the credits at the end of a typical western movie. It’s usually looooooong. Those are jobs. How do we broaden the specialisations in the film industry? Nigeria’s film industry generates massive forex. The making and authorised distribution of the movie, A Mountain Between Us starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba supported over 13,000 jobs.
There’s also huge potential in the IT industry. There are digitalisation opportunities, the creation of new business models for extant industries. There’s room for efficiencies across board. These issues have to be tackled in a disciplined manner but the point being made is that there’s a huge space for the church to offer more contribution. The policy arena beckons.
It is not and cannot be God’s idea for people to live in grinding poverty. Jesus already made that clear. He spoke about abundant life. Poverty is the challenge for the state, but it’s also a challenge the church should take on.
If you’ll like to receive Jesus into your life please pray this prayer: “Father I acknowledge that I am a sinner, that Jesus died for me, that you raised him from the dead. Father please forgive me. I accept Jesus today as my Lord and my Saviour. Amen.”
 © Leke Alder |