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Earlier this year I was in charge of “debriefing” a small group of evangelical college students who had spent their spring break working with various agencies serving the homeless in inner-city Washington. Though they all had their own thoughts about what caused the poverty they had witnessed, everyone strongly agreed that the most effective strategy for relieving it was one centered on evangelism. One man who’d been working with the homeless for years told the students he could tell simply by a person’s eyes whether he or she was going to “make it.” The ones who have hope in their eyes do, he continued, and bringing them that hope required addressing their spiritual as well as physical needs.

These insights, grasped by the students in less than a week, are overwhelmingly affirmed by American evangelicals, according to a recently released survey on Christian relief and development ministry. The fundamental issue the survey sought to address was this: If a person or organization is brought into the fight against poverty and suffering by a mandate drawn from Christian belief and teaching, in what ways should the actions of that person, or the policies of that organization, reflect a Christian point of view? In other words, what if anything should be “distinctive” about Christian relief and development? Eighty-seven percent polled argued that Christian agencies should consider “spreading the gospel and converting people to the Christian faith” the ultimate goal of their development efforts.

The survey, conducted for the Stewardship Journal by the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia, clearly indicated that evangelicals expect Christian agencies to act differently from their secular counterparts. The vast majority of those surveyed (the total number was 1,051) believe that Christian agencies should employ workers who profess a personal faith in Jesus Christ and that they should view evangelism as integral to their efforts.

The survey also revealed that, contrary to the unattractive portrait of evangelicals and fundamentalists painted by American elites, these groups are among the most socially concerned and most generous segments of the American population. Asked to rate the relative importance of a variety of contemporary social issues, the respondents chose “helping the poor in America” as their number one concern. As was to be expected, they also voiced strong concerns about the issues of abortion and pornography, but rated “helping the poor around the world” of almost equal significance. The mean rating for this issue was 8.4 on a scale of 10; mean ratings for abortion and pornography were 8.8 and 8.6 respectively.

More than this, evangelicals put their money where their mouths are. Seventy-seven percent of the survey respondents said they give 10 percent or more of their income to Christian and charitable enterprises, which is far above the national norm. (According to a 1980 Gallup poll, only 1.6 percent of non-Christians gave 10 percent or more of their income to charitable causes.) Over 60 percent of the sample said their families gave in the past year to Christian relief and development ministries, and most of those contributions were substantial: $100 or more. A fifth gave $500 or more to such efforts overseas.

Some of the survey’s findings will disappoint those Christians sympathetic to the arguments of liberation theology about the causes of Third World underdevelopment. Survey respondents were asked to choose one of three possible explanations for why the poor countries are poor: (1) “because they have been exploited by the richer countries”; (2) “because their governments are corrupt”; and (3) “because their people have beliefs about work and other matters that do not agree with biblical teaching.” Only 13 percent choose the first statement. Most popular was statement number two. In a follow-up question, participants were asked what they thought was the most important thing poor countries needed to fight poverty. The majority chose the response: “changes in their own political and economic structures.” Clearly most evangelicals pin the blame for underdevelopment on “internal” causes rather than “external” hostile or unjust forces in the international economic system.

Nonetheless, the evangelicals did not dismiss the notion that an individual’s religious and cultural beliefs have an effect on his prospects for economic betterment. A quarter of the respondents believe that holding non-biblical attitudes can contribute to poverty, and 52 percent argued that becoming a Christian would help someone lift himself out of poverty. They explained this by saying that physical blessings come to those who obey biblical principles about work and stewardship of resources. Clearly, evangelicals do not see evangelism as an “add-on” to social ministry; they consider Christianity itself as a vital part of the solution to poverty. As the survey report put it:

The implication is that, while local economic and political conditions must be addressed in any realistic fight against poverty, the religious component of Christian relief and development efforts will make these efforts more effective in the long run than their secular counterparts.

The vast majority of survey participants can be labeled “traditional” in their Christian beliefs as measured by their responses to questions about the Bible (“the Bible is the unerring word of God”); the nature of Jesus Christ (“fully God and fully man”); and access to Heaven (“the only hope for Heaven is through personal faith in Jesus Christ”). Nonetheless, the survey researchers did attempt to differentiate the sample into “more” and “less” traditional believers by considering those who chose alternative positions to the conservative responses listed above as “less” traditional. “Less traditional” respondents were far more likely to have identified themselves with the “mainline” rather than “evangelical” denominations. And they tended to place less emphasis than their “more traditional” counterparts on the need for “distinctiveness” in Christian relief and development ministry. For example, 90 percent who said the label “evangelical” described them “very well” agreed with the statement that Christian development agencies should employ only workers who had made a personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Among those who said the label “evangelical” did not describe them, only 70 percent agreed with the statement. Ninety-five percent of those with the most traditional beliefs agreed that spreading the gospel and converting people should be the ultimate goal of development work, compared to 83 percent of those with less traditional beliefs. Those with less traditional beliefs were also more likely than the traditionalists to feel that preaching or evangelizing by relief workers engaged in helping people suffering from some disaster, such as an earthquake or famine, was “insensitive” or inappropriate.

The other characteristic associated with a downplaying of Christian distinctiveness in development work (in addition to holding “less traditional” theological beliefs) was exposure to secular media. Interviewers asked respondents where they learned about problems of Third World development. Those with higher levels of exposure to secular newspapers, magazines, and television scored significantly lower on the “Christian distinctiveness index” compiled by the researchers. In contrast, those who relied primarily on their church’s missionaries and Christian magazines and television for their information scored high on the index. The researchers conclude: “The more respondents are exposed to secular media and rate them highly as information sources, the less they see the who, what, where, when, how, and why of Christian aid as being distinctive.”

Nevertheless, most survey participants clearly expect Christian agencies in the field to behave differently from secular organizations such as the Peace Corps or the Red Cross. They embrace what one of the students I met with called a “holistic” approach: “not just throwing sandwiches down to the people, but talking to them about Christianity—which is what really can change their life.” Donors to overseas development efforts want to see poor people’s physical and spiritual needs ministered to. We can hope that the survey will serve as a wakeup call to Christian relief and development organizations that are tempted to de-emphasize the gospel.

Amy L. Sherman is editor of the Stewardship Journal and author of Preferential Option: A Christian and Neoliberal Strategy for Latin America’s Poor (Eerdmans). For further information about the Stewardship Journal Survey on Christian Relief and Development, write the journal at P O. Box 660, Powhatan, VA 23139.  

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash. Image cropped.