Two Legitimate Models of Ministry Among the Poor

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When one thinks of ministry to the poor, the first impression that comes is that of great socioeconomic need. I have come to the conviction that the glaring and urgent need to remedy inequality in the world requiring large-scale humanitarian assistance programs cannot be adequately met by groups following the typical discipling model of ministry.

The discipling model works through the pastoral care of individuals. Discipling is a labor-intensive ministry, as it requires disciplers to get close to individuals and minister comprehensively to their spiritual, social, physical, and mental needs. There are millions of economically needy people in the world and substantial funds available to meet some of their material needs. If we adopted the discipling model we could touch only a limited number of people. But there are funds to help many more people. Christian social service organizations can admirably fulfill the need for larger relief and develop social service organizations can admirably fulfill the need for larger relief and development initiatives among the poor. I believe they are an important segment of the body of Christ, even though they are limited in their ability to fulfill a typical discipling role. Youth for Christ has primarily adopted the discipling model of ministry, which ministers to lower numbers of individuals than typical social relief organizations.

This division of responsibilities among groups within the body of Christ has become necessary in many countries for practical rather than theological reasons. It is necessary for the church to have a holistic ministry. But in some countries it is not advisable, and sometimes not legally permitted, to combine larger social programs with evangelism. In Sri Lanka, this may soon be prohibited by law. Already organizations with both social and proclamation ministries as their primary objectives are not being granted government registration. The allegation is that unethical allurements are being offered through socioeconomic assistance to bribe people into becoming Christians. People who convert to Christianity are often told that they have betrayed their family religion for a bag of provisions.

This environment may necessitate the separation of evangelism from major social projects for practical rather than theological reasons. The body of Christ, represented by Christian relief and development organizations, is responsible for uplifting the socioeconomic lot of people. The body of Christ, represented by evangelistic organizations and churches, is responsible for evangelizing and discipling people. A few decades ago, evangelicals pitted social action against evangelism, followed by a phase when social action was presented as a partner of evangelism within a given body. Now, in some countries like Sri Lanka, major social projects are led by some segments of the body of Christ distinct from evangelism that is done by other segments.

For four months after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka in December 2004, our ministry gave all its time for relief, working in schools to enable students and those associated with them to recover. It was a time of intense and exhausting ministry, but we could not proactively share the gospel with those we were ministering to because we were permitted into the schools on the condition that we would not do so. (Of course, the friendships forged sometimes resulted in subsequent evangelistic fruit through personal work.) After four months, we decided that we would return to our primary call to evangelism, though we continued with some social (mainly educational) programs. We turned down many offers of funding for large social projects because we needed to get back to our vocation as youth evangelists (for which raising funds was much more difficult).

Separating these two types of ministry is helpful for other reasons, too. Many poor people do not have a personal identity that they are proud of or wish to guard. Owing to this, it is not a major issue for them to leave their family religion in order to join a religious group that offers economic assistance. This can result in people becoming Christians for reasons other than the core of the Christian faith. This is an inadvisable situation both for the convert and for the church. The separation of economic assistance and evangelism could be a solution to this problem.

In our early years of working with the poor, seeing the desperate need to assist families in their economic development, we launched programs giving loans to families to enable them to begin income-generating projects. We soon found that it was almost impossible for our workers to recover the loans. Evangelists do not make good debt collectors! Youth for Christ subsequently launched a sister organization that operates independently of us and has been much more successful in such ministries.

Of course, there is an overlap in the functions performed by each ministry group. Ministries majoring on social work and those majoring on evangelism will, to varying extents, have some aspects of the programs of the other ministry group. For example, local churches with a vibrant evangelistic ministry may also have some very significant social projects. Also it would be wise for those in each group to be aware of and learn from the best principles and practices driving those in the other group. Workers in development organizations should adopt incarnational lifestyles in keeping with the model of Christ. The picture of the social worker coming from outside and delivering aid to the people without establishing friendship is a denial of many Christian principles and often fosters animosity toward the social service workers from those who are recipients of the aid. On the other hand, those discipling people from poorer back grounds must do all they can to ensure that they are treated justly by society and must help them in every way possible to develop economically and socially.

While major social projects may not be part of our program, teaching on social responsibility is a part of the regular discipleship curriculum. Following Christ includes being committed to the poor—to their economic needs and to ensuring justice. In Youth for Christ we have challenged our volunteers to consider vocations that are connected to poverty alleviation. We are happy that many of them have gone into such vocations working both in the government and the non-government organization (NGO) sectors. Volunteers and alumni are serving as teachers in schools in economically deprived areas. Presently the CEOs of four of the six largest Christian social service agencies in Sri Lanka are Youth for Christ alumni and there are several alumni serving in the other two.

Another important aspect of the discipling of young volunteers would be giving them opportunities to be involved, at least in a small way, in meeting the socioeconomic needs of others. On my part, despite restrictions within my ministry to involvement in heavy social projects, I have made it a priority to be available to Christian social service agencies to minister to those working in them as a counselor, theological advisor, and Bible teacher.

If you want to find out more about perspectives on ministry among the poor, you’ll find my essay called, “Discipling the Urban Poor: Observations from the Field” in the book Fulfilling the Great Commission in the Twenty-first Century: Essays on Revival, Evangelism, and Discipleship in Honor of Dr. Robert E. Coleman.


Dr. Ajith Fernando served as the National Director of Youth for Christ Sri Lanka for 35 years. He is also a visiting lecturer in Biblical Studies at Colombo Theological Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.